Maybe I’m just intellectually benighted, but I didn’t think Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi novel “Annihilation” was as groundbreaking as I was told. But when I learned a movie adaptation was forthcoming—and that Alex Garland, the talented director of 2015’s brilliant “Ex Machina,” was behind the camera—I was certainly willing to give the story a second look.
The good news? The film is a lot more fun than the book. The bad? It has no idea what it’s trying to say.
The plot starts straightforwardly: when a strange meteor crashes near a coastal lighthouse, government sensors soon detect the presence of the Shimmer, an atmosphere-distorting phenomenon that repels all radio signals. The Shimmer extends across a large tract of swampland, its boundaries expanding outward with no slowdown in sight. By the time the film begins, no expeditions into the Shimmer have returned. Into the mysterious zone strides Johns Hopkins biologist Lena (Natalie Portman)—mourning her husband’s own recent disappearance in the Shimmer—alongside four other female scientists. Their mission: reach the lighthouse at the heart of the Shimmer and discover what’s causing the disturbance. Survival-horror carnage ensues.
One thing in particular stands out: “Annihilation” is a gorgeously designed movie. The lush, genetically unstable interior of the Shimmer comes to life vividly and hauntingly, and ominous sound design adds to the sense of unease.
Garland has taken plenty of liberties with his source material, most of which work to the film’s benefit. Indeed, the movie’s at its best when it embraces its own straight-up pulpiness: “Annihilation” is a lot scarier and more enjoyable than last year’s “Life.” Here we get a gigantic alligator with row after row of sharklike teeth, a mutant bear that can emulate the screams of its past victims, fields of crystalline trees, and bisected bodies fused to thrones of spiraling fungus. If I had to describe this movie in one sentence, it’d be “‘Event Horizon’ in the Everglades”—indeed, we even get a horrifying video clip of a past expedition degenerating into madness.
But unfortunately, things fizzle out in the third act. Just as the story should be rising to a crescendo of dread, we get a climax that feels like a derivative mashup of “The Thing” and “Aliens.” It’s hard to escape the feeling that the final reveal should’ve been something really dreadful, in the vein of Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser.” Instead, we’re left with an ending that feels both thematically ambiguous and disappointingly final.
As a critic, I’m willing to give films an awful lot of leeway when it comes to messaging (I’ve talked about “Furious 7” as an example of virtue ethics, for crying out loud). Alas, I must conclude that “Annihilation” really doesn’t have anything to say. This is a glossy B-movie that wants to be perceived as more intelligent and “grown-up” than it actually is. And while there are a lot of writers who will probably label this movie “thought-provoking,” I question what thoughts will actually be provoked other than “aliens are bad.” None of the characters are drawn in sufficient detail to prove particularly memorable, and the script steadfastly refuses to provide much context or background.
But notwithstanding its abortive attempts at philosophizing, “Annihilation” makes for an entertaining watch (and I imagine it’ll hold up pretty well on subsequent viewings). At the very least, it’s a reasonably original contribution to its genre that throws some cool monsters at the screen. And for me, that might be enough.
Come for the art design, stay for the mutant creatures. Just don’t expect “Ex Machina 2.”