Short review first: this is not the movie you think it is. Not in a The Last Jedi sort of way, but more in a The Thin Red Line sort of way. The marketing might make you believe Annihilation is something like Predator except with some really, really fucked-up monsters. Well, my friends, I am sad to say it is not.
Let us rewind all the way back to the ancient year of 2000 AD. Among the many things happening that year besides the world decidedly not coming to an end was the release of The Cell, which was directed by visionary music-video director Tarsem and starred a pop star by the name of Jennifer Lopez. The Cell was a wonderful and disturbing vision of various dreamscapes. It was also a movie that didn’t really make a lot of sense or offer much in the way of emotional engagement. Like many dreams, it was memorable but just didn’t hold up very well once the old rational daylight brain got a hold of it.
Which brings me back to Annihilation. This movie offers an entirely new generation the opportunity to have a The Cell experience all their own. Based on a book by weird-fiction author Jeff VanderMeer, Annhilation follows the adventures of a squad of scientists who enter “the Shimmer,” an alien wall of light that is ever expanding from the site of a meteor impact. The all-woman team is led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a doctor who presents herself more like a grizzled general than a lab rat. Lena (Natalie Portman) finds herself volunteering for the squad after her missing solider husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), turns up with a lost memory and mysterious ailments. Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) round out these scientists who also happen to carry assault rifles.
Here’s the thing: nothing in this movie makes any sense. This isn’t because I didn’t get it—on the contrary, I think I got exactly what director Alex Garland was trying to do. Annihilation could have been a transcendent movie like 2001 or Arrival, but I am quite certain VanderMeer’s novel is superior to this film in every way, which is probably the first time I’ve ever come down on that side of the books-versus-movies argument. The problem is that someone, or multiple someones, tried to pigeon-hole a weirdo phantasmagoria into a science-fiction/horror thriller. The end result is a film that offers a myriad of amazing visuals separated by long stretches of events and dialogue that are either silly or nonsense.
What this means is that we are treated to a team of scientists hauling around assault rifles in a strange landscape with no other kind of protective gear. Night-vision goggles: one pair. Night-vision scopes: negative. There aren’t even enough latex gloves to go around to shield the intrepid explorers from whatever funkiness is “refracting” DNA all over God’s green Earth. This is just one of a few glaring examples of the bizarre inconsistencies in Annihilation. Again, none of these things would have mattered if the film were kept solidly in the weird-as-fuck school of filmmaking, but that wasn’t the case.
I’ll just mention as an aside that I do believe the soundtrack offers faint musical references to Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse” here and there. I expect that crowd will get the most out of repeated midnight madness viewings of this film. They’ll have plenty of time to step out for a smoke break if need be.
Things started to go really wrong right about the time the film’s creators decided they were going to cast Natalie Portman as the lead, I am guessing. There’s been some controversy about whitewashing Lena’s Asian background out of the casting and the story. Of course, any whitewashing is bad, but Jeff VanderMeer is a white dude and Alex Garland is a white dude, so that sort of complicates things here. As a practical matter, the only way a movie like this gets made is if there is a “name” willing to support it, and there are few Asian actresses with that kind of influence, I would imagine. Sadly, despite its weirdness, no one was able to push this strange movie far enough to buck the Hollywood legacy of Eurocentrism.
The bottom line is that Annihilation could’ve been amazing but just isn’t. While the filmmakers can be applauded for trying to make a boundary-pushing piece of work and getting a movie this weird into the multiplex, in the end it arrived in the theaters as something of a mess—and that, sadly, is very much the Hollywood status quo.