“Annihilation” is the movie adapted from the first book in a trilogy by Jeff VanerMeer. It is a science-fiction look at a strange cosmic phenomenon created on the Gulf Coast by a bizarre meteor. Many miles around the lighthouse where it landed is covered by an other-worldly dome that they call “The Shimmer”. Every team of military experts that are sent in to investigate is never heard from again. That is, until he comes back…
Lena (Natalie Portman) is an ex-military vet who is now a biology teacher at a university. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is a Special Ops soldier who was on a secret mission but when missing. Kane turns up a year later, back at home. But he is very ill and falls into a coma. Lena and Kane are taken by the military to Area X, which the home of “The Shimmer’. That is where Kane and his unit had been sent, and nobody else has every returned.
Lena volunteers for the next mission, led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ventress is a psychologist who will lead a group of female scientists into the mysterious Area X. The others on the mission are Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Radek (Tessa Thompson) and Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). All are specialists and they want to unravel the mystery of “The Shimmer’.
However, once inside they discover that weeks pass by like days. The radios and even the compass are non-functional. All that they have are their wits and their wills. They must learn to trust each other, and trust in the mission. But when they find that nature inside “The Shimmer” has gone a little kooky, they feel that this has become a suicide mission. The things that they are encountering are becoming more insane, and more deadly.
Lena has her own mission, to find out what was going on with Kane when he was sent here. But the things that she finds out make her more disturbed. Dr. Ventress seems to have her own personal mission, while the others are being led down a path of potential human destruction. The final goal is to find the source of the mystery, which is near the lighthouse. But what can be found in there, and will anyone be alive to find out?
Alex Garland has created some fantastic screenplays in the past, and his first director effort for “Ex Machina” was superb. But here, he is constrained by the original material, and he makes some awkward choices. He has scenes with Lena being interrogated after the mission, and these are intercut with the overall movie. It is a trite excuse to explain or bring up some unknown fact. The scientific language about the event origins and what is happening are somewhat clunky.
Natalie Portman does a very credible job as Lena, with her military and science background helping her to cope. Almost all the other characters are basic movie stereotypes, with minimal depth or back-story. Even Oscar Isaac has very little to do, even when he is critical to the story. The worst off is Benedict Wong, who has to play the inquisitor behind a clean room mask.
This movie is however quite beautiful in how it looks and in the details of the alien environment. The soundtrack is also simple and unassuming, until it slowly builds up tension and suspense towards the end. The photography is amazing and also eerie as it goes deeper and deeper into “The Shimmer”. The story is good, but some of the ideas pull from other sources. Perhaps some parts resemble “The Day of the Triffids” and short story “Weeds” by Stephen King.
“Annihilation” is a brain-teaser, and that itself makes it a cut above most sci-fi movies. But perhaps the subject is a little too weird for most audience members. Let’s hope that “Annihilation” is not what happens to this movie in terms of box office revenue…