Annihilation (2018)

It seems to be The Weekend for checking out movies that were (or are) getting messed with on their initial releases. Previously, it was ’47 Meters Down’ (2017), which was better than I expected and then there was this one…Alex Garland’s ‘Annihilation’. I’ve been a fan of Garland’s work as a writer for a while, going back to his novel ‘The Beach’ (2001), which was turned into a pretty slick movie also, and his scripts for ’28 Days Later’ (2002), ‘Sunshine’ (2007), and ‘Dredd’ (2012). He recently graduated to directing and his debut title was 2014’s masterful ‘Ex Machina’; a movie I hold in high regard, largely due to the clever writing and patient pacing. With that resume’ (among others) in mind, I was naturally curious to see what his next go behind the camera would yield. And here it is. ‘Annihilation’ has had an odd history, in that it’s parent studio thought it was ‘too intellectual’ or ‘too complex’, and for some ignorant reason, lost faith in the project. After some back and forth between the studio and the producers, it was decided that it would get a limited theatrical run here in North America, before shortly thereafter being dumped onto Netflix for the international streaming market. Now, that’s not an insult, as Netflix has saved a few well-crafted and deserving films from obscurity, after the studios had lost confidence in the projects…but I was interested to see if this would be another ‘diamond in the rough’ or a legitimate turd that didn’t belong on The Big Screen. So, on a crisp but sunny Sunday, I navigated through the landscape of melting slush to check this potential gem out.
‘Annihilation’ focus’ on ‘Lena’ (Natalie Portman), a soldier-turned-biologist, whose special forces husband ‘Kane’ (Oscar Isaac) has gone missing while ‘on mission’. As she quietly grieves, he suddenly appears in their house, clearly ill and not himself. After being intercepted on the way to the hospital, they find themselves in government custody, under the direction of a ‘Dr. Ventress’ (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It seems that ‘Lena’s comatose (and dying) husband was the only person to emerge from what’s being called ‘the shimmer’. The film opens with a mysterious object punching through Earth’s atmosphere and slamming into the base of an isolated lighthouse, in a US National Park. A strange field of energy (?) slowly begins to spread out across the nearby area, looking like the surface of a puddle of gasoline. ‘Lena’ finds herself teamed up with 4 other women, each with their own field of expertise and all nervously prepare to enter the phenomenon, possibly to their deaths. Once inside ‘the shimmer’, time and reality begin to fray, while dangerous evidence of strange mutations start to show…at times, fatally. ‘Lena’ pushes on, determined to reach the center of the disturbance, in hopes of understanding what has happened to her husband…and herself.
This movie was not as good as I hoped it would be. There…I said it. I went in overly optimistic and was somewhat let down. Granted, not by much. ‘Annihilation’ is a good film…it just wasn’t the science fiction ‘breath of fresh air’ I hoped it would be. In many respects, it acutely reminded me of Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film ‘Arrival’, in that it asked some very interesting questions, while looking great, but was maybe just a lil more ‘artsy’ and ‘ambiguous’ than it needed to be. Don’t get me wrong, I love patient and thought-provoking sci-fi and often, if played right, ambiguity does go a long way. This is a big part of why I love Garland’s debut film so much. ‘Ex Machina’ had a nice balance to the answers it provided and the ones it held back on. There are things that go down in ‘Annihilation’ that seemed a lil too esoteric and ‘weird for the sake of weird’, while also moving just a little too slow for the potential of the setting. This isn’t to say there isn’t any action…there is…but there are also long stretches of just sitting and talking, or staring in awe, or flashbacks showing ‘Lena’s pre-shimmer life with Oscar Isaac. I understood the reason for them, but I found they interrupted the flow of ‘the expedition through the ‘event’ ‘ story, which is the meat of the matter. There are some other gripes as well, but let’s hit up some of the good points first.
There’s a very cool look to the film, especially after they enter ‘the shimmer’. Some very subtle effects are used to remind us that they’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto…like a prism effect to any sunlight streaming through a scene. I also liked some of the mutations they encounter in the foliage, giving it a look of a type that I wish we’d see more of in other science fiction movies, where they just film at a real-life location that JUST HAPPENS to look JUST LIKE Earth, with nothing ‘alien’ to it (looking at YOU, ‘Alien Covenant’!). Here, they succeeded in portraying an increasingly infected world and the ‘alien’ flavor it was taking on. This movie comes with an ‘R’ Rating, due largely to a couple gruesome deaths along the way. Some of the make-up effects for the kills were pretty gnarly (lower jaw eaten off the face? yum!!) and they helped add stakes to the journey. There are also a couple of genuinely creepy sequences, especially one involving a hideously mutated bear, that creates the most eerie sounds when it vocalizes. Had my skin crawling! The cast was pretty solid, with Portman and Leigh standing out, but I did find that the characters were a little thin, and therefore I wasn’t terribly upset or invested when they occasionally bit the Big One. Some of the music was spot-on, in the mood it was trying to convey…
…which brings me to my Negatives. While some of the music was really tonally good…some of it sucked! Like any sequence that bopped along to the sound of trendy coffee-house acoustic guitar that had ‘artsy hipster-snob’ written all over it. Now let’s talk about the volume. Holy shit!! I don’t know if the theatre’s stereo settings were out of whack or if the filmmakers deliberately chose to do this, but there are a couple sequences in the 3rd Act that are punctuated in the Sound Track by a deafening ‘Bwwaaahhhhhh!!!!!’ing drone that was borderline painful in it’s audio intensity. Legitimately unpleasant. I also feel that the flick could’ve used a little tightening in the narrative flow, while also punching up some of the tension and horror elements. There were all kinds of other movies that I was reminded of as the 2 hour run-time played out, with titles like ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979), ‘The Thing’ (1982), ‘Aliens’ (1986) and ‘Sphere’ (1998) popping up in me brains. That’s neither a good thing or a bad thing…just reminders this one caused along the way, and films that I’m sure had an influence on the process.
All in all, ‘Annihilation’ was not the ‘Next Big Thing in Science Fiction / Horror’ that I hoped it would be. It was a good, competently-constructed film that looked nice while also asking some interesting questions, but I also feel that thin characters, a meandering narrative, slumps in pacing and some unexplained ‘weird shit’ also hurt it. I do understand why some people may have been hesitant to embrace a full-blown ‘wide’ release…as it’s not for everyone. There are some aspects that didn’t work for me, such as some of the music…and the fucking volume they chose to play it at! And while some of the cinematography is pretty, it’s not so awe-inspiring that seeing this one, in the comfort of your own home, is the end of the world. No offence to anyone involved in the making of the film, but ‘Annihilation’ just seems like a perfect Netflix watch, like it belongs in their library. SO…I can’t offer up a whole-heart’d endorsement for a theatrical viewing, but if you come across it as a streaming title, and are in the mood for sci-fi / horror that makes the effort to be smart while taking it’s time telling its story, but also admittedly isn’t perfect, then this would be a good one for you.

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