Written PostJosh Reviews Annihilation

Josh Reviews Annihilation

I have a huge amount of love for Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, which he also wrote.  If you haven’t seen that film, I exhort you to track it down immediately.  It’s a riveting piece of speculative fiction, with extraordinary performances by Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson.  I was excited to see Mr. Garland’s follow-up film, Annihilation, which he also wrote (adapting the novel by Jeff VanderMeer) and directed.  From the trailers, Annihilation looked like a larger-scale production than Ex Machina.  I was curious to see what Mr. Garland would do with a larger canvas (and budget) at his disposal.

I was concerned, though, by reports of behind-the-scenes trouble before the film’s release.  Apparently a poor test screening gave Skydance production (who co-financed the film along with Paramount) cold feet, and eventually the worldwide release for the film was truncated and certain distribution rights were sold to Netflix.  More details are here.  Mr. Garland expressed some disappointment at the Netflix deal, since he’d made the film to be seen in cinemas (but that’s a better result than the film getting re-edited over his objection).

After all this tumult, and after seeing wildly mixed reviews for the film, I was very curious to finally get to see it myself!

Immediately, I can see why this film had some people worried.  It’s a very bizarre film, and it does not unfold in the audience-pleasing manner that most wide-release sci-fi films do.

I’m somewhat lukewarm on the film myself.  There is a lot that I like about the film.  I respect the ambition of this cerebral story, and I love the cast of fantastic women.  It’s a gripping film, but in the end I didn’t feel the story came together the way that I’d hoped that a mystery-based film like this would.

This is a very different type of story than Ex Machina, but what the two films have in common is that both are very intellectual pieces of science fiction.  These are not shoot-em-up action-adventure sci-fi films.  Both are stories that begin in our “real” world and explore, thoughtfully and logically, what might unfold in the face of specific spectacular occurrences.  (I consider both films to be more speculative fiction than science fiction.)  But whereas Ex Machina was very contained — most of the scenes in the film are conversations between two characters, set in indoor rooms — Annihilation is a more expansive story.

Natalie Portman stars as Lena.  As the film opens, her military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year.  One day Kane unexpectedly shows up at their house, but he has been mysteriously changed.  As Lena digs into what befell her husband, she learns that he’d been part of an ill-fated attempt to explore an anomaly that has sprung up around an area on the southern coast.  Nicknamed “the shimmer,” the anomaly is impenetrable by all technology that has been used to study it, and all of the teams who have entered the area covered by the shimmer have disappeared, except for Kane.  The shimmer is slowly expanding, and nothing seems able to stop its growth.  Lena volunteers to join a team of female scientists who are venturing into the shimmer, and the film follows their journey.

The cast is terrific.  Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny are each spectacular.  Each one of them could be the lead of the film, which is exactly the feeling you want from this type of ensemble film.  Benedict Wong (The Martian, Doctor Strange) appears in a framing sequence and he’s absolutely perfect.  And the great Oscar Isaac, returning to collaborate with Mr. Garland again after Ex Machina, brings his few-but-critical scenes to beautiful life.

Mr. Garland is a master at slowly, quietly, twisting the screws on the audience to build suspense and dread.  He did it wonderfully in Ex Machina, and he does it very well again here.  He knows how to keep an audience gripped.  I was impressed by the film’s intelligently-put-together structure, and by Mr. Garland’s mastery of tone.

This is a film with a lot on it’s mind, and as I have thought about the film in the days since seeing it, I have been intrigued and impressed with the different ways in which the film’s story can be seen as an allegory for depression, self-destruction, and perhaps also mental illness.  This is a film with a lot of levels, and though the plot disappointed me at times (more on that in a moment), I appreciate that this is a film with a lot to say, rather than being simply a turn-your-brain-off diversion.

