“Annihilation” stuns with its impressionistic visuals and compelling premise, but it’s not enough to make it a science fiction classic.
In “Annihilation,” a mysterious object from space strikes the Earth in a burst of light. From ground zero, a glowing region of kaleidoscopic color expands. Everything within this zone, dubbed “The Shimmer,” enters an accelerated process of inexplicable gene transfer and mutation, leaving flora and fauna in disturbing disarray. The film follows Lena, a cellular biology professor, and a team of military-sanctioned scientists as they launch an expedition toward the source of The Shimmer.
At a molecular basis, all living things are connected. Life is just the constant rearrangement and congregation of building blocks that have always existed — from the stars, from this world, and from our ever-expanding universe. Genetics and the environment around us are closely interlinked, making each and every one of us unique. Our DNA is constantly changing as we age and our cells divide; these mutations beget constant variation as the cycles of life continue and evolution progresses. Emergent properties — the whole being different from the parts — then determine what we become.
So what happens when these fundamental laws of life are upended? What happens to humanity when the facets of evolution and the very DNA that maps out who we are become twisted and distorted?
What “Annihilation” does well is address these ideas with a subtle, slow-burning intensity. Borrowing from his previous film “Ex Machina,” director Alex Garland again demonstrates his knack for building a feeling of constant unease that permeates the film. This growing tension is paralleled by the slow mental unraveling of Lena as she realizes that reality is no longer the way she understands it.
Self-destruction hence serves as the central theme of “Annihilation.” It’s stated by the characters, stated in the title, and stated in the evident deterioration of all life throughout the film. But for all its commentary on the human condition and mental self-destruction, there’s no emotional substance. The main problem with “Annihilation,” then, is in how it depicts its characters. At its core, science fiction is a genre that constructs scientifically plausible scenarios in order to explore their effects on society or the human condition. The film explicitly presents The Shimmer as a tangible analogy for human self-destruction. And yet, telling us that these characters are struggling with themselves is not the same thing as showing it. For all its artistic appeal, there’s little to no heart actually present in the story.
The broken team of expeditioners that enter The Shimmer are all mentioned to be struggling with some form of depression or tragedy, but that’s about all we learn — we don’t really see why or even how. In many ways, the talented cast of “Annihilation” is heavily underutilized; we hardly see any real interaction between the women, and there are few moments that help us actually understand them. Instead, they seem only to be flat caricatures whose sole purposes are to act as plot devices and participate in shocking thrills when the story calls for it. Even Lena, arguably the film’s best developed character, is relatively two-dimensional. We see her shine in a few brief flashbacks involving her husband, but these scenes are few and far between. In fact, past Lena is so dissociated from present Lena that they might as well be two different people.
Nevertheless, there are definitely flashes of brilliance in the film, and “Annihilation” doesn’t hold back with its unique visual style. Certain sequences are immersively dreamlike, with vibrant color palettes and grandiose sound design. But artistic merit isn’t everything. The film is regrettably held back by an overreliance on horror movie cliches, ponderous scenes full of flair and no substance, and, ultimately, a lack of focus on character. At its best, “Annihilation” is beautifully cinematic and thought-provoking. At its worst, it serves as a prime example of science fiction that becomes so fixated on philosophy, it forgets about humanity.
If it is meant to be an examination of life and human suffering, “Annihilation” falls short. It has all the potential to be a compelling, science-fiction masterpiece, but the elements just aren’t there. The premise is intriguing and the action is suitably suspenseful — if only we cared about the characters.
Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac
Release Date: Feb. 23, 2018
Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures