Annihilation (2018) by Alex Garland
Review by Jordan Collier
Alex Garland proved in 2014 that he knew how to craft sleek, thoughtful sci-fi with his incredible directorial debut, Ex Machina: a film defined by its smart, thought-provoking dialogue brought to life by its small, intimate casting. With the release of Annihilation, Garland sets his sights on a much more ambitious sci-fi outing. The endeavor pays off in brilliant ways, but I can’t help but think that Garland’s characters suffer due to this grander scope. Thankfully, the themes and imagery are strong enough to stay with you well after you leave the theater. Annihilation has incredible highs but has a tendency to drag its feet.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. Annihilation’s narrative is delivered through one of my least favorite tropes in the past few years. Any time a movie opens in an interrogation room and the first scene ends with a variation of the line “let’s start from the beginning,” it tends to trigger an involuntary eye-roll. For a movie that hinges on danger and the unknown, a lot of dramatic tension is lost when you know your main character survives--especially when they also give a laundry list of who did bite the dust.
This isn’t aided by the fact that even though the cast is relatively compact for a large-scale sci-fi feature, no characters are particularly humanized. Dialogue isn't as sharp as it could have been, and most lines are delivered in almost-monotone. This way of speaking makes sense for one of the characters, but the droll delivery doesn’t help when every other character is only putting a little more oomph in their reads. Efforts are made to give a half-baked subplot to Natalie Portman’s character around the 60% mark, but at that point it felt unnecessary and my attention was totally shifted to what is so strong about Annihilation--the setting.
In an attempt to be as spoiler-free as possible, I’ll keep this pretty vague. “The Shimmer”--the constantly-expanding, rainbow-hued no-man’s-land that serves as the movie’s central antagonist--is the springboard for every strength the movie has. It is as menacing as it is beautiful, and once the expedition traverses into its border we are treated to equal parts horror and allure. The movie’s color palette exponentially diversifies once we cross over too, complete with a subtle prismatic hue bathing every shot. Plants and flowers are every color of the rainbow, the vegetation that has reclaimed the land is lush and vivid, and even some of the fauna (in particular a brief encounter with a white deer-like creature that has colorful flowers blooming off of its antlers) baits you into ooh-ing and ahh-ing at how Edenic the whole thing is.
However, much to my surprise, this is very much a horror movie, and everything beautiful is contrasted by (and sometimes interwoven with) moments of immediate danger and/or existential terror. Remains of previous expeditions into the Shimmer can be found with opalescent fungus spreading from their final resting place. At the midpoint there is a creature encounter so tense that it left me reeling for the rest of the night. This all comes to a head in a 15-minute climax (underscored by what is probably the most synesthetic audio-visual moment I will likely see all year) that reminds me of Under the Skin and The Thing in more ways than one.
I hope we hear from Garland sooner rather than later, given that Paramount has dug Annihilation’s grave for it with questionable distribution practices. Despite it being set up for box office failure, the odyssey into the Shimmer is worth the price of admission alone, even if those going on the journey aren’t as compelling as the space they inhabit.