Annihilation has a far larger budget than Ex Machina (somewhere between 40-55 million from what I have read, compared to around 15 million for Ex Machina), but that is still a tiny amount compared to most tentpole sci-fi films these days.  Mr. Garland and his team have accomplished wonders with this budget.  The film looks great.  As Lena and her team venture deeper and deeper into the shimmer, the environment around them changes (I am avoiding specifics so as not to ruin any of the film’s surprises), and the production design has wonderfully realized this effect.  Subtle weirdness when the team first enters the shimmer eventually grows into all manner of craziness.  There are some striking images in this film that are instantly iconic, and that I will remember for a long time.  This is very strong work, much of which was done practically.  There is also some CGI work in the film, mostly used to create the creatures Lena and her team encounter in the shimmer.  These CGI effects are pretty recognizable as CGI effects — there isn’t the photo-realism one might expect of a film with double or triple Annihilation’s budget — but they work well enough not to be distracting.

The film falls down for me in two places.  First, I was somewhat surprised by how cold this film is, and how distant we’re kept from Lena’s interior life.  In the special features, Mr. Garland compliments Ms. Portman’s performance, describing how she’s able to portray a woman who keeps herself and her life tightly controlled, while also allowing us to see the damaged woman underneath.  Indeed, Ms. Portman is, as usual, terrific.  But I didn’t feel the film’s script or structure allowed us to get to know Lena deeply enough, or to see enough of her inner life, for us to be able to engage with her story the way we needed to for this film to work.  Lena’s story needs to break our heart, and the film never achieved that for me.

Second, while Mr. Garland and his team might have been primarily focused on the psychological stories of the characters in the film (that seems to be their focus in the film’s special features, and I applaud them for that), this is a film whose structure is based on mystery.  The story presents us with several mysteries right off the bat.  What is the shimmer?  What happened to all the other people who went into it?  What happened to Kane that allowed him to leave, and why/how was he transformed while inside?  Unfortunately, the film fails to answer any of those questions to my satisfaction.  It’s all left way too vague for my tastes.  And so the whole thing sort of fell apart for me at the end, when I realized that I wasn’t going to get the answers to those questions.  (Can anyone who watched this film explain to me how Kane — or the Kane-like creature — got from the Lighthouse at the center of the shimmer to the front door of Lena’s house at the start of the movie??  Also — why didn’t the movie give any explanation for the three missing days immediately after the women entered the shimmer?  It’s crazy to me that the film never returned to that or addressed what had happened during those missing days.)  This is a pet peeve of mine with this sort of story.  I appreciate the film’s levels and psychological depth, which I’d discussed above.  But if you’re going to use mysteries to hook the audience’s interest at the start, then you have an obligation to answer those questions by the end.  It’s possible that Mr. Garland and his team only want this film to be viewed as an allegory, and ion so that’s great, but I still feel that the surface-level plot still needs to make some sort of sense.

At the end of Annihilation, I was left thinking that the film, while it has a lot to love, felt to me like a poor man’s Arrival.  Both films center on a broken woman’s encounter with extraterrestrial life, life that is incredibly different from our own.  Both depict the near-impossibility of communication with those very-different life-forms.  Both feature a late-in-the-film twist that exposes a tragedy at the heart of the main female character.  But for my money, Arrival pulled all of this off in a far stronger manner.

A few additional thoughts:

* I love Mr. Garland’s use of chapter titles on-screen, both here and in Ex Machina.  It’s unusual to see, and in both films, the chapter-headings help build the mystery.

* The sound-effects/music used to depict the alien/creature at the end of the film were extraordinary.  Very unusual and very memorable.  I don’t even know what to call these sounds — are they sound effects or music?  I’m not sure!  Some sort of combination.  Whatever they are and however they were created, I was blown away.  This distinct choice allows me to forgive many of Annihilation’s sins.

* Oscar Isaac wasn’t the only member of Ex Machina’s cast of four to return.  I realized after the film that Sonoya Mizuno also appears in Annihilation, playing the alien/creature.  Nice!

If you’re looking for an unusual, intelligent work of original science fiction, then Annihilation is definitely worth your time.  But for me, I was a little let down.  The many wonderful elements of the film didn’t quite come together as I had hoped.  Regardless, I’m still a big fan of Alex Garland’s talents, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.