Alex Garland and Denis Villeneuve both seem bound and determined to change how science fiction movies are made. The past has largely been big epics, like the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. However, on the fringe has always been more subtle movies, like Gattaca or Her, that was more than mythmaking and laser battles. Science fiction fans, despite what some grumpy old English teachers used to think, are largely drawn to the ideas presented and where the author goes with the ideas rather than grand action scenes. That is what made Gattaca such a breath of fresh air. I just wonder why it took another 20 years for someone to get the point.
Garland's Ex Machina helped to set the tune, and it did reasonably well enough to let him adapt part of a series of books called the Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff VanderMeer. I guess adaptation is the best word, because Garland stated he just used the parts he remembered. The rest, intentional or not, plays out like a modern remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker.
Lena (Natalie Portman) has been grieving for a year over her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who is missing and presumed dead. She knows little of the mission he was sent on, but is trying to move on with her life. That is, until he suddenly shows up, with some sort of special ops team on his heels.
Lena is taken to an outpost called Area X, in a place called the Southern Reach - what looks like sparsely populated Southern swampland - that has been changing due to an event called the Shimmer, brought on by a meteor strike. The Shimmer is advancing, which is a concern since anyone sent in has failed to return - save Kane, who seems to have come back deathly ill. Lena agrees to accompany Area X's command officer, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), along with a small group of military scientists to try to reach the lighthouse where the meteor struck and where the Shimmer is believed to have originated.
While things start uneventful, it soon becomes evident that animals and plants, including humans, within the reach of the Shimmer are being radically altered on the genetic level. As the danger mounts, both Ventress and Lena become more determined than ever to reach the lighthouse for their own reasons.
The story is about a first contact scenario, only with no real knowledge of what we may be contacting or how it may affect us. Personally, I was rather surprised to find it more like Stalker as it went on. Although there is no door behind which you are granted your biggest desire, both Ventress and Lena have reasons for wanting to see what is in the lighthouse - the former to know and understand, the latter to see if there is any way of reversing her husband's condition. In truth, from the description, I thought it was going to be more along the line of a book I had read whose name escapes me where a sudden event alters are large section of Europe in quite a similar way and people are sent in to explore.
Like in Ex Machina, Garland doesn't go overboard with the special effects, using a combination of practical and digital that routinely blends seamlessly. He also manages to to bring one of the scariest creatures I have seen in a long time to the screen - a mutated bear creature that gains some rather shocking hunting abilities. Still, perhaps the most striking visuals were a hybrid plant growing from a corpse and a forest of crystal trees.
Where Annihilation begins to fall short is in a place where many science fiction novels, including classics, tend to do so as well. Lena is given guilt and a husband to pine over, but really that's about all the character she has. She's determined and mopey. The dead spouse or dead child is such a worn out trope that I don't understand why writers keep going back to it for motivation. I also rarely see characters in books or movies reacting to grief the way most people do in real life. The other members of the team, including Ventress, are not really given more than the base motivations for being there, and largely serve the same function as a bunch of teenagers in your average slasher film.
Still, when we get to the meat of what is happening toward the end, it really doesn't matter that the characters are just there to move things along. There are enough ideas presented throughout that the questions it raises about the nature of life and consciousness still resonate. In the end, good science fiction, particularly hard science fiction, is more about ideas and different ways of looking at the world and the universe. In this way Annihilation succeeds in telling its story and framing its points.
Time: 115 minutes
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotney, Tessa Thompson
Director: Alex Garland