Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Producer: Scott Rudin, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Eli Bush
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac
A troubled biologist joins a dangerous expedition to discover what lies at the center of an otherworldly anomaly.
Occasionally I¡¯ll read reviews written by people at my peer level and stroke my chin with suspicion that they are only echoing a silently agreed upon angle. Something about writing over their heads will smell of seeing a film from a perspective pushed by pre-release PR or a common critical consensus.
I¡¯m not proposing a conspiracy theory. That¡¯s not what it is. Even after writing hundreds of reviews over a span of several years, I too am still susceptible to feeling a responsibility to be ¡°right.¡± Professional contrarians purposely pander to hate clicks. But those who wish to endear themselves to studio marketing reps, filmmakers, or the supposed cool kids on ¡®Film Twitter¡¯ want to step to the same marching orders as everyone in those circles. They don¡¯t intentionally alter opinions after the fact. They condition expectations beforehand to have a frame of mind befitting popular opinion, often unknowingly.
I¡¯m also not suggesting this notion necessarily applies to Alex Garland¡¯s ¡°Annihilation.¡± Undermining the movie¡¯s mounds of accolades by implying a significant portion comes from mass ¡°me too¡± hypnosis would be an arrogant supposition.
I mention this musing because it comes to mind when I exit a film wondering why my take lies outside the apparent norm. Writers from prominent publications crowned ¡°Annihilation¡± with overwhelming acclaim. Pull quotes praise the sci-fi drama for being intellectually challenging, spectacularly sophisticated, and ripe to be ripped open for academic exploration by generations of cinema students.
Why then, do I find the same content to be dully paced, thematically neutered, and underwhelming as escapist entertainment? Am I too dense, too uncultured, or possess too pedestrian of an analytical mind to grasp heady concepts, richly complex context, or artistically advanced storytelling craft? No, I don¡¯t believe that¡¯s it either. Sometimes, one person¡¯s impressively contemplative sci-fi is simply another person¡¯s superficially padded speculative fiction.
¡°Annihilation¡± tells its core tale of five women investigating an atmospheric anomaly entirely in flashback. This immediately puts suspense behind an 8-ball with the revelation that Natalie Portman¡¯s biologist Lena is the only member of her crew who survives. With the only other advantage being a limp way to bridge scene changes through narration, how ¡°Annihilation¡± benefits from this format becomes the first offscreen mystery.
In between exploring this unusual area called ¡°The Shimmer¡± and encountering its curiously mutated flora and fauna, conversational interludes cover topics from paths shaped by personal trauma to human nature¡¯s predilection for self-destruction. Engaging, accomplished actresses including Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tessa Thompson chew on wordy ideas that sound meaningful out of the mouth. Once they hit the audience¡¯s ears, the appearance of introspective intellectualism evaporates from the realization that import rings hollow. ¡°Annihilation¡± seemingly has so much to say, yet little of it resonates with philosophy mirroring onscreen action.
Garland approaches ¡°Annihilation¡± with a similar style of slow-burn intensity applied to his previous feature ¡°Ex Machina¡± (review here). Here however, tension ropes don¡¯t pull as tightly because atmosphere isn¡¯t infected with the same sense of dread. Threats hang over every head, but personal secrets as well as scientific discoveries yet to come aren¡¯t oiled with sinister slickness. Drama instead comes across with quietly exploratory calm.
None of these observations intend to imply that ¡°Annihilation¡± isn¡¯t worthy of a one-time watch. Even the most minor collective effort from the talent assembled here, a label for which ¡°Annihilation¡± doesn¡¯t even qualify, would demand attention on premise and performances alone. Indeed this is the case, as Garland, Portman, et al. burn enough heat for the film to remain intriguing through valleys as well as peaks.
But to make Kubrickian comparisons while bestowing laurels of masterpiece status is premature at best and loftily ludicrous at worst. Ask for elaboration on any claims of intricately layered cerebral subtext, or search for such substance yourself. Then see how long maddening incompleteness can masquerade as deeply mature material. ¡°Annihilation¡¯s¡± impact makes a dent. Seeing it as a crater requires an inference of imagination that the movie only meets partway.
Review Score: 55