Annihilation has been received well on Netflix in Australia and I seem to be one of the few reviewers who doesn’t understand why. This self proclaimed intellectual sci-fi tale, based on the book of the same name, weaves an interesting take on macro and micro evolution. Intellectual is reaching, when an initial test screening of Annihilation resulted in a Paramount executive pulling it from major release, eventually opting for the Netflix route. Interesting move when you would recall Paramount, known for releasing hmm I dunno, all of the Star Trek movies. “Supposedly intellectual” is part of the furniture over at Paramount. Or, it was.
Annihilation follows the journey of Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, cellular biologist and ex-army corps who journeys into an alien phenomena along with a team of specialists. The team, all women, are fleshed out by actresses Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny. Respectfully portraying the leader, the paramedic, physicist and geologist. Entering the phenomena, nicknamed “the shimmer,” is a need for Lena. A need that is never fully explained. It’s assumed that her core motivation is that her husband, Kane (played by Oscar Isaac) has returned from the shimmer all sorts of messed up. You’re a cellular biologist. Stay back, look after your husband and help nurse him back to health. But of course, no one listens to the viewer.
I can’t think of many movies where a semi-commando team of all women has an entire story centered around them. This I liked. What I didn’t like is the lack of explanation around this. Yes they’re experts in their field. Great. Give me more of that. Build on why they’re the best and most logical choice to send them into the shimmer. Give me less of : here is a bunch of women, they’re going head on into the dangerous DNA altering alien phenomena and deal with it. Develop the back story beyond the main character.
The team packs their gear and they head into the shimmer. Along the way there are gradual pieces of evolutionary what-the-fuckery that leave little explanatory breadcrumbs tying into the eventual ending. The CGI heavy landscape litters the screen like a badly kept junkyard of mother nature’s lost ingredients. We’re inside the bastardised secret garden that is a creature unto itself. A garden offering up mutant giant alligators complete with shark teeth. With the crowning moment being an altar of evolution in its almost Jesus Christ pose. Seriously ladies, if the mutant giant alligator wasn’t enough to give you a hint then the occultist saviour statue made of cow skull, human ribs and fauna should’ve been.
Lena and co discover a recording where her husband, Kane, is on video cutting open a fellow marine’s stomach to reveal intestines writhing around like an anaconda. The biggest non believer, Rodriguez’s ANYA, refuses to conceive the inconceivable. Even when that very night a mutated creature breaks through the teams perimeter, abducting Cass and killing her. All the while Lena and Ventress are distracted around Lena’s decision to not tell the team that her husband has already been inside the shimmer. You assholes. Maybe don’t have a casual chit chat when you’re meant to be standing watch?
Fast forward to a seemingly awkward conversation by Josie, the teams resident physicist. Theorising that the shimmer alters the DNA of the flora and fauna much like a prism refracts and distorts light. What?!
This lost me. Little understanding of the sciences seems to be lost with the writers of this movie. Because as much as it’s science fiction if you have little understanding of science fact you are just plain going to look like a dickhead. Every damn time.
Anya discover Lena’s secret that her husband had been into the shimmer before and is the marine in the footage they discovered. Acting completely rationally she knocks out and ties to chairs every member of the team and goes about interrogating them. This precedes the stand out scene in Annihilation as an echo of Cass’ voice is heard outside in the distance. Anya leaves to find Cass only to disappear and in her place returns an mutated bear that is able to mimic Cass’ voice. The sheer horror of the mutant bear rubbing up against all restrained members is about as exciting as Annihilation gets. Before a bleeding Anya returns to take out the bear. Futilely, mind you. Anya is brutally mauled and throat torn open in a perfectly feral display of man vs beast that gives Di Caprio’s Revenant a run for its money. The remaining team members break free from their bonds and manage to take out the bear.
The remaining three come to a conclusion in order to deal with the situation. Ventress leaves to head to the centre of the anomaly (the lighthouse), Lena struggles with pursuing her or leaving altogether while Josie turns into a triffid and frolics into the jungle. A new round of footage is found which shows Kane ranting about the effects of the shimmer and commits suicide via phosphorous grenade after urging his doppelgänger to find Lena.
Lena eventually stumbles across the lighthouse, housing what can only be described as the giant black butthole of creation. Film students are going to have a field day with the metaphor of Natalie Portman climbing up a giant butthole. She comes across Ventress who tells her that the shimmer is extraterrestrial in origin and plans to engulf the entire world. She sacrifices herself with (surprise, surprise!) a phosphorous grenade in a giant bright white light. The shimmer combines with a drop of blood which results in a doppelgänger that mimics Lena’s every move before taking on her form. This allows the time Lena needs to set a grenade that takes out the heart of the shimmer and her copy.
Cut back to Lena’s debriefing. Where the scientist that has been grilling her for the whole film accepts her story so easily. She is then taken to the Kane that originally arrived with her at the Area X facility. The question being is he the original or is he copy and at the same time is she the original or the copy. Credits.
Annihilation suffers the same fate where a lot of films that look good on paper suffer. And yes I get that it was a Book originally but it would’ve been developed into a concise script to convey the end product. It’s easy to sell an idea where the story is highly intellectually based. Especially when that story is in the science fiction arena. I have absolutely no issue with the all female cast with the exception of two characters. What I do have an issue with is the lack of character development with these women. What are their hopes and fears? Who are they as people? Who is Lena beyond a brilliant scientist who self destructed her marriage via affair with a work colleague? Who was Cass beyond the woman torn apart by a mutant bear? Surely that’s not all of what she is. Until that approach is taken we’re always going to see this type of movie. I want more movies with empowered women of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and sexual orientations. What I don’t want is those very women being defined by a fractured stereotype.
Annihilation, although stylistically and visually stunning, falls short for the sake of falling short. The core motivation of the supporting characters are absent, while the affair and break down of Lena’s/Kane’s marriage takes precedence. Yet with very little explanation as to why. Are we to assume that betrayal and loss of connection is the main ingredient of immunity from the shimmer’s effects? Is this a film overpopulated with metaphors or is this Very little is explained. The dialogue confuses itself at the best of times. Gina Rodriguez is the stand out amongst the cast as the chief catalyst in the change of pacing in the film. Conceptually the movie breaks the cookie cutter science fiction mold but as a final product it is not without its own evolutionary flaws. Annihilation annihilates itself.