Movie Review: Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” Is Not Interested In Explanations

Brett Slaughenhaupt
Movie Columnist & Social Media Director

In his follow-up to 2014’s sci-fi breakout “Ex Machina,” Alex Garland delves back into the genre to adapt Jeff VanderMeer’s novel “Annihilation.” If you were put off by the sparseness of his first feature — its deep apathy for the audience’s feelings and unflinching look into the human psyche — then “Annihilation” is not the film for you.

From the first scene, this film does not conform to genre expectations. When one thinks of the “mystery sci-fi” tropes, there is always an air of mystery surrounding the production that lasts until the conclusion of the film.

Some of the most recent examples are “Super 8” (what will the monster look like?) or nearly any Christopher Nolan film (is he still in the dreamscape?). “Annihilation” immediately gets away from that distraction, placing us in the final moments of the film at the beginning.

The fates of the characters are laid out in front of us within the first scene as Lena (Natalie Portman) recounts to a team of scientists lead by Benedict Wong what happened during her time in the “Shimmer,” a mysterious hemisphere created by a meteor crashing onto Earth.

After Lena’s husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac, with a distracting accent), one of the previous volunteer explorers, is the first person to return with no explanation and becomes deathly ill, Lena knows she must find answers. She joins a group of four other scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson) as they prepare for to embark on their exploration of the area.

There is an immediate and noticeable shift in structure at this point. As the characters explore this new territory, the film takes on a fatalistic and melancholic approach. Garland does an excellent job, similarly to “Ex Machina,” in marrying plot and character. While the characters served the plot when introducing the conflict, we see this switch once we enter the second act.

Allowing these five scientists the chance to fill out the screen, they are able to navigate the themes of the film. What does it mean to continue to exist after experiencing trauma? How are our lives changed when the very thing making us human is altered? We may not be given answers to these questions, but the moments it navigates them are more than fulfilling.

Portman gives a beautifully introspective performance, only a performer of her caliber could pull off. The supporting players are all given their chance to shine, too. As the film fleshes out the characters, each character’s nuances begin to feel more lived-in and the actors step up to the plate to deliver.

Thompson is my MVP — even though she has the least to do of the five, every look and utterance she gives is perfection. Her final scene is a haunting mix of understated emotion and otherworldly understanding. Don’t be surprised when she becomes one of the biggest leading actresses in the next few years.

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However frustrating this lack of answers may be, it is not strictly for the sake of confusing the audience. As easily as Garland could have added monologue after monologue of characters expressing their understanding of life and all its mysteries, this film knows life does not work in that fashion.

Which leads to the film’s biggest strength and biggest weakness. One wishes our time with each character was more. Give us a chance to get to know each of these women and what lead them to volunteer for a “suicide mission,” as Lena puts it. However, as the film leaves us wanting more, it forces us to interact with our own understanding of the themes and choices made throughout.

I would not call “Annihilation” a perfect film — what is? Instead, we are given an interesting film helmed by an auteur who has already been tested to great results, lead by some of the most interesting leading ladies of our current times.

When every other film of its caliber seems to be interested in hitting in the same notes, “Annihilation” should be lauded for the chances it takes.

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