By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
“Annihilation” may be more good-looking than good, but this mostly somber SF drama includes enough stunning scenery and mind-trip moments to be a must-see despite any pacing or plot problems. Imagine an Earthbound mash-up of H.R. Giger’s “Alien” production design and visuals by way of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but with a tone borrowed from 2016’s deadly dull “Arrival.”
Director Alex Garland, whose similarly slow “Ex Machina” also was better at CGI than logic, adapted “Annihilation” from the first-in-a-trilogy novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. Garland says he did not read the other books when writing the screenplay, which takes liberties including a not very satisfying new ending that one of the film’s producers wanted changed. Garland’s frustrating finale—which bears a regrettable resemblance to that of a certain not-exactly-obscure music video—remained intact.
“Ex Machina” star Oscar Isaac appears here as Sgt. Kane, who has been out of contact with his biology professor wife Lena (a blankly shellshocked Natalie Portman) for a year after leaving on a secret mission. His unexpected return, with significant mental and physical issues, leaves Lena with more questions than answers. When both of them are abducted from an ambulance by the military, Lena awakens in a research facility monitoring an “Area X” quarantine zone nicknamed the Shimmer, where something from space has caused the laws of nature and physics to go haywire. Turns out it was hubbie’s trip into that weirdness that messed him up…and the weirdness is spreading.
Lena joins psychologist Dr. Ventress (a hauntingly grim Jennifer Jason Leigh) and three female scientists on a mission into the zone. The weakest member of that unlikely team is Gina Rodriguez (TV’s “Jane the Virgin”) as Anya, a lesbian paramedic whose portrayal of a psychotic paranoid episode is hammily unfortunate.
The imaginatively mutated flora and fauna they encounter range from benignly beautiful (such as deer-like creatures with leafy “plantlers”) to dangerously horrific (a monstrous alligator-shark hybrid), in settings that include overgrown forests, ominously abandoned buildings, a crystal-sprouting beach and a terrifying lighthouse. Because Lena recounts her tale in flashbacks intercut with the journey from which she has returned, however, the story is robbed of some will-she-make-it-out-alive suspense.
Annoyingly, the script has characters stop watching video files featuring Kane that they find along the way not once but twice, which makes zero sense. Hard as the footage may be to watch, how could anyone searching for answers to such an incredible mystery decide that they are better off not seeing everything Kane thought was important enough to document? Another problem involves the matter of how Kane made it all the way back home in the first place, since it’s kind of hard to imagine him navigating public transportation in his nearly catatonic condition. It’s also odd that we never see anyone in the movie make any attempt to communicate with the life force in the Shimmer.
The biggest flaw, however, is a climax that may bring to mind “Battlefield Earth,” which can’t be a good thing.
One side effect of the Shimmer is that time moves more slowly there than in the outside world, which is a quality the zone has in common with the movie itself. Although “Annihilation” clocks in at under two hours, it feels considerably longer. On the positive side, many of its unforgettable images—all the way from dreamlike landscapes and colorfully dividing cells to frightening new life forms— may stay with you forever.