"Annihilation" (2018) Review
It's this year's Arrival, but Arrival is a better movie.
If you saw Arrival in 2016, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you haven't, here's a brief re-cap:
Arrival was a film about a woman's efforts to decode an alien language as aliens mysteriously show up on Earth with no explanation. As the woman gets closer to decoding the language, she makes a stunning discovery about the language and how that language informs the way the aliens think.
What made Arrival such an odd film wasn't that it was a high concept sci-fi film, but that it had so much talent attached to it. In recent years, high-concept sci-fi films have been banished to the world of independent filmmaking due to budgetary constraints. Arrival not only was backed by a major studio, but had major talent in front of and behind the camera with Denis Villeneuve directing and Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker starring in major roles. The end result was a masterfully directed and acted film that had a high concept ending that's straight up one of the best in recent sci-fi memory. I'll get around to writing a full review for it someday, but just know that it's really fantastic.
Which brings us to Annihilation, which also features prominent talent behind the camera and in front it while tackling a high concept sci-fi concept. Sort of.
The "sort of" caveat is that while Annihilation ultimately plays with high concept sci-fi ideas by its end, the set up (and some of the payoffs inside the film) feel like they're straight out a 1950s B-movie (or a 1980s B-movie that was an homage to a 1950s B-movie). In the present day, Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist at John Hopkins and a former member of the U.S. military. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is still an active member of the military and has been gone for nearly a year after taking a mysterious tour of duty.
Out of nowhere, Kane reappears in Lena's house, falls ill, and through circumstances beyond Lena's control, they both end up in a research facility. It turns out that Kane was one of the members of an expedition into a part of the country only known as "The Shimmer." This is where the B-movie plot elements kick in. Three years ago, a meteor crashed into lighthouse, and the surrounding area has been slowly swallowed by The Shimmer. Drones have never left The Shimmer, and no one has ever returned from an expedition until Kane, but he's not exactly in the best shape.
Lena is determined to get answers and ends up joining an expedition into The Shimmer with a psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), a paramedic, Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez), and a geologist, Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). And the deeper they move into The Shimmer, the more they begin to truly understand the nature of this brand new world they've stepped into.
What unfolds is part paranoid sci-fi thriller and part high concept sci-fi. There's a lot of talk around Annihilation's ideas and while I do think they're fairly high concept and pretty damn interesting in their own right, Annihilation isn't a movie with no answers. It's not so ambiguous that you'll leave the theater not understanding anything that's happened, but it does leave parts of itself open to interpretation. That's the most impressive balance that Annihilation hits, the fact that it manages to explain just enough about how The Shimmer has managed to alter so much of its environment but still leave portions of the story up to the audience.
The end result is one of the few major studio sci-fi films I can think of that wrestles with difficult ideas about forces that don't view themselves in any moral light, but just are and will be, no matter what we do. The Shimmer of Annihilation is a terrifying place, but it's not meant to be, and by the story's end, it becomes clear that The Shimmer might not view itself as anything at all. The Shimmer may just be a process, or maybe it has a consciousness all its own. Annihilation plays with the kinds of ideas that 1970s high concept sci-fi used to play with in films like Andrei Tarovsky's Solaris.
But Solaris doesn't have a shark/crocodile mutant, and Annihilation sure as hell does.
That's the other portion of Annihilation, the B-movie portions that draw more on scary monsters and nasty body horror. The film does a pretty good job working these nightmarish bits into the film's structure, but they do occasionally feel at odds with the rest of the movie, especially when some of the characters start to give into other B-movie tropes where a squad slowly falls apart. The film executes the tropes well enough, but you just can't help but wish the tropes were replaced with something slightly higher in concept.
The actors all perform remarkably well, especially with the nature of the material. The performances are pretty stripped back, but they manage to pack in a lot of emotion where it counts. Oscar Isaac in particular really reins his natural charisma in for a few scenes, but those scenes work like a charm. Honestly, the weakest link in the acting side of things is surprisingly Jennifer Jason Leigh of all people. She's pretty good, and by the end she delivers a damn good bit of acting, but in the lead up she's barely a presence in the movie.
One of the highest marks I can give Annihilation are its visuals though. The film is distinctly split into three sections, Area X (inside the research facility), The Shimmer (self-explanatory), and The Lighthouse. Area X is appropriately sterile, but the cinematography finds all of the best angles to take advantage of the harsh structure. The Shimmer is pretty damn good looking for the most part, and while some of the forest imagery becomes repetitive, the increasing mutations in animals, plants, and constructs always manage to fascinate. This is especially true of the animals in particular, and while the shark/crocodile is cool, what The Shimmer does to a bear is just... Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.
Then there's The Lighthouse. It's no spoiler to say that Annihilation's whole story is figuring out what's at the center of The Lighthouse, and I'll just say this: What's at the center is one of the coolest looking things I've seen in a sci-fi movie in ages, the kind of thing that's utterly gorgeous and creepy to look at.
That's a lot of great stuff right there, you have creepy as hell monsters, incredible world design, some truly inspired visuals, really solid acting, good cinematography, high concept sci-fi ideas, and a pretty great musical score to top it all off.
I obviously enjoyed Annihilation, but it does feel a bit hollow. The film tries its hardest to build out the characters into more than tropes, and while it mostly succeeds on Natalie Portman's character, it kind of fails on most of the others. Again, they all perform well enough to fill the vacancy present in the script, but I kind of wish the movie was a bit longer if only to flesh out the characters a bit more. Oscar Isaac's character of Kane spends most of the movie in flashbacks, a hospital bed, or on video cameras that are salvaged throughout the expedition, and he feels far more fleshed out than a few members of the new team. He's important to the whole story, but still. It's kind of disappointing.
Weirdly enough, one of the most standout performers is in the film the least of almost any named character. The film is told entirely in flashback as Lena is being debriefed by a man in a hazmat suit named in the credits as Lomax (Benedict Wong). Benedict Wong is a really underrated actor (he's recently been featured in The Martian and Doctor Strange) and he brings an extreme intensity to his performance. He's technically not even much of a character, but Wong puts everything he has into the role.
By its end, Annihilation is super solid high concept science fiction with dashes of creature feature horror and body horror, but all of those things stretch it a bit thin. I still really recommend seeing it if any of those individual things (high concept sci-fi in particular) appeal to you, but be warned that you may not walk away with concrete answers and you definitely won't walk away with a deep sense of immersion in the characters.
All of that aside though, I just want people to see what's in The Lighthouse. It's seriously one of the coolest things I've seen in a movie in ages and that's probably worth the price of admission alone.