Annihilation Review: 5/6ths of a Masterpiece

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Let's get one thing out of the way right off the top about Annihilation: if you are a fan of the original book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, you will likely be in a bit of a shock as the cinematic version releasing in theaters is very different. It might almost be fair to call it "inspired by" rather than "based on". However if readers can set aside their conception of the novelizations, and for moviegoers who haven't read the original, this is [mostly] a genuinely masterful spin of the "let's investigate something strange going on" trope of science fiction films. As for my mostly, we'll get to that in a bit.

Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist who had previously served in the army for several years. Her husband Kane (played by Star Wars' Oscar Isaac) had left home nearly a year before on a military top-secret mission and never returned. Suddenly he appears back in their home, and seems very disconnected and disoriented. Lena tries to question him, but he barely seems to be there. As you might expect before you know it, the military shows up wanting Kane back and scoops up Lena to take along with them.

They are taken to an military and scientific base called Area X, on the border of an opalescent wall called The Shimmer. It first appears a few years earlier, and is slowly growing in size. To date every attempt at sending in a reconnaissance team has resulted in no one coming back out – until now: Kane had gone in but vanished along with the rest of his team.

Lena finds out that a new team is about to go in, this time comprised of all women and led by Fast Times at Ridgemont High alum, Jennifer Jason Leigh (playing base psychologist Dr. Ventress). Lena decides that she wants to go along so soldiers up and they head off towards the Shimmer.

For people who want their films action first and story second, they may find Annihilation slowly paced (these would be the same types who think Blade Runner is too plodding for their tastes). Here the story is methodically paced and reveals clues and hints in its own good time. There's a few solid jump scares, lots of gruesome (but also beautiful) transformations, and the use of a scream that will be the stuff of nightmares for many in the audience.

The squad that goes in is all women, and nearly no big deal is made about that fact, which is wonderful. The only change that it brings is actually a different type of character dynamic between the five women than there would have been if it had been all men, but the change is a good thing. The characters are all very capable, none are timid drag-alongs. Everyone has military training, and each is broken in their own way.

Time and memory becomes highly unreliable once they enter the Shimmer and it's presented in a way that really hasn't been handled in film recently. The story and the environment is allowed to breathe and build the tension.

Now for all of my praise, you might be asking why only 5/6ths of a masterpiece? There's two primary reasons – Leigh's performance comes off as disconnected. While all of the other characters in the film feel and read as being present, Leigh has a number of scenes that just feel like she's reading cue cards. It might related to how she was directed to emote, but it just feels off. And my big complaint is about the final reel of the film (the last 20 minutes or so); some of the story's conclusion shifts from this very solid and innovative narrative to one that almost comes off as a too-clipped resolution. It goes from nearly everything being a surprise to something that we've seen before and that does it a disservice. It doesn't ruin the film, but it takes it down a notch into the range of being easily slated into a trope.

Directed and adapted by Ex-Machina's Alex Garland, this film again brings his quality of writing and direction to the screen. If you are a fan of Machina, this one will almost certainly also speak to you as well.

It's very nearly a great film, and definitely close enough not to miss it.

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About Bill Watters

Games programmer by day, geek culture and fandom writer by night. You'll find me writing most often about tv and movies with a healthy side dose of the goings-on around the convention and fandom scene.

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