Humans are hardwired to self-destruct, Alex Garland glumly notes in his latest sci-fi thriller Annihilation, but as Garland also notes, that self-destruction can always use a boost from a mutated alligator. Like Garland’s movie, his general point begins with cryptic promise and then eventually devolves into silly shlock. The filmmaker aims for mind-bending intellectualism, but soon abandons the mission in favour of cheap thrills before puncturing its thin membrane of mystery by answering the movie’s cliched questions with a shrug and a wink.
It’s a strange result that grates against Garland’s reputation as an especially smart storyteller. Annihilation plays it cool and coy at first, but the plot that involves five women entering a forested zone infected by an extraterrestrial presence soon appeals to the genre’s lowest common denominator as Garland unleashes a series of jump scares and standard monster movie tropes.
There’s nothing wrong with being a monster movie, of course, but Annihilation’s issue stems from Garland’s itchy indecisiveness. He’s patient and methodical one moment and then suddenly eager to sacrifice one of his characters to a flesh-depleted bear in the next breath. It feels like Garland binged Tarkovsky’s filmography, gained some haunting inspiration, and then showed up on set and decided that what he really wanted to do was make a Predator movie.
Switching gears from Tarkovsky to McTiernan in a matter of minutes is certainly a bold choice, but one that seems to misplace the potency of either filmmaker’s strengths. While Annihilation shares a core conceit of people entering a mysterious area and becoming quickly disoriented with Tarkovsky’s Stalker, all of the poetry and mesmerizing mood of that masterpiece has been siphoned off and replaced with familiar scenes of people gunning down creatures while being hunted. Conversely, the monster elements suffer from a stop-start, staccato rhythm that fails to continuously tighten the tension.
Annihilation also attempts to rub shoulders with Tarkovsky’s Solaris as it provides protagonist Lena (Natalie Portman) with glimpses of and potential opportunities to be reunited with her thought-dead spouse Kane (Oscar Issac). Again, the comparison only reveals further flaws, since Garland continues to be too much of an over-explainer with too little faith in the power of suggestion to really extend the relationship element of the movie beyond cliched backstory drama.
He at least has great actors in Portman and Issac, who are both convincing with their chemistry in their handful of scenes together. Kane’s presence also lends Lena’s motivation a potentially punchy push-and-pull quality, since his own experience on the other side of what’s called the Shimmer (an intangible wall that looks like a pretty cascade of bubble solution) has left him clinging to life, which inspires Lena to enter the Shimmer herself so that she can find some answers.
Lena must walk away from what she loves and into the arms of danger so that she can restore order in her life. She makes the difficult decision to join a team of four other women beyond the Shimmer so quickly that we’re immediately convinced of her courage and optimism, two traits that surely proved helpful during her time as a soldier. Portman plays Lena with a no-nonsense toughness that makes her an ideal candidate to deal with the wonders and horrors that exist on the other side of the alien wall.
Once inside the infected zone, the team encounters biologically mysterious animals and much brightly coloured fungus, as well as video footage chronically the previous team’s descent into madness. It’s all eerie enough to be momentarily intriguing and the cast is strong enough and diverse enough to make their plight interesting.
But Garland steers that plight into territory that feels overly and unnecessarily derivative, disabling the element of surprise that is so crucial in mysterious science fiction stories like this one. Characters get picked off by monsters or go crazy with paranoia in what amounts to a series of box-ticking episodes fulfilling the subgenre’s checklist.
It feels like there’s room for so much more than just abnormally antlered deer and monster-mashing gore, so while the plot goes a little further than that in terms of its main theme (the one in the title), the issue remains that Garland’s attempt to fuse brain-tickling science with furious firepower sees the two warring forces repel each other more often than not.
The cast smooths the transitions, though, since Garland has assembled a great supporting team around Portman, consisting of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny. They each have their own distinct personality and purpose and even if Annihilation aspires to be little more than pseudo-arthouse Predator, at least it’s pseudo-arthouse Predator with an almost entirely female cast. Considering McTiernan’s pic is one of the manliest movies ever (it’s basically a battle of testosterone until it’s a battle of biceps), Annihilation going nearly all-in on the other gender is a welcome departure.
There’s also a third act that’s mostly much better than everything before it, a chance for Garland to reclaim the eclectic energy that he was trying to channel earlier. An extended sequence with Lena facing a humanoid creature is especially interesting in the moment because it’s both a visual and aural feast, while also being genuinely creepy. It’s here that Garland lets go of the plot just long enough to create something quite memorable.
Unfortunately, the moment doesn’t last forever. Garland wraps things up too neatly after the movie’s best sequence and still insists on attaching an aura of ambiguity to the back-to-predictable proceedings. The ending is an eye-roller when it could have been something far more intriguing had the credits just rolled a minute or two earlier. When you’re making movies about people facing monsters in mysterious lands, there’s an in and there’s an out. Garland follows the path, but he doesn’t quite reach his destination.