Smart science fiction is a hard sell, and this movie is proof. The title is the first clue. “Annihilation” sounds more like something Roland Emmerich would make, rather than someone who is trying to become the next Stanley Kubrick. “The Shimmer”, or “Enter The Shimmer” would have been better; it has a certain ring to it. Marketing aside, the movie’s studio, Paramount, didn’t help matters either. They released the movie in theaters in America, Canada, and China, but it will be released on Netflix everywhere else in the world. Uh, okay? And then Netflix plastered the Internet with ads saying the movie would be available to stream on March 12th, while the movie would be in theaters on February 23rd. That probably confused the hell out of people, and hurt the movie’s box office. Everyone is writing off this movie as an epic fail, but what I think we have here, is a “Blade Runner” like cult classic in the making.
“Annihilation” is written for the screen and directed by Alex Garland, the man who has either written or directed great science fiction movies as “28 Days Later”, “Sunshine”, “Dredd”, and “Ex Machina”. Frankly, after seeing “Ex Machina”, I’m willing to see anything Garland touches. That movie is a masterpiece of commentary through genre storytelling, and it doesn’t hurt that Alicia Vikander is gorgeous and looks great naked. And if you liked “Arrival”, one of the few smart science fiction movies to come out in the past decade that Garland had nothing to do with, you’ll like this movie. Here, Garland directs Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist and former soldier. Lena is married to Kane, played by Oscar Isaac, who is an active soldier. This is where you insert your own jokes about how Padme Amidala and Poe Dameron are in a movie together. Or Marvel’s Jane Foster and X-Men’s Apocalypse, whichever fandom you prefer. Anyway, Kane goes on a mission, he isn’t heard of for over year, then randomly shows up one day, only to fall into terminal illness.
Lena and Kane’s body are taken to “Area X” (super original sounding, I know), where Lena is confronted by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and is told of “The Shimmer”, a strange phenomenon in the form of a wall of colorful light that is slowly expanding out from the crash site of a fallen meteor. As it turns out, Kane and his team of soldiers entered The Shimmer, with only Kane exiting it. Every team to enter The Shimmer has never returned, so Dr. Ventress is eager to know why Kane showed up out of nowhere. Lena agrees to join Ventress, as they form an all-woman search party, since every team to enter The Shimmer has been all-male, and ended with the same results of no one getting out alive. Said search party includes parametric Anya (Gina Rodriguez; the second main reason why I saw the movie, besides Garland writing and directing), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson; the third main reason why I saw the movie), and surveyor/geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny; yeah, I never heard of before, either). The quintet enter The Shimmer (see how well that flows and why it should have been the movie’s title), where they discover the landscape and animals are all being mutated by an unseen, unknown force.
This truly is a “thinking man’s sci-fi movie”. If you’re going in to see five attractive women running and gunning through weird, mutated creatures for two hours, you’re going to be disappointed. Yes, there is an action sequence or two, but that’s all. As I mentioned, this movie has more to do with Stanley Kubrick than Roland Emmerich. In that sense, this movie is like a modern “2001: A Space Odyssey”. It barely explains what is happening. Instead, it just shows you visuals and it’s up to you to figure out what you’re looking at and what it all means. I won’t go into detail of what happens once the women enter The Shimmer, because I really do want you to see this movie and watch it unfold for yourself. It truly is a cinematic experience in every sense of the term. If it’s a satisfying experience will be up to your interpretation.
Acting-wise, there’s no real standout performance. You can say Portman is the MVP, but that’s only because she gets the most screen time. Leigh gives one of her weirdest performances ever. Her line delivery is mostly in monotone and she spends lots of screen time with her hands moving around or fidgeting with something. I’m not sure if this was Garland’s idea for Leigh to behave like this, or Leigh is overdoing it with making her character come across as being aloof and distant. Gina is doing her best impression of Michelle Rodriguez (no relation), as the tough Latina of the group. Her character gets the most development from how she behaves when we first meet her, and where she ends up. I hope Gina gets more movie roles like this, because I’m intrigued by her (but I don’t care to watch her TV series “Jane The Virgin”). Thompson gives a more low key performance, as her character is meant to be shy and quiet. It’s rather jarring to see, as she’s mostly known for playing strong and outspoken characters. At the very least, it shows that she has range as an actress. As for Tuva Novotny, well, considering she’s the least known of the actresses, you can probably guess who will be the first to be picked off by the mutated animals, I’ll leave it at that.
One major letdown of the movie is the dialogue. Garland is known for peppering his movies with clever one-liners in order to keep things entertaining and not always full of dread (even when said movie is “Dredd”). However, the dialogue in this movie is rather uninspired and matter of fact. The only exception being this one scene in which Portman and Isaac are lying in bed together, and quips are being fired out at a rapid pace. Frankly, it was my favorite scene of the movie, and it also doesn’t hurt that Portman has her bare stomach tickled during it. My second most favorite scene was when Lena is first introduced to Anya, Josie, and Cass, and the ladies are just shooting the sh*t and getting to know each other. These two scenes seem the most warm, natural-flowing, and inviting. This is probably by design, as by the time of the third act, everything has become cold, unnatural, and alienating. Also, while the actresses give good performances, their characters aren’t that well defined. There’s a reason why I listed them by what their professions are, because their professions are really what define each of them. That, and one personality trait each, like Anya being a recovering alcoholic, or Josie being a self-mutilator. The movie could have used a few more scenes where the girls are just chatting and we learn more about their personalities.
I promised not to tell anything else about the movie, besides what the premise is. Like I said, this is a cinematic experience that must be seen to be believed. What you believe once you’ve seen it, that’s up to you. I give “Annihilation” a solid 4 out of 5 stars. If you live in America, Canada, or China, please go out and see the movie, if you can. If you live outside those three countries, please take the time to watch it on Netflix. “Annihilation” was never going to be a tentpole movie of any sort, because that’s not what it was meant to be. It’s a love letter to Kubrick and his challenging movies that were shades of grey, and it’s up to you to figure out the black and white of it all. It’s not meant to be entertaining, but to be studied and figured out, like a puzzle. I hope you find it to be a puzzle worth solving. Oh, and we need more movies with Gina and Tessa as co-stars, because they are sinfully gorgeous whenever they are on screen together. Sorry, but I felt I had to end on a lighter note.