Usually it’s the end of a movie that lets you down.
A well-paced action flick collapses into a frenzy of CGI tedium, a tense drama settles for a quick fix to an ethical dilemma, a charming flirtation flops into romcom cliché. But writer/director Alex Garland’s contemplative sci-fi head-scratcher Annihilation (adapted loosely from the Jeff VanderMeer novel) ends big, building to a genuinely hallucinatory climax, then bowing out with a note of ambiguity. For all the wondrous and grisly sights Garland strews along the way, though, getting to the payoff can be a slog.
When we first meet Natalie Portman’s Lena, she’s seated, confronted by men in hazmat gear and gawkers safe behind an observation window, clearly a puzzle, possibly a threat. Turns out she’s the only member of her party—only the second person ever—to return from within “the shimmer,” a quivering film of rainbow translucence that encases a section of coastal Florida swamp dubbed Area X.
We soon backtrack to when the shimmer’s first survivor, Lena’s husband Kane (a dour Oscar Isaac), first re-emerged, broken on the inside. Government operatives scoop up the couple, and Lena joins an expedition into Area X led by the mysterious Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that includes a thoughtful Tuva Novotny, a fretful Tessa Thompson, and a lively Gina Rodriguez. All women, you’ll notice, which Annihilation nicely makes no fuss about. (That said, Garland has also been justifiably criticized for whitewashing: VanderMeer’s Lena was Asian, his Ventress Native American. Why can’t Hollywood ever get all its politics right in the same movie?)
This all takes way too long—nobody wants to watch Natalie Portman repaint her bedroom and sob to Crosby, Stills & Nash when there’s a mysterious phantom zone to be explored. The grim fun starts once we’re through the shimmer, which glistens like an oil-tainted puddle—fittingly, because what’s beyond is a mix of pollution and beauty.
The adventurers lose their sense of time and encounter impossible mutations, both gorgeous kitsch worthy of Lisa Frank and fantastic gore worthy of Francis Bacon. Though chompy, slavering beasties do pounce, Garland doesn’t so much generate suspense as stir up a sense of foreboding, a queasiness at what you’ll witness as the altered world Lena and the others explore reshapes them from within.
For all the spectacle, Garland seems to stretch for something more human, a meditation on why some people court self-destruction. But flashbacks to Lena and Kane in happier times merely provide sketchy justifications for their actions rather than successfully developing their characters, and Lena’s fellow team members are given insultingly cartoonish rationales—one’s an addict, one’s a cutter, one’s got a dead daughter, one’s got cancer. Portman attempts to suggest depth with a look of dazed concern that modulates into fear, rage, and confusion. Jason Leigh, intoning with hypnotically drowsy lockjaw, fares better, managing to suggest both the single-mindedness of Ahab and the pathos of Brando’s Kurtz.
Garland deliberately courts comparison with his betters here, and critics have already obediently picked up on those elements meant to remind us of Tarkovsky and Kubrick. But as in his directorial debut, the promising if overrated AI thriller Ex Machina, his brains can’t always keep pace with his ambitions. If Annihilation falters at the box office and becomes just a trippy midnight movie for zonked undergrads, its champions will claim it sailed over the heads of the cineplex hordes, who in turn will complain that it was slow and pretentious. Neither group will be entirely wrong.
Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson
Theater: Now showing, area theaters
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