AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX [Region ‘B’], BLU-RAY AND DVD [Region ‘A’ ]
RUNNING TIME: 115 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Lena is a cellular biology professor and former soldier grieving over the disappearance of her husband Kane on a top secret mission. Then he suddenly turns up out of nowhere, remembering nothing of what happened to him, and becomes very ill. While in an ambulance bound for the nearest hospital, a government security force interrupts them and takes them to Area X, near where a shimmering electromagnetic field landed on a meteorite three years earlier and is spreading fast. Several groups of soldiers have gone on there and only Kane ever returned. When Kane lapses into a coma, Lena is recruited into a new expedition into ‘the Shimmer’.…
I’m probably one of the last ones on this website to see Annihilation, most of my co-writers having viewed it as soon as it appeared on NetFlix but being too busy at the time to review it. While I avoided reading too much about it, it was obviously a very divisive film, at least for ‘average Joe’s’ – far more of the professional critics seemed to like it than didn’t. I’ve tended to think for some time that Alex Garland has somehow fooled many people into thinking that his work is more intelligent and original than it actually is, and sadly Annihilation has confirmed this for me. This hodge podge of elements from loads of different sources looks stunning, is at times genuinely frightening, and has some good performances despite most of the cast members deciding or having been told to say everything very slowly, presumably in an attempt to give some of the shoddy dialogue some gravitas. But it’s sunk by its idiotic script that’s crammed full of groan-worthy material from beginning to end and hardly ever has its characters do anything that makes some sense. I know that this is a science fiction film, but after a while I was just laughing at the idiocy on display.
Some examples. Everybody who’s been sent into the Shimmer has died or never made it back except for one guy who’s seriously ill. They keep him in a quarantined area where people around him have to wear bio-hazard suits, but they then send four women into the Shimmer totally unprotected. And why would they just repeat what they’ve been doing for ages now anyway, just sending in tiny groups? Surely [this is the Americans we’re talking about after all] they’d now send in a large force or have tried to blow the thing [which after all is very threatening] up? A former soldier is using night-vision goggles to see out into the dark – but she’s standing in the middle of a room with the lights on so the goggles wouldn’t even work. The group is attacked by a mutated alligator, so what do they do? – take to the water in small boats. These are supposed to be scientists, but they seem to be even less intelligent than the teenagers you get in your average slasher movie. And so forth. Was any thought put into the script? Due to a poorly received test screening of the movie, David Ellison of Paramount supposedly became concerned that the film was “too intellectual” and “too complicated”, and therefore demanded changes to make it appeal to a wider audience, but I would have thought that he’d have been more concerned that the film was too dumb. And I find it astonishing that critics in the main haven’t pulled the film apart for it. I guess I noticed this stuff more because I wasn’t too involved with what was happening before me, but surely? – oh I give up!
It actually starts off fairly well. We see a woman being questioned, and the questions give us a vague idea of what will happen later on, one of the few neat things about the screenplay being the way it sometimes feeds us but doesn’t really explain stuff which we will see later. Lena is the only person who’s returned from a mission into the Shimmer and of course after saying that she doesn’t know what happened, proceeds to tell the story anyway [!]. We see the meteor carrying the Shimmer land by a lighthouse, then flash back to Lena still having trouble dealing with the disappearance of her husband Kane a year ago, turning down an invitation to a barbecue by a friend in favour of painting her bedroom. Then Kane mysteriously shows up with amnesia before seeming to nearly die, and soon after this we get the first of several flashbacks within flashbacks which add little and seem randomly placed. Anyway, Lena is taken to this facility [which – by the way – seems absurdly small considering the importance of what’s happening] and soon joins a new crew going on what seems like a suicide mission. In addition to Lena, they consist of Dr. Ventress who recruited her, plus the tough Anya, shy Josie and sweet Cass, as thin and cliched types as one can imagine, though at least Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotky do their best, while Natalie Portman, an actress who can be good in one film then bad in the next, is impressive too. I’m sure that these ladies all had trouble keeping a straight face at times, but they obviously managed it eventually.
Upon entering the Shimmer, they appear to lose a few days and none of them remember setting up camp. Something soon seems up with the flora and fauna too, some kind of genetic aberration or evolution, and when they come upon a memory card that shows Kane doing something very nasty indeed to one of his companions, some members of the group think that they ought to abandon the mission. It doesn’t help that Lena hasn’t told the others that Kane is her husband. That night, a mutated bear drags one of their number away and the following morning, her mutilated corpse is found. Josie begins to hypothesise what the Shimmer is actually doing. Interest is just about maintained, but the film isn’t anywhere near as ambitious and mind-bendy as you may have been led to believe. What’s happening in the 2001– influenced ending is really obvious unless you really are thick, and we’ve seen versions of the final scene so many times before. It’s all much like Garland’s Sunshine, which also pretended to offer a lot when instead offering very little. Garland’s lack of interest in explaining everything isn’t automatically a flaw, but he also likes to put totally unnecessary stuff into his scripts instead, for example a revelation in which Lena is revealed to be not as nice a person as we thought which just adds absolutely nothing whatsoever.
It moves at quite a leisurely pace, but there is a bit of mounting tension if not quite enough. Something which pleasantly surprised me is how darn scary it was at times, notably a scene with the bear and three of the characters tied to their seats. Said scene was possibly inspired by The Thing, which certainly influenced some plot aspects. The chief inspiration may be Stalker even though Garland and Jeff VanderMeer the writer of the novel have claimed that they never saw it. But Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, if vague in places, was cohesive, seemed well thought out, and offered much food for thought. Garland’s just seems random at times and, while looking at interesting, important ideas like evolution, self-destruction and co-dependence, doesn’t always seem to know what it’s saying about these subjects and only dips its toes into them – but then Garland has said that he wrote his script based on a distant memory of reading the book, so such flaws may have been unavoidable. At least visually Annihilation is a treat, often genuinely beautiful as soon as we enter the Shimmer. Cinematographer Rob Hardy treats us to some lovely shots of nature and the CG additions are able to be subtle when they need to be. Sometimes it’s like we’re in the world of Hayao Miyazaki considering all the weird and wonderful forest sights that we see. There are images of tree-men, standing forlornly outside a house, that are rather haunting. At one point, the group come across an astonishing mutation which looks like the unfortunate melding of a man, flowers, and a wall. The incredible sight, hideous yet also in a way beautiful, is one that you won’t forget in a hurry.
But basically all we really have here is a film which is nice to look at but which isn’t so nice to listen to [some of the dialogue really is terrible], has writing which is genuinely incompetent in places, and which lacks much in the way of substance despite pretending to be otherwise – well, except for the reams of stuff it takes from innumerable other things. I’m all for more intelligent sci-fi, but Annihilation isn’t really it.