A strange, unexplained light only known as “The Shimmer” has swallowed a small corner of the United States, spreading slowly each day, threatening to engulf the entire country and beyond. And after her husband disappears inside The Shimmer while on exploratory mission for the army only to suddenly return home one year later with a fatal condition, a soldier-turned-biologist volunteers to venture into The Shimmer in the hopes of finding a cure…in Annihilation.
Written and directed by Alex Garland, the man behind 2014’s hit sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, Annihilation shares only a passing resemblance to the award-winning novel it was adapted from. In fact, the movie isn’t so much an adaptation as it is a re-imagination of the same basic premise.
The most apparent alteration Garland made to the story is the biologist’s motivation for venturing into The Shimmer. In Garland’s version, the biologist, Lena–played here by Natalie Portman (and unnamed in the book)–is attempting to save her husband’s life. However, in the book, her husband dies of cancer before she joins the latest research team.
And while this might seem like a relatively minor change, it ultimately makes a huge impact on the overall plot and structure of the movie. Because instead of being a fairly straightforward, unsettling journey into the unknown by a woman struggling to cope with the death of her husband, Garland’s movie is a sloppy mess that cuts back and forth between a half-baked subplot about Lena’s apparently rocky marriage and a cliche, incredibly predictable horror movie that you’ve definitely seen a hundred times before.
MISSING THE PLOT
The simple truth about Annihilation is that while Garland manages to bring the same beautiful visual style to this movie as he did to Ex Machina, the story and overall experience is fairly lifeless, unoriginal, and shallow. There’s no time given to properly fleshing out the relationship between Lena and her husband, which not only negates the impact of the few flashbacks we get, but also cuts into time that could have been spent developing the mystery, allure, and danger of The Shimmer itself. Because we don’t get this dark, mysterious journey into some alien-but-familiar world. Instead, we get cliche, uninteresting characters bickering in cliche, uninteresting ways as they occasionally find something interesting but wholly pointless to look at. And then, it eventually and mercifully ends with a sloppy wink at the camera.
For example: the four explorers in the book are slowly broken down emotionally and physically by the nightmarish world they find themselves in and an unknown-to-them conspiracy set against them. In the movie, no such conspiracy exists. Nor do any of the characters organically breakdown over the course of the movie. Instead, the four characters are reduced to horror movie cliches–the main character, the nice one, the tough one, and the manipulator. And they’re all slowly moved around and removed from the board as you might expect from such a lazy set up, such as the “tough one” eventually snapping under the pressure and turning on her teammates.
And that would be fine, if incredibly predictable had Garland given us any reason to care about the team and their plight. This is a team of strangers, to each other and to us. And by the time it ends, they remain that way. There’s simply no reason to care about any of them. No time is dedicated to making us care.
Things certainly aren’t helped any by the painfully dull performances from Portman and her supporting cast. While Portman has given a number of delightful, subtle performances throughout her career–such as in her role as Mathilda in Leon: the Professional or Nina in Black Swan–her turn as Lena has all the nuance and depth as her performance as Padme in the various Star Wars prequels. She and the rest of the cast come across as if they were all heavily sedated during production. Nobody talks above a loud whisper for much of the movie. Nobody talks in a natural cadence, nor with much of any emotion. Nobody talks or converses like normal human beings–the dialog is all exposition or robotic, unnatural movie-speak. And nobody is believable as either a scientist or a soldier.
PRETTY BUT SHALLOW
The end result is a movie that is most definitely a beautiful audio-visual experience, but also one that isn’t really worth watching. Nor does it seem all too interested in convincing you otherwise. The characters aren’t interesting or engaging. The conflict isn’t compelling. The mystery is as ultimately pointless as it is disappointing. And while there are a few moments where Garland truly and gracefully nails the tension and horror the movie promises, such moments are buried deep in a pile of cinematic tripe.
If the worth of a film were found solely in its ability to consistently deliver beautiful visuals, haunting sound design, and general tone, Annihilation would be worth its weight in gold. But movies are more than just visuals or basic story structure. It’s also in the presentation of such things. In its ability to engage and manipulate the audiences into caring for even the most impossible moments or unlikable characters. Garland managed such things with his tale of a robot wishing it were a real girl. But he ultimately fails when it comes to this movie about a deeply-troubled woman volunteering for what amounts to a suicide mission.
Unless you’ve read the original novel and are dying to see someone else’s visual-stunning but emotionally lacking interpretation, Annihilation is a NO CHILL.