The 2015 masterpiece “Ex Machina” put Alex Garland on my list of must-see auteurs, and the trailers for “Annihilation” – now available on home video – made it look like an amazing follow-up. A shimmering energy field, monsters, moodiness. Instead, it’s a step backward to the smarter-than-thou mindtrip of the Garland-penned “Sunshine” (2007), leaning on a dark soundscape and weird light shows.
“Annihilation,” adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, is slow and meditative as we and biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) learn about the shimmering energy field that has sprung up around a crashed meteor. The depressive Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) sets an apocalyptic tone when explaining to Lena that in the two years the governmental science team has been investigating The Shimmer, it has been gradually expanding, and almost every soldier who enters does not return. The exception is Lena’s husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), although he’s in rough shape and he’s not quite himself.
By dint of the premise – basically the “Lost”-ian “Where are we?” — there’s enough of a sense of mystery to hold a viewer’s attention for most of the running time. Also, Lena is made into a fleshed-out character through flashbacks, as we learn about her affair with a work colleague. Joining Lena and Ventress on a mission into The Shimmer are Gina Rodriguez’s Anya, Tuva Novotny’s Cass and Tessa Thompson’s Josie, all of whom bring a specific scientific expertise and all of whom have a single trait we’re asked to focus on.
“Annihilation” lurches into “The Thing” territory as we’re told that there are two theories about the missing soldiers: Either they were killed by something inside The Shimmer or they go crazy and aim to kill each other. Gee, I wonder if those scenarios will come about for this team.
While not a horror film, “Annihilation” has a few nice moments that skirt the edges of the genre, ranging from “Alien”-esque gross-outs to “Hannibal”-style macabre tableaux. And I did enjoy following Lena’s scientific theories for a while.
Almost a hard SF film, “Annihilation” zeroes in on the fact that cells reproduce through spontaneous mutation. So one becomes two, two become four, four become eight, and so forth. It aims to be an unsettling but sometimes beautiful meditation about this fact of life via slightly alien monsters and flowers. Cancer, a deadly type of cell that nonetheless reproduces in the same way, is also mentioned, so you can find thematic resonance there if you desire.
I stuck with the film because I had heard the ending is amazing. But it didn’t do it for me. (SPOILERS FOLLOW.)
After “Sunshine”-style atmospherics where an alien entity forms itself into an exact copy of Lena – bringing cell mutation to a relatable level – we cut to Lena in the base camp, having somehow gotten out. (We knew all along she had gotten out, since the film jumps around in time.) In the final scene, Kane acknowledges he’s probably not the “real” Kane, and Lena realizes she might not be the “real” Lena, either.
This isn’t a particularly earned ending, since we don’t get a scene where the clone takes over the role, but nor is it shocking. We had been gradually conditioned to the notion all along.
What really strikes me as funny, though, is that the idea of a person being reconstituted — but retaining their selfhood — is a run-of-the-mill occurrence in “Star Trek.” Every time the crew is beamed down to planets or beamed back to the Enterprise, they are technically killed and replaced with new, identical cells. That’s not even worth remarking on in “Star Trek,” yet it’s supposed to be so disturbing in “Annihilation” that the whole film hangs on it.
For sake of comparison, the similarly high-concept “Ex Machina” works because we see a robot girl gradually learn to become human, and then we receive the gut-wrenching twist that she hasn’t learned empathy, and therefore – despite her innocence – is a deadly threat. That film is grounded in characters, with the sci-fi philosophizing being a wonderful spice.
“Annihilation” puts all its eggs into the basket of cellular division – an idea the filmmakers are far more enamored with than I was. While casting the always-likable Portman as the lead helps a bit, there’s an overall sense that this movie’s humans are inconsequential.