Review written by: Josh Kristianto, Film Frenzy Contributing Writer.
In 2018, Alex Garland released Annihilation, based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, Sonoya Mizuno, and David Gyasi, the film has grossed $26.2 million as of March 13, 2018.
Lena, a biology professor and former soldier, suddenly finds herself pulled into a government containment effort after her lover mysteriously returns home ill from a covert operation. She soon learns he was part of a mission to investigate a mysterious, expanding bubble called “The Shimmer,” an entity slowly changing everything caught in it. She sets out herself, along with a team of women, to find the cause of this phenomenon, even as the chances of returning home are slim.
For what it is, Annihilation showcases strong, breathtaking visuals and a compelling storyline. It never leaves the audience bored for a moment. Yet for all that, it is a film certainly capable of leaving many wondering what just happened. The relatable messages the film tries to carry are ultimately lost in a stew of vagueness and interpretative relativity, it tarnishes what could have been an immensely sincere introspection into humanity. Notwithstanding these shortfalls, strong performances by the actors make this movie eerie and captivating.
The film uses many flashbacks to form the backstory of the relationship between Lena and her lover, played by Oscar Isaac. Garland does very well portraying the strain between these two characters, even as they remain committed to each other. This relationship plays a central role in the film’s overall meaning, even if one can’t decipher just what exactly said meaning is. Nonetheless, these two actors seemed to get along cozily on screen, which made for a believable romance. Wedging flashbacks highlighting this strong bond among the film’s tense moments makes the story more palatable and moving.
Plotwise, the film is fairly straightforward. There is a mysterious phenomenon changing the environment within an expanding bubble, so naturally, the government sends people in to look around even as those who do don’t come back. Lena and her team see and experience many unusual things as they explore “The Shimmer,” dying off one by one before a couple of them reach the source of the event. Garland engrosses the audience mainly through this exploration phase of the film. From this point to the end, there exists a constant state of suspense created by the sense of the unknown. One method of which is done by playing with the concept of time within “The Shimmer.” This can be seen when the team first crosses into its perimeter and the film cuts to them all waking up at their campsite. All seems well at first until they explain to each other the last thing they remember is crossing and counting rations reveal they have gone through four days’ worth of meals and not remembering anything.
Nevertheless, Garland also uses a good bit of graphic violence and disturbing images to get the heart rate pumping.
The movie’s visuals are splendorous and frightening at times, adding a layer of odd beauty to the mystery of “The Shimmer.” It certainly suggests to viewers the idea of not everything in the bubble being necessarily bad. Further, the camera shots seem a little out of focus and hazy within the bubble, creating a surreal look to the scenes within it. The ending lighthouse scenes were probably the most rattling of the film, with the dark chamber standing in stark contrast to the twisted grandeur of the rest of the environment.
Annihilation falls on its own sword, however, in its attempt to say something about humanity. The film fails, if it tries at all, to explicitly answer the questions it raises. It simply leaves the audience in confusion, trying to understand the purpose of the film and what the viewer ultimately should take away from it. While the grandiose ending makes one feel like something profound just happened, it is so vague and so open to interpretation making the film feel like it was a waste of time. It feels like Garland was trying to say something, but in the effort to be brainy, it seems like all the movie gave its audience was mush.