Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist and college professor dealing with the loss of her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) a year earlier on a covert mission. While painting the bedroom Lena is startled to see Kane standing in the doorway. She is surprised and ecstatic to see him but he appears to be in shock and showing no emotion. She questions him about his mission, where he’s been and how he got home but Kane says he doesn’t know the answers to her questions. Soon Kane begins bleeding from the mouth and having a seizure. While being transported to the hospital via ambulance a military convey cuts them off and takes Lena and Kane. Lena is drugged and wakes up in a holding cell where she is met by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ventress asks Lena some of the same questions she asked Kane. She soon explains Kane is dying of organ failure and it may have to do with the mission on which he disappeared. Lena and Kane have been sent to a forward base that is just outside and area where Kane and his men were sent 12 months earlier. The area is surrounded by a translucent wall those studying it call the Shimmer. Every military team sent inside the ever-expanding Shimmer has been lost with the exception of Kane. As soon as they cross the boundary all communication is lost. In an effort to figure out what is going on inside the Shimmer, Ventress is leading a team of scientists plus a paramedic inside the anomaly. It is growing and may become a threat to more populated areas and possibly the entire planet. Wanting to know what happened to Kane, Lena asks to join the mission. Once inside the Shimmer, Lena, Ventress and the rest of the team will face plants and animals with enormous genetic mutations and the fear that they may be changing as well.
“Annihilation” is a film that challenges convention. It takes a staple of science fiction and turns it inside out (sometimes literally). It also doesn’t offer easy answers to the questions it poses letting the audience make up its own mind about what has just been seen. Many will not like having to do mental work when Hollywood so often spoon feeds audiences with simplistic stories and neat endings. That is likely why “Annihilation” didn’t exactly tear up the box office in its opening weekend; however, if this kind of film is something you’ve been searching for then you need to see it soon before it disappears from theatres.
Visually “Annihilation” is a masterpiece. From the prismatic effect of the boundary of the Shimmer to the mutations found inside to the look of the crazy ending, director Alex Garland has allowed his creative team to run wild and produce a spectacle for the eye. Part of what makes the film interesting is waiting for the next strange animal or plant to show up. Creatures that look somewhat like deer with flowers apparently sprouting from the antlers and a bear that absorbs the DNA of its prey and makes noises similar to their death cries are a couple that are featured with many more suggested. We also get a couple of ideas what can happen to humans in the Shimmer with some being more pleasant than others. The change to humans causes a somewhat predictable conflict within the team leading to one of the tensest and goriest scenes in the film.
Despite being telegraphed early on the conflict between the team members is understandable given the stressful situation. We are shown how everyone on the team is damaged in some way and that along with the effects of the Shimmer cause a level of paranoia. This adds to the tension felt practically from the beginning of the film.
That tension is heightened even more by the subtle and restrained performances by most of the actresses. Jennifer Jason Leigh is especially buttoned up as Dr. Ventress. Ventress appears to be paying a penance for her decisions in selecting the soldiers that initially entered the Shimmer. She is punishing herself by going into the anomaly and facing what the others have faced. Her cold demeanor rubs some of the other women the wrong way but she cannot be deterred from completing what she sees as a mission and a punishment of her sins.
Natalie Portman also is mostly reserved but she also expresses great pain as Lena. Her need to find out what happened to her husband and if there’s anything that can be done to save him hides guilt at some of her decisions in the past. We are shown flashbacks of those decisions and have a better understanding of what’s driving Lena deeper into the Shimmer.
Someone that is definitely not holding back is Gina Rodriguez as the Chicago EMT Anya. She expresses herself freely and to anyone within earshot. Rodriguez plays more of a type than a character but I don’t blame her for that. She is the representative for the audience, most of who would likely be screaming at the top of their lungs to get out of this crazy place. She is the common sense person every movie about crazy situations needs to keep it a little grounded.
While I enjoyed “Annihilation” a great deal I did have one problem with it: The movie fails to answer any questions the audience might have about what’s going on. I don’t mind a film’s story leaving a few threads dangling for possible sequels or to make the viewer leave the theatre with some questions; but “Annihilation” doesn’t answer any thing. Are we witnessing the beginnings of an invasion? What does the video Lena watch in the lighthouse mean for her future? Do the effects of the Shimmer last once it’s been left? There are more that would spoil the film but you get the idea. The audience has gone on a journey that is just under two hours and by the end we have no idea what any of it means.
“Annihilation” is rated R for some sexuality, language, bloody images and violence. We see a couple having sex but it is not graphic. There are a couple of bloody scenes including a soldier having a flap cut in his abdomen, a corpse with its throat ripped out and a person having their jaw torn off by an animal. Guns are fired on several occasions and there is a physical fight between two characters that becomes bloody. Foul language is scattered but strong.
Based on the first book of a trilogy, “Annihilation” covers only the events of that book. Perhaps, in the slim chance the others are adapted for later films, we’ll get answers to the questions this first film poses but I doubt it. With an opening weekend of $11-million at the box office and a troubled development with foreign distribution being sold to Netflix, it seems unlikely that any more of Jeff VanderMeer’s books from this trilogy will find their way to theatres. Perhaps I’m just one of those viewers expecting to be spoon fed tidied up story threads and happy endings. I like to think I’m more sophisticated than that but maybe I’m not. I still liked “Annihilation” but I just wanted more, and I hate this word, closure.
“Annihilation” gets four stars out of five.
Action and espionage are on the menu for movies coming out this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:
Listen to The Fractured Frame for the latest in movie, TV and streaming news. Subscribe, like, rate and review wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.