HomeMoviesAnnihilation: A lot of Style. Some Substance.

Annihilation: A lot of Style. Some Substance.

Natalie Portman Tessa Thompson Annihilation
Photo Credit: Peter Mountain – © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Annihilation Plot Summary:

A mysterious void known as “the shimmer” is currently expanding, and previous expeditions to figure out what the disturbance is have resulted in disaster.  A biologist (Natalie Portman) and a team of scientists enter the void, which may hold secrets as to what happened to the biologist’s husband (Oscar Isaac), who also went missing in the shimmer.

If you ever wanted to see Guillermo del Toro, Darren Aronofsky and Terrence Malick infused into one director, then this is your movie.  You may read that sentence and say to yourself, “OMG.  That sounds like the greatest movie ever made.”  To be clear, it’s not.  Look, there’s a lot to admire about this movie, but it has problems. This is director Alex Garland’s follow up to Ex Machina, which everyone fawned over like a two-year-old at a zoo. While a good movie, it wasn’t perfect. Annihilation suffers a lot of the same flaws. The ideas are there, but unlike a Christopher Nolan or Denis Villeneuve who know how to channel BIG ideas with an emotional core, Alex Garland still has a lot to learn.

Let’s talk about that emotional core.  We are introduced to Natalie Portman, who plays a biologist at John Hopkins named Lena.  Lena’s husband, a military man, went on a classified mission and never returned.  At the beginning of the film, we see her as an emotional wreck.  It’s very cliché, and at times, overacted.  What’s so disjointed is that after the first twenty minutes, the movie becomes more understated and cold, which works for and against the film.

There’s a huge monkey wrench thrown at you early on, and from there, you are sort of invested in Lena.  She’s a cold, almost unlikable character, but that actually works for the film.  I like her edge, and the performance from Portman is very calculated.

The scientists she teams up with are also very similar.  These are completely broken characters that have dealt with a variety of tragedies, so it makes sense for them to act cold and distant.  The problem is when the film tries to have its cake and eat it too.  It feels off.  There’s a scene where Lena speaks with one of the fellow scientists, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), who completely unloads on Lena, but the conversation feels forced. The dialogue is very on the nose with a real awkward delivery.  If that scene was in the hands of Denis Villeneuve, it would have been better. Huge credit to Jennifer Jason Leigh who does a lot with very little as Dr. Ventress, the lead on the expedition. This is the epitome of elevating mediocre material.

Garland was blessed with a great cast that also includes Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson as the other team members.  Even though all the characters deliver their lines in a similar monotone fashion, I credit Garland for still being able to flesh out different personalities, even if they are very stilted at times.  As all these characters interact with the void, it reacts differently to who they are, which is one of the better elements to this screenplay.

Speaking of the void, we’ve avoided it long enough, but let’s talk about the main reason you would be interested in seeing this in the first place: What the hell is this thing? The answers are intriguing, but repetitive. This movie drags. A lot. There are long stretches where I started to lose interest, but to Garland’s credit, he always pulled me back in.  The problem is it’s the same formula over and over again. The team wanders around aimlessly.  They find a weird animal (not a spoiler, that’s in the trailers). They study the animal. They go to bed. Natalie Portman wakes up to observe stuff in a microscope. Rinse and repeat. The film does this three or four times. It’s a painfully slow progression.

Where I will give the film a ton of credit though are the visuals. They are absolutely stunning. Jaw dropping. If you want to talk about early Oscar contenders for Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography, you might be able to pencil these in right now. They save a lot of this movie.

There came a plot twist in the middle of the film with one of the characters that simply doesn’t work. The acting even falls flat. It’s a real Charlize Theron/Hancock moment. Thankfully, a fantastic visual effect comes in to completely disrupt this awful twist.  It was an amalgam of visual effects and sound editing that was like Jurassic Park on steroids. I would honestly recommend the movie for this one damn moment. Holy matza.

The ending perfectly sums up how I feel about this movie.  There comes a point where the film reaches a complicated, but logical conclusion. It’s a good ending. Alex Garland makes his point. Here’s the problem – he keeps going. It rambles on and on and on and on.  We don’t need this. It’s just an excuse to create more good visuals, but at some point, we need to wrap it up. The ending loses a lot of its power because Garland doesn’t know when to quit.

There’s a lot to admire about this movie.  Alex Garland clearly has a lot of talent, but he needs to learn how to edit.  He also needs to learn how to flesh out a character.  He tries to incorporate a subplot surrounding Lena and a colleague (David Gyasi), but it’s the most shoehorned subplot in the history of movies.  It adds absolutely nothing.  Oscar Isaac is also completely wasted.  When you waste Oscar Isaac, something’s wrong.

Thankfully, this isn’t as painfully ponderous as Prometheus, but it’s not as tight as Arrival, or packs the emotional punch of Interstellar.  For a movie that runs under two hours, I looked at my watch a lot.  That tells me I wasn’t very invested.  The score is great.  The effects are stupendous.  Sadly, it’s lacking in the substance department, but I’m confident Garland will get there.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (Slightly Better Than “Meh”)

Daniel Cohen
Daniel Cohen
Daniel Cohen likes movies and bagels, and that’s pretty much it. Aside from writing Box Office predictions, Daniel hosts the monthly Batman by the Numbers Podcast on the Breakcast feed. Speaking of Batman, If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.

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