by Greg Vellante

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday February 23, 2018


There's a lot to marvel about Alex Garland's "Annihilation," a wonder that is strictly limited to the film's imposing visual output. Set primarily within an elusive land known as "The Shimmer," Garland's film is filled with aesthetic playfulness and imaginative flair, a feat that is easily accomplished when your story is based in a land where the laws of nature don't apply. "The Shimmer," essentially, is an area surrounded by a mysterious enclosure of refracted light -- akin to what you would see when an oil slick and a rain puddle mix.

As a result, creatures in the affected land are subject to strange genetic phenomena. Giant alligators bear shark teeth in addition to their own dental structure; plants grow into the molds of human bodies; deer roam with antlers that resemble florae-covered tree branches. Exploring "The Shimmer" are five female scientists -- Lena, a biologist (Natalie Portman); Dr. Ventress, the expedition's leader (Jennifer Jason Leigh); and, rounding out the crew, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Cass (Tuva Novotny). The mystery being solved is what happened to the last group of soldiers who entered "The Shimmer," a mission that ended with only one soldier returning -- Lena's husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac).

The inventive imagery on display is a surrealist playground for Garland to explore, but despite the film's fully-illustrated visual prowess, its ideas are thinly-drawn pencil sketches by comparison, and ultimately become erased by unreached intentions. The "annihilation" turns out to be Garland's ambition, which becomes more and more distant from the filmmaker's grasp as his story progresses and collapses into pseudo-deep, pretentious bullshit.

It was a similar problem with Garland's debut film, "Ex Machina," a claustrophobic thriller about the dangers of artificial intelligence, but at least that film managed to stick the landing (for the most part) while executing its bold ideas. "Annihilation" is the opposite -- it presents the viewer with far more to think about, many more puzzles to decode, and as such will be deemed by many as some type of intellectual masterpiece.

But the film is so full of itself that it eventually implodes into unintended silliness, especially in a bonkers third act that juxtaposes aesthetic perplexities with meditations on self-destruction, biological chaos and the inexplicable beauty of annihilation (there's a howl-worthy moment where Jennifer Jason Leigh gets to utter this titular term in a scene that quickly goes off the rails and enters bizarro-land). During the film's curious and chaotic climax, the audience was a mixture of those in chin-stroking, silent rumination and muffled snickering. I'd be inclined to side with the chucklers. When a science fiction film's cerebrally-ambitious finale has me thinking primarily of The Gimp from "Pulp Fiction," something is very wrong.

It's a shame, because "Annihilation" is often filled with moments that suggest the potential for a far greater film, and even a masterful one. But the final result here is an unfocused mess, despite ephemeral instances of genuine horror and gore that admittedly left me shaken. Its cast is hit or miss (Leigh seems bored out of her mind, while Rodriguez gives a stellar performance), but the greatest crack in "Annihilation's" design is its unfulfilled questions and an intellectualism that ultimately comes off as a sham.

Close to the film's ending, Natalie Portman's Lena is bombarded with a series of questions by men in hazmat suits, all of which are answered with "I don't know" and "I'm not sure." That's just not good enough, and even though people will argue that the film's ambiguity is its greatest strength -- it isn't.


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