I am a fan of Alex Garland’s work, as a writer and director. Not only did he deliver the screenplays for “28 Days Later”, “Sunshine”, and “Dredd”, but he also gave us one of this decade’s best examples of science fiction with 2014’s “Ex Machina (which was also his directorial debut). Garland is back as writer/director for another venture into intelligent sci-fi with “Annihilation”. Although there is plenty to admire about this visually stunning and often unnerving thriller, it does suffer from pacing issues and a final act that isn’t as compelling as the events leading up to it.
Based on the award-winning novel by Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation” follows a team of five women who go on a dangerous expedition into a mysterious shimmer that will cause human extinction. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a former Army soldier turned biology professor. She is joined by Josie (Tessa Thompson), Cass (Tuva Novotny), Anya (Gina Rodriguez) and Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). What the rest of the team aren’t aware of is that Lena’s husband (Oscar Isaac) is the only soldier who has ever made it out of the shimmer alive. Although he is back at the base in a coma, fighting for his life.
As the team goes deeper into the ever-expanding shimmer (which was a result of an object crashing to earth) they notice that the normal rules of life don’t apply. Everything within the shimmer has been altered on a biological level. Not just plants, but animals as well. There is a massive crocodile that attacks the team, but when they take it down, they notice its’ DNA has been altered. As terrifying as that reptilian creature seems, it doesn’t hold a candle to the altered bear that they must deal with next.
The first hour or so in “Annihilation” is really strong, but once we get into the final act and there are only a couple members of the team left, the story becomes much less compelling. I mentioned earlier 2007’s “Sunshine” which was also written by Garland. Much like “Annihilation” it was a near perfect example of sci-fi that dropped the ball with the final act. It’s a shame too because Garland isn’t afraid to take chances. However, he comes off as someone who wants to outsmart the audience. I don’t have a problem with that in general but when you are making a 50+ million-dollar epic, you should want your audience to understand, or even care about the story you are telling.
There is so much greatness in “Annihilation” I would be disappointed if audiences came out of it thinking it sucked. Even with my reservations, I commend Garland for continuing to think outside the box and giving us an epic looking picture that doesn’t hold back on the graphic elements and allowing the characters to have multiple layers. Portman is terrific here and so is Thompson. It is also great to see a film of this nature led by a group of highly talented women. Something I hope we see more of in the future.
In the end, “Annihilation” is the type of film that would have been perfect for a Netflix release. I believe that is where “Ex Machina” found most of its’ viewers. Ironically, Paramount sold the international film rights to Netflix where is will be available a few weeks after its’ US. Release.
By: Marc Ferman