MARCH 26, 2018
“Annihilation” has almost everything.
The film adaptation of the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s best-selling “Southern Reach Trilogy,” “Annihilation” has received terrific notices (currently 88% favorable reviews on Rotten Tomatoes), an Oscar-winning star in Natalie Portman, lead characters that make up an all-female action force, and a hookable sci-fi premise shaped by one of the most visionary young writer/directors around in Alex Holland, who earned an Oscar nomination for writing his previous film, “Ex Machina.”
The only thing “Annihilation” is missing, however, is an audience.
In the past four weeks, “Annihilation” has grossed only slightly over $31 million in the U.S., which may sound like a lot, but consider the fact that this weekend’s new opener, the critically-derided “Pacific Rim Uprising,” made almost as much money in just three days.
It’s an enormous shame, because “Annihilation,” along with “Black Panther,” are probably the two best wide-release films out there right now.
Lena (Portman) is a cellular biology professor, a former U.S. Army soldier and now a grieving widow for the past year after her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) was deployed on a secret mission from which he never returned. One day, however, her husband suddenly reappears, which overjoys Lena, yet she soon notices that he has been completely drained of his personality. When he falls violently ill and is rushed to the hospital, his ambulance in which Lena is riding is hijacked, and they are taken to a mysterious Area X.
Lena awakens in a compound just a short distance from a forest which is guarded by a purple electromagnetic shield called The Shimmer, thanks to its moving psychedelic colors. She learns that her critically-ill husband’s mission was to penetrate The Shimmer as many others have tried, and he was the only one to emerge from it alive.
Lena is approached by steely psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is about to lead an all-female squad into The Shimmer that includes geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson of “Dear White People”) and paramedic Anya (Golden Globe-winner Gina Rodriguez). Anxious to discover what nearly killed her husband, Lena signs on, and the quintet arms up and heads into The Shimmer.
What’s key to the narrative here is not that the warriors are women but, in one way or another, all five are damaged individuals. As they head out on a mission that could conceivably result in certain death, their attitudes vary from “What have I got to lose?” to the realization that they’re embarking on a suicide mission and being at peace with that. Lena’s focus comes from a slightly different perspective — she needs to know what in The Shimmer did to her husband.
Although “Annihilation” is a monster movie in the sense that the tension is caused by not knowing what’s out there (similar to Ridley Scott’s first “Alien”), it shares with Garland’s previous “Ex Machina” a love of ideas. Here there is much about mutations, both in plants and in humans, as Lena looks at the man she loves and knows that he has changed into something else.
Don’t get me wrong — there are lots of genuine scares in “Annihilation,” with include encounters with a gigantic alligator and a saliva-dripping bear, which, when it opens its mouth, the voice of one of its victims calling from inside is clearly audible. And there enough moments when you want to yell “Don’t go down that hole!” (pictured above) to keep you engaged all along the way.
Garland only stumbles with his use of flashbacks, several of which try to flesh out the prior relationship between Lena and Kane (admirable if ineffective), as well as depicting an extramarital affair, which adds nothing and only serves to break the tension in The Shimmer story that Garland has worked so hard to build up.
Still, smart sci-fi like “Annihilation” doesn’t come our way very often. Though it’s a Netflix film throughout most of the world, it is being shown theatrically only in the U.S., Canada and China, which is a shame. For Rob Hardy’s gorgeous cinematography alone, “Annihilation” should be seen on the big screen everywhere. If you’re still lucky enough to be living near a theater where “Annihilation” is still playing on a big screen, by all means make every effort to catch it. You won’t be sorry.