★★★ / ★★★★
Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” based upon the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, offers a handful of images so bizarre, so intriguing, so horrifying that they stun the viewers into silence with mouth agape. This is the picture at its most powerful because it dares the viewer to look at the images closely; to examine their layers, colors, and textures; to imagine how they work on cellular and molecular levels; and to be terrorized by them. It is rare when sci-fi and horror collide to form a near-perfect fit. However, it falls just short of its maximum potential.
Debris from outer space hits a lighthouse. A strange translucent veil forms around the beacon and proceeds to expand its borders. There is fear that soon it will envelop nearby towns and cities. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as The Shimmer and it is their goal to understand its cause and nature. Military personnel sent inside its growing borders to gather information have never returned… with the exception of Kane (Oscar Isaac), the partner of Johns Hopkins cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). Hoping to find answers regarding her partner’s disappearance for over a year, Lena, a former soldier, volunteers to go inside The Shimmer with a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny), and a physicist (Tessa Thompson). They are not prepared for what they are about to discover.
Garland has a way of commanding the story in such a way that we are immediately placed in the middle of it. It is admirable how he is confident enough as writer-director to allow the audience to orient themselves and ask many questions. For some reason, many filmmakers within as well as outside the sci-fi genre are afraid to make the viewers feel uncomfortable or frustrated early on and so exposition—a whole lot of it to the point where at times the story never gets a chance to take off—is often utilized as bridge between introduction and action. Here, however, it is assumed that the people watching are intelligent, patient, and curious. The film is efficient with its time.
I admired the material most when the journey through The Shimmer screeches to a halt in order for us to have a chance to take a closer look at an organism. An alligator is not just an alligator, nor a bear just a bear. We note of the plants and flowers, where they are growing, and how, what is strange about them. We even get to appreciate molds growing on surfaces nearby carcasses. Human body parts are also fair game. And abandoned cameras almost always contain a horrifying recording. You learn to prepare yourself eventually. You take a deep breath and look. But then just as quickly you realize one cannot be prepared for these kind of nightmarish images. I was tickled by how disturbed I felt.
Although the film is not about characters but about generating visceral reactions, I felt as though a camaraderie amongst the explorers is nearly nonexistent. The characters do not need to be friends, but the performers do need to share strong chemistry. Note how the actors come across somewhat detached from one another and so the dialogue shared among them, especially when they are supposed to be connecting when personal histories are broached, lack a special punch. However, an argument can be made that the volunteers are so terrified that perhaps the sense of detachment is purposeful, that it is required they focus on their own selves and their own survival.
But without excuse is a weak final five minutes. Especially problematic for me is the would-be daring final shot that is supposed to incite questions. I could not and did not buy into it because such an approach is generic, so common in pedestrian sci-fi films. While it is not required that we get precise answers, and I prefer that we don’t, it is essential that we walk out of the story not feeling cheated. I felt cheated because the final image, despite the wealth of images the material has presented up to this point, is entirely unoriginal.