Natalie Portman Starrer "Annihilation" Too Grandiose For Its Own Good

With acutely self-serious sci-fi horror pic “Annihilation,” talented writer-director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”) seems to be actively campaigning to be in the same conversation as the late Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, working in similarly weighty strokes of existentialism. By the time the end credits roll, Garland’s made it – albeit in the same way Stephen Soderbergh did with his ditchwater-dull re-d0 of Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.” (The 2002 remake remains arguably a low point in the “Traffic” Oscar-winner’s career.)

Adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel of the same name, “Annihilation” also shares DNA with more recent, superior science fiction films such as “Under The Skin” and “Arrival,” all alien-tinged yarns spun with visual gusto. Except unlike those pictures, Garland has precious little room for coherence or sentiment – only survival horror tropes and basic, broad abstractions that are about as insightful as a self-administered inkblot test.

The film’s opening is promising. Before flashing back to the bulk of the narrative, Garland paints a clear picture of his protagonist: a Johns Hopkins biologist and former soldier named Lena (Natalie Portman) who’s being debriefed about her time spent in “the shimmer,” a mysterious iridescent presence that’s slowly swallowing up coastal land. Many have entered the shimmer. Only two have returned: Lena, the sole survivor of an all-female expedition (characters played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny), and Lena’s soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who went in previously. He was thought dead for a year, only to suddenly return home and fall into a coma.

What follows is two-thirds conventional (a relatively straight survival horror story) and one-third unintelligible (a superficially high-minded finale), which may require more effort to parse than it did to conceive. Unlike in the aforementioned “Under The Skin,” whose stunning denouement echoes loudly here, “Annihilation” pins itself into a tonal corner where things like wit and wonder aren’t allowed to exist – only preening ontology. We’re meant to derive some deeper meaning from the prismatic imagery that occupies the shimmer, but Garland’s starchy, exposition-heavy dialogue undermines the visuals at every turn.

The relentlessly somber tone here also calls to mind last year’s “It Comes At Night,” a movie every bit as sure of itself but far more surefooted in the execution; it required none of the computer-generated imagery or monster movie setpieces. Ironically, the few scenes where “Annihilation” is at its simplest – Lena et al hiding from mutant animals – are its most effective. They’re taut sequences where the stakes feel tangible, even if we know the rest of the team won’t survive them.

Garland’s “Ex Machina” wielded an equally murky third act but didn’t lean on gore to get there, its surfeit of idiosyncrasies (see: Oscar Isaac’s unforgettable dance number) carrying it through to the end. “Annihilation” isn’t so fortunate, following a generally straight line to a scrambled climax it doesn’t come close to warranting. That a talented cast wastes away as cannon fodder (Isaac’s Kane is hardly more than a plot device, the actor’s screen time not registering at all) makes the fall even harder.

The hazy ambiguities of “Annihilation” might appeal to some, and there are a few genuinely hair-raising moments along the way. But the movie’s tug-of-war between thrills and fuzzy philosophical waxing results in something much too close to a zero-sum game.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: February 23, 2018
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Alex Garland
Screenwriter: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality)