Alex Garland has slowly built up a cult following in the last fifteen years. He started out as a writer doing appreciated independent films such as 28 Days Later and Sunshine. He went more mainstream by writing and allegedly directing (according to Karl Urban) Dredd in 2012. The film surprised both critics and fans with its great writing and atmosphere. Garland now had the freedom to create his own projects, which is exactly what he did in 2014 when he released his biggest hit as a writer and director, Ex Machina. He’s back in 2018 with another well made and ambitious sci-fi film, Annihilation.
The film starts out introducing us to Lena (Natalie Portman), an ex-marine who is now a biology professor. One day, her presumed dead husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns from his secret mission, but he’s not the same as before. He quickly becomes deathly ill and is forcibly transferred to a military hospital. It’s revealed there that Kane’s secret mission was a recon assignment within a mysterious place known as “The Shimmer”.
The Shimmer doesn’t come from Earth and it doesn't follow the rules of our planet. Unfortunately for humans, The Shimmer is expanding and is seemingly inhospitable to us. Lena and a crew of fellow women must venture into The Shimmer to understand and stop our extinction.
The film can be described as action and sci-fi oriented. There’s an aura of mystery carried throughout that keeps us hooked as we beg for new information to be revealed. The women all receive the same information we get and none of them know more than us. This immediately connects us to their fate as we watch them embark on an expedition that could only be classified as suicidal.
The Shimmer itself is the best part of the film as it is treated as a central character. Within it, reality bends through spins on the laws of science. Animals are crossed between species, time is diluted, and cells react differently than what was thought possible. Everything is interesting to watch and think about, and it is all grounded enough to be believable.
Garland gives the film a philosophical theme about human nature and how we deal with the unknown. The whole way through we watch as Lena and the crew react to the unknown world around them. All the character react differently and some react more. It’s a careful examination of what about us makes us human and what separates ourselves from everyone else.
Garland has written a great premise with amazing atmosphere and setting, but he didn’t really write good characters for us to follow along with. Lena as the main protagonist is pretty good, but her supporting cast pales and is barely tolerable. Each of the supporting women in the group is all one dimensional and have little to no with original traits. I couldn't tell you their names immediately after hearing them.
The characters also didn’t have good chemistry and always felt too distant. I know the women didn’t know each other before the mission, but their relationship never felt developed.
Just like the characters, Natalie Portman is the only person here to give a good performance. She’s fully invested in the role and quickly adapts her performance with the circumstance. Her facial expressions are key to us for understanding the complex material.
Jennifer Jason Leigh gives one of her worst performances as Ventress, the leader of the expedition. She’s extremely onenote as the commanding officer and becomes frustratingly annoying by the midpoint.
Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny have all done better work than this as each feels way out of their element.
Alex Garland has created his most ambitious and interesting film yet, packed to the wall with sci-fi elements that constantly make you think and wonder. While he didn’t fill his world with interesting characters, Annihilation still ends up being a smart film that delivers on its puzzling promises.