I read somewhere that before he adapted Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, writer-director Alex Garland (writer-director of Ex Machina, writer of 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go, and the novel The Beach) opted not to re-read the original novel but instead did the script from memory to give it a dream-like quality. This is evident on screen as the entirety of the thoughtful, interesting, slow-moving but creepy and confounding Annihilation has an ethereal quality that flows between each scene.
When her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns after a year-long unexplained absence, biologist Lena (an intense Natalie Portman) joins up with an all-women team of scientists to explore the strange place where he was lost. Dubbed the shimmer, a glowing wall of unknown substance emanates out from where a meteor crashed a few years prior. Kane is the only person to ever return after venturing inside, but almost immediately he falls into a coma. Driven by the search for answers and the possibility of helping her husband Lena bands together with psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) and paramedic Anya (Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez, shedding any hint of that character). It’s never quite explained why these women go it alone or how they all managed to be armed with assault weapons (at least Lena is former military), but it doesn’t matter. Nothing inside the shimmer feels too connected to reality, from the first jump scare thanks to an alligator with shark-like characteristics. But this isn’t a monster scare film, despite the few creatures that do make an appearance. In fact, one unfortunate aspect of the story is that it builds up to an intriguing culmination that will surely not be paid off in film, given the tepid response to this first film (there are two follow-up books to the original novel).
It’s a stunning film, with thoughtful attention paid to details (a roaming tattoo is both obvious and never given any lip service). The explanation for what is happening and the lack of closure are both interesting premises that likely won’t play well for anyone that wants their sci-fi spoon fed. While the dialogue is clunky, even by sci-fi standards, the depth of character, the spare nature of the plot, and the glorious visuals throughout, but especially in the last act, make up for it. Garland is deft at exploring complicated characters and Lena is no exception. Her relationship with Kane that is presented mostly in flashback is not as idyllic as it plays in the early moments.
It’s a shame that more people won’t see this because it is one of those films that commands a conversation afterwards, which is some of the highest praise I can give.
My Grade – B+