Buzz has been circulating around this season’s latest sci-fi extravaganza, Annihilation, the sophomore effort of English writer and film director Alex Garland, whose A.I. thriller Ex Machina garnered rave reviews for reinstilling a sorely-missed brand of “intelligent” science-fiction. Indeed, the very same label has been thrown onto Garland’s latest project, but in an unfortunately pejorative fashion. Paramount recently leased the film to Netflix, fearing the film was “too intelligent” for a general audience. Though geek culture may fan over whatever defies a stagnant sci-fi status-quo dominated by Star Wars Disney-flicks, viewers should not be deceived by Annihilation’s thin philosophizing and uninventive genre throwbacks.
As evidenced by the film’s first 10 minutes, Garland signals the interior world of its characters using overused tropes and sci-fi conventions that reek of teenage cynicism. Cancer researcher and professor Lena (Natalie Portman) gives her students a brief rundown on cell-division, though the thematic takeaway is dully reductive, full of smugly dramatic pessimism that runs throughout the rest of the movie. Perhaps this is warranted for Lena, whose husband Dan (Oscar Isaac) went missing on a military combat-mission seven years prior. Vulnerable but determined, Portman portrays Lena with an unwavering ambition that sends her on a tactical expedition into a jungle where ecological evil is manifesting. Bubbled in by a rainbow-colored blob referred to as “The Shimmer,” it is the same territory trekked by Lena’s husband, who left behind video evidence of his mission’s horrifying experiences.
Garland’s strong suit is no doubt his affinity for scenarios where people are isolated from society. Before we even enter the lush and densely-foliated wasteland of The Shimmer, the film feels cut off from any world of events with which we’re familiar. Lena’s home-life is a quarantine zone of depression, restricted to jocular but often ominous interactions with her presently-absent husband. It’s not odd that Portman seems natural in this environment, or at least more so than her crewmates, who each bear an intriguing backstory telling of their own“self-destructiveness.” Anya (Gina Rodriguez) fears The Shimmer’s transformative effect upon her body in a thinly-veiled metaphor for her battle with drug-addiction. It is a common narrative reflex for modern storytellers bent on a nihilistic diversity of truth: Several people of different perspectives stare into an abyss and get different things out if it, often concluding that their efforts of interpretation are hopeless.
But the abyss Garland paints is nonetheless beautiful. Annihilation is rooted less in foreign-planet horror like Alien than the masterpiece of Soviet sci-fi cinema Stalker, in which a group of men journey into an urban Chernobyl landscape overridden by mutated nature. For all its frivolous thrills and cheesy soap-opera nonsense, Annihilation provides a quiet meditation upon humanity’s relationship to the outdoors-gone-wild. While an alligator whose mouth is a vagina-dentata tries to eat the crew, deer with cherry-blossoms grown on their antlers suggests that this world isn’t all too awful. This isn’t to say nature is deceptive in Annihilation. Nature, the main antagonist, is truly ambivalent—it harms our heroes only when they reach out to contact it. Garland smartly points to the belligerent and corruptive nature of humans themselves, with the (literally) gut-wrenching sequence wherein a group of soldiers cut open the belly of one of their members, revealing an eel-like creature crawling inside the man’s intestines.
Despite its high-concept craftiness and stellar visual salad of sci-fi motifs, Annihilation is often hindered by the awkward interactions between its characters. The film starts with a cautious exercise in conversation between Lena and her colleague, Dan, that is no more than an unconvincing excuse for exposition. Their romantic affair feels not only forced from every angle—considering Dan appears for two scenes in flashback, and never impacts the plot in any significant manner—but like an unwarranted pause in the story’s momentum, disrupting the sense of mystery that keeps the audience braced and interested.
Whereas Garland often dilutes his inadequate understanding of science through colloquial statements that pass off as “realistic,” the attempt at personal philosophy is often juvenilely pessimistic. Leigh does her best to capture the disaffected edge of a dying psychologist intent on discovering the truth behind a global catastrophe, but this cannot save the undue melodrama that pervades even casual encounters—perhaps it is a curse of the sci-fi genre, to lift people beyond their normal circumstances and thus transform them into mouth-pieces of existential wondering. Annihilation has trouble balancing the realism of its subjects with the film’s otherworldly goals and aspirations.
Featured Image by Paramount Pictures