Cinema: ‘Annihilation’ Is a Hollow Spectacle

Alex Garland is held in high regard by cinephiles, and for good reason. As a screenwriter, he's responsible for some of the greatest science fiction films of the millennium, including 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and the supremely underrated Dredd. As a director, his film Ex Machina is already being hailed as a minor masterpiece in the genre. With such a decorated track record, it was safe to assume that Annihilation, Garland's sophomore effort, and an adaptation of a sci-fi bestseller, would be similarly brilliant.

Alas, this is not the case. Not only does the film fall short of brilliance, it doesn't even approach decent for much of its lengthy runtime. What we're given instead is a beautiful cocoon of a film with an empty center, an exquisite canvas upon which nothing is painted. A film that, in its confusion of vagueness with profundity, has sold short many of Garland’s proven strengths, while simultaneously pointing out new, unforeseen weaknesses.

Annihilation opens as a meteor from outer space pierces the side of an abandoned lighthouse. It's effects are initially slight, though as we come to learn, the crash’s ground zero (dubbed “the Shimmer”) is expanding, causing refractions and mutations to everything-- and everyone-- in its path. Of the countless military personnel that’ve been sent in to investigate, only Kane (Oscar Isaac) seems to have made it out. Based on the reactions of his wife Lena (Natalie Portman), however, Kane is not the same man. He quickly-- and I mean quickly-- takes ill, and Lena volunteers to lead another group into the Shimmer in the hopes of saving him. 

If these points seem rushed or generalized, it is only because Garland stages them with a similarly haphazard pace. It’s never made clear what will keep the group from experiencing a similar fate as their predecessors, or why the group consists only of women, or why, given that Lena is the only one with military experience, they are all allowed to carry firearms. Never mind the fact that Lena being a biologist is treated as an added bonus for an expedition that should require someone with said background from the start. We’re clearly meant to be excited as we enter the labyrinthian Shimmer, but Garland puts so little into setting up the outside world that the transition fails to leave much of an impact. We simply move from one inconsistent environment to another, struggling to suspend our disbelief in both cases. 

Once inside the Shimmer, the film’s inconsistencies are compounded by lazy characterization. Lena is the only person with an iota of depth (flashbacks detail her marriage and subsequent affair), as she’s forced to play opposite women who are each given a single characteristic to play. Anya (Gina Rodriguez) is a paramedic and recovering addict, Josie (Tessa Thompson) is a physicist with suicidal tendencies, and Cass (Tuva Novotny) is an anthropologist who’s mourning the loss of a child. Perhaps fearing that we wouldn’t be able to infer these traits for ourselves, Garland has a character stop what they're doing and explicitly state them aloud. I’d say more about these characters, but the film doesn’t give me (or the actresses) anywhere near enough material. Every emotion, every realization they have seems as though its being recited instead of genuinely felt.

This psychological flatness is particularly odd given that Garland’s past work has shown him to be a writer who doesn’t rely on exposition to convey a point. Ex Machina was so effective because it chose its words carefully, and knew when to let certain moments linger. Annihilation falls flat by doing the exact opposite, by over-talking everything, even when there is nothing to be said.

It's no coincidence that the last thirty minutes, largely played out in silence, are easily the best in the film. It’s as if, after an hour and a half of filler, we’re shown a glimpse of the gem that might’ve been had Garland cut back on the exposition and cardboard characters. The visual splendor he evokes here is breathtaking, a congealing of the familiar and fantastic, the seductive and sickening. (One shot in particular stands out as one of the genre’s most impressive in years. You'll know it when you see it). Yes, there’s some clever reveals, but more importantly, there’s a sophistication to the storytelling, a genuine interest in the relationships, that finally makes them feel like worthy of our attention. It saves the film from being an outright bust, even if it can't erase the bland pontificating that came before.

Beyond a sort of muddled confusion, I cannot for the life of me figure out what Garland had in mind when making Annihilation. Like another 2018 release that took itself too seriously, Hostiles, it insists on being seen as important, without actually taking the time to say anything of importance. It looks nice, there are a few good scares, but that’s about it. One can only hope that Garland hit a sophomore slump, and that his days of telling stories without having his characters awkwardly recite them aloud will return.