Annihilation and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Alex Garland
So apparently Paramount wanted to bury this thing for some reason? I mean… I guess it WORKED considered I never heard of this until the week before it came out. I go to movies all the time, and I never saw ONE trailer for this thing despite starring some PRETTY big names right now! Now this is hardly the first time that a studio had lost complete faith in the movie they had made, and it’s not always a sign that the movie is bad (*cough* Brazil *cough*), but it STILL is a bit worrying as studios are loath to just throw money away; especially on projects that seem to have had THIS much star power both in front of and behind the camera. Does this offbeat science fiction film manage to shine through despite the studio doing everything it could to keep it out of the public eye, or was Paramount trying to save us from something that we were better off just forgetting it even existed? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the story of Lena (Natalie Portman), told slightly out of order, where she went head first into a unique biome of alien origin that I like to call The Rainbow World and tried to reach its center to destroy it from within! Okay, now that I’m writing this down, it’s possible that a bit more context is needed. To rewind a bit here, about three years before the movie starts a meteorite smashes into a small coastal town and starts doing… something. It basically creates its own isolated environment with a clear delineation between EARTH WORLD and ALIEN WORLD in the form of a shimmer; almost like an opaque curtain in the shape of a dome. The US government seems to have gotten there right away and have been sending people into the strange place to find out what is going on, but no one has ever returned… until now! Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is a military Black Ops guy (I think) and was sent on a MYSTERIOUS mission about a year ago and suddenly returns home right as the movie starts; albeit looking rather disheveled and coughing up a worrisome amount of blood. The government weren’t too far behind him though and put him in a quarantine to study what’s happened to his physiology after being exposed to the alien biome, but they’re probably gonna have to work fast; lest this become an autopsy because his condition is getting worse. Lena is brought into the loop at this point and is told about THE SHIMMER (I still think it looks more like a Rainbow World); promting her to suit up, grab a gun, and join the next expedition which is in less than a week. Now if that sounds a bit silly, don’t worry! She was in the military as well, so she knows how to handle herself and use a gun. In fact, compared to the rest of the crew which includes a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a geologist (Tuva Novotny), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), and a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), she’s practically a god send as I doubt the rest of them would last a full day in there without her. So the day is set, the inexplicable rag tag crew gathers their courage, and they walk into THE SHIMMER with one goal in mind; get to the center and destroy whatever it is that’s causing this. Will Lena survive the harsh environment that nearly took her husband’s life, and will the secret to his illness lie within? What is motivating the rest of these women to go into this place that even trained soldiers couldn’t manage to overcome? Was this really the best we could muster after three years of failed attempts? They couldn’t even be given gas masks or motor bikes?
When I watch a movie, I usually ask myself a few questions just to get an idea of how the movie is failing or succeeding at what it’s trying to do. Are the characters fully realized people with clear motivations? Is the story easy enough to follow and doesn’t contain any glaring plot holes? Am I spending more of my time questioning the decisions of the characters instead of engaging with their journey? I’m sad to say that these questions were asked many a time in this movie, and the answer each time was a resounding NO. I couldn’t STAND watching this as it tripped over several of my pet peeves in movies; whether it’s an all-powerful government, characters that speak only in the form of essays on the complexities of human nature, or even the use of MYSTERY and INTRIGUE to hide the fact that the story they’re trying to tell is actually a rather simple one. To boil it down, this is essentially a TEAM ON A MISSION movie like Predator, Aliens, Kong: Skull Island, or even Suicide Squad, but aside from that last one (and even THAT would be debatable)… yeah, this one does it FAR worse. Now look, I’m not about to throw jabs at a movie for being ambitious or for trying to add an intellectual and critical spin on material that has more or less been exclusively in the realm of BANG-BANG Shoot-em-up Fun Times, but there’s no meat on the bones here. Everything that the film tries to play off as insightful lacks any compelling bite. The motivations for scene to scene actions by the cast feel woefully forced and to a certain degree downright offensive (describing everyone as DAMAGED which I guess is why they’re SO hell bent on making the most life threateningly foolish decisions possible), and while the action and horrifying set pieces are a genuine highlight here, they can’t help but feel like distractions to the much larger quest and the frustrating movie built around it. It’s not without redeeming value as I think the ending is one of the most awe inspiring pieces of science fiction that we’ve seen committed to screen since maybe even 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the rest of the movie you have to get through to see it may not be worth the journey.
