Is something burning?
One of the best signs that you have just seen a worthwhile movie is you want to see it again. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t sure whether you liked it or disliked it because bad movies almost never illicit yearning for a second viewing. Well, unless you are into ironic viewings of garbage like Evil Dead 2 or Rocky Horror Picture Show, in which case, you keep doing you. Annihilation is definitely worthwhile and I think I liked it, but I am not sure. Somewhere around the midpoint of the film, one of the characters explains what was happening to them and everything around them and my brain went “I am not so sure you have figured it out.” For the rest of the film, I tried to make sense out of the explanation and I may have smelled charred bacon at one point. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Think about it, but not too hard.
(SPOILER ALERT, but since this movie is based on a trilogy of books, I’m only mildly apologetic.)
After a year missing, special forces soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac) shows up at his home, scaring the crap out of his wife Lena (Natalie Portman). Kane remembers nothing about the past year, then quickly becomes violently ill. En route to the hospital, men in black grab Kane and Lena and take them to a secret facility called the Southern Reach. There, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) questions Lena, then recruits Lena to accompany her and three others, Anya, Josie, and Cass (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny, respectively), into the Shimmer, a region of swamp land that appears to be covered in a giant soap bubble. Ventress reveals to Lena that Kane is the only person to return from the Shimmer and suggests that an answer to why Kane is dying lies at a lighthouse inside the Shimmer where the Shimmer started (from a meteor strike). Ventress also makes it clear that their main mission is to get to the lighthouse to find a way to stop the Shimmer from spreading (which it has been doing for three years) and eventually enveloping the Earth.
Once in the Shimmer, the group experiences odd happenings (forgetfulness, rashes, paranoia, among others), as well as taking in sights straight out of Wonderland. There are crazy flowers and plant life, mutated animals that suddenly split into copies (think cell division), and a couple of large predators that will keep you from getting a good night’s sleep after watching the film. One beast in particular is terrifying, especially when it is fully on display in one scene (you’ll know the one).
That is not the nightmare beast.
Everything I have described so far is why you should see this movie, especially because this film asks you to think a lot. It is similar to Arrival in that things are not exploding every five minutes and you have to pay attention to what is happening lest you miss a detail. Cerebral science fiction flicks are my favorite kind of movies. The problem with this film is that it asks you to think a lot and it isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. For example, all five women have a specific vocation – psychologist (Ventress), biologist/former soldier (Lena), physicist (Josie), geologist/surveyor (Cass), and paramedic (Anya) – but those skills are used to the barest minimum, almost always simply to lend a modicum of credence to whatever exposition is being recited. Most of the time, they are just walking. At another point, the physicist tries to explain her theory that the Shimmer refracts everything, including DNA and that is why everything is mutating. This is also the point I mentioned earlier regarding my brain. It has been two decades since I studied physics, but I still remember how refraction works and that isn’t it.
That word does not mean what you think it means.
Luckily, the refraction explanation is minor enough that one can accept it and move on, but then, unluckily, you notice how thin Josie and Anya are as characters. Like every survival movie (which is what this movie really is), there are always characters who you shrug at when they die or almost die and Josie and Anya are those characters. We know their jobs and a nugget of their back story (thanks to Cass) and that’s about it. To be fair, Anya’s demise will evoke a response from you, but that’s because of the scene itself, not because you are invested in her character. Aside from Lena, the only other character who was interesting was Cass and I was sorely disappointed when she bought it so early in the film.
Having said all that, it is very possible I missed a bunch of nuance and subtlety due to thinking about refracting DNA and gaping at the gorgeous visuals in the film. Despite its flaws, the film is very engaging and there are some genuinely tense scenes that have you holding your breath along with the characters. I really do want to watch this movie again and, thanks to Netflix, I can do that from my couch in three weeks (much to the chagrine of director Alex Garland). Hopefully, a second viewing will calm my brain.
Rating: Ask for two dollars back and see if that scary-ass beast doesn’t haunt your dreams tonight.