The latest in a growing line of Netflix movies where the merits of the film risk being overshadowed by their path to the network, “Annihilation” gives the streaming giant arguably its highest profile ‘original movie’ to date.
When a meteor crashes to Earth on the south coast of the United States, its landing site and the area around it is quarantined. Multiple expeditions launched from the Army’s Area X facility into ‘the shimmer’ but none return, that is until Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns home after a year to his wife Lena (Natalie Portman), a former soldier turned cellular biology professor. When Kane suddenly becomes ill, the pair rush to the hospital only to be intercepted by the army and taken to Area X. In order to save her husband, Lena agrees to join a new expedition into The Shimmer led by Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Alex Garland’s follow-up to “Ex Machina” is a bold, uncompromising film but it’s that same lack of compromise that proves to be its undoing. It lacks the energy and dark whimsy of his cautionary tale of technological evolution and while it’s visually more ambitious, narratively it’s somewhat slow and meandering, especially for the first hour. Reportedly some of the changes Paramount were seeking centred around making Natalie Portman’s character more sympathetic and likeable and the studio may have had a point. Between Portman’s deliberately numb performance and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s oddly hostile and stiff turn, there’s a distinct lack of likeability onscreen for the audience to latch on to.
Both the film and characters come alive in the second hour, as Portman’s Lena loosens up a little and Tessa Thompson’s Physicist steps into the foreground to start unravelling the mysteries of The Shimmer. Visually, the closer the group get to the epicentre of the quarantine zone, the more beautiful and ethereal the visuals – which border on the iconic at times – become and, narrative framing device aside, the film gets stronger as the dialogue decreases until the almost wordless final confrontation between humanity and the alien interloper.
In rhetorically posing the question of whether there’s an intelligence at work or is this merely a force of extra-terrestrial nature, “Annihilation” offers us a clumsy and obvious homage to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” as well as nods to “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers” but, curiously, resembles nothing so much as a bleak, melancholy mutation of Ivan Reitman’s all but forgotten 2001 sci-fi comedy “Evolution”.
Thought-provoking, stylish but uneven and slow, “Annihilation” is a fascinating remix of sci-fi ideas and, although not all of its artistic choices work, we should be thankful that it was allowed to evolve unhindered and uncompromised.