While comparing it to Mother certainly feels like the most emotionally appropriate point of reference as far as how much I was not having any of this movie, I think the movie this has most in common with is Arrival which is another dark science fiction film that I only somewhat enjoyed. Both revel in their sense of MYSTERY and how hard it is to comprehend what it is we’re dealing with; making it all the more frightening as our minds run with the possibilities of what could happen and how we’d even be able to protect ourselves from it. However, while Arrival used it to enrich the story (at least up until the end), this film uses it as a shortcut to imbue a false sense of meaning into something that really doesn’t have any. There are no greater ideas at play here like we had in Arrival regarding communication. The fear of the unknown here is PRETTY well justified considering how many dead people this Rainbow World has left in its wake, and yet the characters in the movie move through this world seemingly oblivious to everything around them. A lot of this has to do with the first act where they’re setting up the premise, and honestly if THAT had been better it could have easily saved the rest of this movie. Let’s go over a few things that The Government, who has been staring at this thing for THREE YEARS, hasn’t done. They say they’ve sent in teams of people to attack the heart of this place, yet none of them came back. Therefore, they don’t have data about what’s inside. Okay, so did they try sending in a team to take ten steps into the Rainbow World, snap some pictures, and then walk back out? You’d think that’d be MISSION ONE before trying to march straight to the very center, but I guess no one thought of that and decided that a rag tag group of civilians with some decent skills in fields OTHER than survival (why the hell did they hand a freaking PHYSICISTS a high caliber rifle!?) to do what trained marines couldn’t in previous operations. It’s like Armageddon, only we’re supposed to take it DEATHLY seriously which is absolutely impossible when the film confirms (or at least bothers to confirm) that ONLY ONE OF THEM has any military and firearm experience before handing them all M16s. Oh, here’s another question! What about an air strike!? That seems like plan B after OPERATION CHARGE IN BLIND turned out to be a total failure, but it’s never brought up in the movie. I could go on and on about plans A through Y that should have been done WAY before the Z plan they went with in the movie, but the point is that this is a government sanctioned operations with presumably enough resources to maintain a STRICT control over this area (apparently this Rainbow World has been sitting on US soil for THREE YEARS and no one with a camera phone or a drone has found it) decided that THIS was the best option available and it shatters the immersion of the movie; more so than the stuff with the alien biosphere! Had we gotten a sense of the desperation at this point that they literally had no better move than sending these people in (WITHOUT HAZMAT SUITS WHICH WE KNOW THEY HAVE ON SITE!!), or even if this group was made up of people with a VERY good reason for going in and snuck through without government authority (i.e. WITHOUT those potential resources), then I could have bought this story more. Instead, it was miserable watching everything that OBVIOUSLY could have gone wrong go wrong and thinking of how easily avoidable all this could have been if the filmmakers took time to explain what was going on instead of keeping every last detail at arm’s length.
And look, I could sit here all day just listing off all the things that flew over my head through this movie, such as the fact that I still don’t know what the tattoos are all about or whether or not there actually IS an alien organism (the “alien” influence on this environment seems more comparable to radiation than a virus or parasite). That’s only a part of my problem with this movie though, and admittedly my other major issue is a lot more subjective to how I enjoy movies than a more measured examination of its pros and cons. To me, this movie is OVERLY grim and it takes a lot for me to enjoy a movie that strays THIS far into unrepentant darkness. It’s not like it NEVER works as the unyielding and brutal environments lend themselves to some wonderfully intense action scenes, but so much of this is about misery and erosion; characters slowly becoming worse and worse in an environment that seems to exist JUST to turn people’s minds against them and bodies into mush. It’s too oppressive at points for my liking, especially when you’re ALSO thinking in the back of your head of how many better ways to handle this (if not airstrikes, then why not have a platoon parachute down right into the heart of the damn thing!?), and I had trouble investing in any of Lena’s teammates who I just don’t feel are particularly well characterized. The most we learn about anyone is one scene where one character just dumps all the character profiles on the audience, and frankly these profiles seem a bit… judgmental I guess? The movie puts forth the idea that the women who went into the Rainbow World are doing so because they want an excuse to self-destruct, and when you find out from the big exposition scene WHY these characters want to do that… I don’t know, it just seems like a rather insensitive leap to go from “this person had problems and traumas in their past” to “now they want to end their life by getting attacked by mutant bears and alien diseases”. On top of that, it’s yet ANOTHER thing that shatters the immersion of this movie as I couldn’t possibly believe for a SECOND that any commanding officer would look at their psychological profiles (at least the psychological profiles the movie lays out for the audience) and decides to hand the potential fate of humanity on their unqualified shoulders. It’s incessant with this movie, where it’s not bad enough that they’re fighting monsters or slowly being poisoned by the strange environment; they have to stack EXTRA misery on top of it even if it’s only halfway thought out and doesn’t really add anything to the overall story. It just makes things THAT much more tedious slog to get through.
The thing is, as much as I want to hate this movie with an uncompromised and righteous passion, I just can’t bring myself to dismiss it so completely. I like The Rainbow World as some of the visual elements are truly striking (less so it’s oddly specific yet still confusing explanation), and I also like the fact that this is yet another female led film in a genre that has almost overwhelmingly been dominated by men. From what I understand though, there is some controversy with Portman and Leigh’s characters being people of color in the book (or at least identified as such in the sequels), so that takes a bit of the wind out the film’s sails there, but I’m still glad that at no point is the fact that they are women a point of contention within the movie; neither erasing their gender nor using it in as some sort of “piece of the puzzle of this movie” like so many tacky screenplays would resort to. Not only that, but the final part of this movie is absolutely jaw dropping and is everything I had HOPED this movie would be and failed to live up to in the first two thirds. It’s something that’s not easy to describe and to even try doing so would be getting to close to spoilers which I would NEVER want to do for this brilliant piece of filmmaking, but I genuinely think that it’s up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of awe inspiring feats of science fiction cinema. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like a Junji Ito short story brought to the big screen, and to go any further than that would potentially ruin what makes the sequence so wonderful to behold. It makes me THAT much more disappointed that you have to sit through an absurdly frustrating two acts just to get to something that could have been a best of the year contender at the end if it had been even close to that interesting or gripping all the way through.
I’ve hated my fair share of critical darlings in the past, and while I usually feel strong enough in my opinion to not feel awkward about going against the grain (*cough* Mother *cough*), there are times where I can’t help but feel like I might have missed something that plenty of other movie goers will get and enjoy immensely about this. There are brilliant aspects to this and not everyone is gonna be holding the journey itself to task just because the lead up to it is nonsensical, but I genuinely had a hard time sitting through this until it got to the very end when I started to wish this movie would never end. It’s hard for me to recommend seeing it in the theater considering how miserable I was for about an hour and a half, but if this is your jam then you’ll probably think it’s one of the best films of the year. It wasn’t for me so I’m more inclined to recommend seeing it when it gets a home release; that way you tune out early if you get as frustrated with this film the same way I was, and get back into it right when they get to the AMAZING ending; an ending that honestly almost works as its own isolated film baring some setup for the characters that would only take like five minutes to get through. With the rest of the movie, it’s… okay I guess. I certainly don’t have a desire to see it again, but then I’ve been on the less popular side of movies in the past, so go ahead and enjoy this while I go watch Jupiter Ascending again. Now that’s a REAL masterpiece!