In the late 2010s, science fiction as a film genre has seen something of a renaissance, with critically acclaimed releases such as 2016’s “Arrival.” The film is an excellent example of the genre’s ability to touch on complex, profound ideas through intensely personal human stories. Director Alex Garland seemed to have tapped into this concept with his 2015 directorial debut, “Ex Machina.” Garland displayed a unique tact for developing characters in fascinating ways, all the while tying those characters up in the story being told. Garland’s follow-up release, 2018’s “Annihilation” seemed set to be another example of intense, character-driven science fiction.
The film tells the story of Lena (Natalie Portman, “Song to Song”), an ex-military biologist whose husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), suddenly reappears after having vanished for more than a year into The Shimmer, a mysterious jungle that appeared on a United States coastline after a meteor strike. When it becomes apparent that The Shimmer left Kane terminally ill, Lena teams up with four other scientists –– all of them women –– to investigate The Shimmer in hopes of finding a cure.
Unfortunately, the result is a mixed bag. Perhaps the film’s greatest hindrance is its ambition. Over its runtime, it becomes apparent that the film was adapted from a novel, lacking the room to breathe and explore characters and ideas that a book offers. In just two hours, the film must characterize and develop all five of its scientist protagonists, tell a compelling story and touch on concepts concerning what it means to be human. As a result of its extensive to-do list, the film ends up accomplishing none of these things outright.
The area where this is most apparent is in its characters; simply put, the film lacks heart. Alex Garland’s last film, “Ex Machina” was able to devote ample screentime to developing its three-person cast. With five characters to juggle –– six including Kane –– Garland struggles to find a way to make us care about the characters. The film reaches its emotional peak about five minutes in as we see Lena tearfully paint the bedroom she once shared with her missing, presumed-dead husband while listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping.” It’s a tender and moving scene, but one that ultimately leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, because this is the most we’re going to get in terms of characterization for Lena. She, and the other four scientists investigating The Shimmer, are characterized almost exclusively by their past trauma. The film lacks either the time or the will to make its characters anything more than shallow archetypes.
Despite this, there are flashes of brilliance throughout. The film’s third act, titled “The Lighthouse,” is some of the most breathtakingly stunning filmmaking this year. This is where the film rolls up its sleeves and flexes its muscles, showing its audience the payoff of all the tension and mystery it had been building up. There are select scenes throughout “Annihilation” that serve as the gold standard for drawing audiences in. The film caused me to physically react on numerous occasions; my jaw hung open, I gasped, I covered my mouth in awe. In terms of building visceral, gut-twisting situations, Garland proves himself as a master.
In the end, however, this isn’t enough to distract from the fact that the film doesn’t come close to satisfying in the end. “Annihilation” poses some massive questions concerning human nature, individuality and death, but ultimately fails to answer –– or even address –– these concepts in any meaningful capacity. Garland is aware these questions exist because the film actively strives to avoid addressing them. Instead, it feigns profundity with intense visual spectacles and vague dialogue that seem to trick audiences into thinking they’ve witnessed something meaningful. Films that ask big questions don’t necessarily have to answer them, but they have to give audiences something substantive. By the end of “Annihilation,” it felt like the film had thrown up its hands and shrugged.
Ultimately, it isn’t a bad film. You’ll see some crazy stuff, but it won’t teach you much of anything; that doesn’t make it bad, but it is a disappointing offering from a director who’s proven he can balance substance and shock value in the past. At times absolutely brilliant and at times shallow and glib, “Annihilation” feels like it’s constantly reaching for some kind of profundity which, despite trying in an intense and spectacular fashion, it never truly manages.