Director: Alex Garland
Writers: Alex Garland (screenplay), Jeff VanderMeer (novel)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Issac, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny
Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama, Action & Adventure
Rating: R (violence, language, sex)
I grew up watching X-files, so the Annihilation trailer caught my eye right away. Sci-fi? Check. Natalie Portman as a soldier? Check. Shimmering, glowing thing that reaches to the sky and screams of death and peril? Oh, count me in. A true sci-fi suspense is hard to find.
Violence/Scary Images: One simply has to keep the name of the movie in terms of violence: Annihilation. Once the team of women goes beyond the Shimmer, the violence begins. They are soldiers with guns and bullets are the only things that stop the mutated animals, though not always. A giant “bear” tears open the throat of a woman and tears another’s jaw off—both instances are shown graphically. In another attack, a massive albino alligator drags a team member under water.
In the most explicit scene, the team watches a video of the previous team cutting open one of their own soldiers, revealing that his intestines are alive or they’re some sort of creature. Moments later, the women find that soldier’s body embedded on a wall, as if whatever was inside of him exploded and grew roots, leaving his skull far above his neck. I do NOT recommend Annihilation to anyone younger than sixteen. The same mutated bear screams in the victim’s voices that it has killed and it is truly terrifying.
Language/Crude Humor: F-bombs and s*** are each used about a dozen times throughout the movie. H***, b****, and d**n are sprinkled throughout. Jesus’ name is used in vain once.
Spiritual Content: In a flashback, the main character and her husband are talking about the moon in broad daylight, in which she makes an off-handed remark about God making a mistake. He makes the point that God doesn’t make mistakes. It is also possible that the husband’s name, Kane, is an allusion to the biblical Cain, based on his self-destructive decisions, but that is a far-reaching theory.
Sexual Content: The main character is shown in bed with her husband, in underwear and a thin tank top. He tickles her, which leads to a comment that the viewer can infer that there is off-camera sex. One soldier is a lesbian, though it is not overt (she hits on the main character and is teased about it). In flashbacks, the main character is shown from behind, a bareback, during sex, during an affair.
Drug/Alcohol References: Wine is sipped in one scene. One soldier is portrayed as a recovering addict from drugs and alcohol. The group of ladies drinks beer before their mission.
Positive Content: Lena will stop at nothing to find why her husband is dying and to search for his cure. The group of women soldiers bonds quickly.
Annihilation nearly starts out as a joke: a biologist, a psychologist, a physicist, an anthropologist, and a paramedic walk into a wall that looks like spilled gasoline. Oh yes, and everyone and everything else that has entered has never returned—with the exception of Kane (Oscar Issac). Of course, there will be running and death, but what is behind the Shimmer?
Biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) starts off in a white room, surrounded by men in biohazard suits—and she can’t remember the answers they want, though she is the sole survivor of an expedition into The Shimmer. The flashbacks in this movie start right off the bat and keep on coming: present, past, and further past. In fact, there are so many flashbacks that it’s distracting. Coupled with the film’s titling of the first, second, and third act, it’s fragmented at best.
As the film continues, Lena’s story reveals that she volunteered for the mission into the Shimmer, as did her husband Kane who returned. But, Kane is not himself and he seems to be dying of complete organ failure, per Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lena learns that Dr. Ventress and a group of three other women are headed into the Shimmer, which has been growing for three years. The team faces their own demons as they head towards a lighthouse, all while dealing with a hostile alien landscape that seems bent on human destruction. As the team succumbs to the mutations, the typical one-man (or in this case, woman) left plot is moved into play. The end scene sets up the “what-if” question that many sci-fi films have shown before, in various forms.
Natalie Portman is somewhat polarizing in this film. At times, she is wooden and distant, while other sequences nail the heart of the matter. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s portrayal as a psychologist is barely palatable, even when viewers are given a reason for her disconnection. On the other side of the screen, Oscar Isaac’s adaptation of a soldier husband is spot on, even through one particularly squeamish, bloody scene. Tessa Thompson (Josie Radek) is fresh off of a success in Thor: Ragnarok (Our Review!). Her character couldn’t be further from Valkyrie. Thompson’s physicist is tender and damaged—one of the best in the film. Gina Rodriguez plays Anya, the paramedic soldier with a history of addictions. Rounding out the cast is Swedish actress Tuva Novotny, with her outstanding performance of Cass Shepard.
CGI engines drive the heart of Annihilation. There would be no Shimmer without spectacular CGI. The colors are vibrant, the mutated animals terrifying. For the physical visuals, some amazing props were created, specifically in the swimming pool scene. There are still some misses, though. As the plot progresses, and the viewer learns that the Lena was in the Shimmer for a month, yet surprisingly, she’s as clean in those scenes as when she entered, even though they are tromping through a swamp and overgrown areas.
The duo of Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow both worked with director Alex Garland, scoring his film Ex Machina. They are experts in the sci-fi musical distortion. In particular, their piece, “The Mark – Interlude,” is brilliant. The score for Annihilation compliments each scene, working in the viewers’ suspense or empathy. Crosby, Stills, and Nash pop in with their song “Hopelessly Waiting.” While the tune is well-placed in the film, there are times when the musical interlude of the song is edited into a couple of scenes, making it feel disjointed.
I wanted to like Annihilation more than I did. It has all of the elements of a terrific, classic sci-fi movie. But, there are parts that keep it from succeeding. The cast is admirable, the plot predictable, the ending nearly laid out for anyone to guess. The plot holes are gaping and the scientific jargon sometimes reaches beyond that of a normal movie-goer. Those combined with a yo-yo effect between present time (the interview that starts the movie) and several different timeline flashbacks, leaves much to be desired. One needs to be ready for the dark and graphic undertones of this film. On the plus side, the visuals are stunning, but no one can float an entire film on pretty flowers and mutated animals, even with a killer musical score.
+ Devotion of a wife searching for a cure for her husband. + CGI renditions.
- Predicable plot and ending. - Time shifts from present, to past, to even further past, for the sake of explanation.
The Bottom Line
Though the CGI is stunning, there are enough plot holes and flashback yo-yoing that'll make this film okay to skip in the theater.