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Annihilation is an ambitious, fascinating, complex, beautiful and frustrating science fiction film. At times it is absolutely mesmerizing. At others, I was not entirely sure that writer/director Alex Garland was successfully conveying his vision. But it is always captivating.
Jewish actress Natalie Portman (who was born in Jerusalem) stars as Lena, a biologist and teacher who served in the army. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), is sent on a military assignment and does not return. She assumes the worst until he shows up a year later. But something seems different about him. Soon, Lena and Kane are grabbed by the organization responsible for his most recent mission. It turns out he was sent to a place called Area X, a mysterious space no one had ever returned from before, surrounded by a strange, shimmering barrier. Lena volunteers herself for the next expedition, being led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jewish actress Jennifer Jason Leigh), so she can figure out what happened to her husband.
The look and feel of Annihilation is very distinctive. Area X is creepy and beautiful. There is something not quite right about it, like nature itself is working against the intruders. There is the constant fear of a threat, even when there is no reason to think there is one. Somehow, every space inside Area X feels like danger, whether it is the open fields or the military base they make camp in. The way flowers grow makes for a fantastic and unsettling visual. And then there is the lighthouse, the central feature of Area X. Lighthouses are supposed to be beacons of protection for ships, but this one may not be so safe as it calls to those trying to discover the secrets of this land.
Annihilation is extremely compelling from start to finish. Garland has made a science fiction film that uses its premise to actually be about something. There are thriller elements, but the mysteries mainly take place inside the characters minds and, even more so, inside Area X. However, his attempts to explain Area X are not quite as successful. The ending came off as a bit of a letdown because of that and did not live up to the intriguing premise. The revelations are too easy and unconvincing.
Annihilation is an adaptation of the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer (the first book in a trilogy). It is not a faithful adaptation of the novel, which is not surprising since the book is not cinematic. Parts of the setup are similar as are some of the personal details of the characters. Tonally it feels like the same world. Garland did punch it up a bit with some action scenes and more specific character details. Though I am sure that this film will be divisive, it is more easily accessible than the book in that the protagonist is more relatable and events are a little clearer. But, having read the book, you can see how Garland arrived at some of his ideas.
Overall, Annihilation is a fascinating and thought-provoking exercise that does not quite deliver on its promise. There are certainly a lot of positives. The visuals are impressive, the pacing is great and Natalie Portman gives a really good performance. Between this and his 2015 directorial debut, Ex Machina, Alex Garland is becoming a really interesting voice in contemporary sci-fi cinema. Annihilation is 75% a great film and 25% an overly ambitious head-scratcher. But that 75% is enough to make me want to see it again. Maybe the next time, I will get a better grasp on the other 25%.
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews
Read Ben’s last movie review on Black Panther.