1 hour, 55 minutes
Big idea, trippy science fiction films have always been right up my alley, whether they be the one-two punch of “2001” and “2010” or the first of the “Star Trek” movies, the only one of those films that was more interested in cosmic concepts than in popcorn entertainment. Sure, I’ll always be a sucker for the “Pacific Rims” and “Terminator” films, but it’s movies like “The Fountain” or “Contact” that stick with you.
Unfortunately, these movies don’t make all the money, so studios don’t gamble on them that often. For every melodic, meandering masterpiece like “Blade Runner 2049,” you get compromised fan service like “Alien: Covenant.” That, or the movie gets shot on a shoestring and dumped on Netflix or iTunes with little or no fanfare.
That’s why I was surprised and pleased that Alex Garland was allowed at least a moderate budget and given a decent release of his latest, “Annihilation.”
Based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation” tells the story of four women who venture into the unknown to solve a mystery — into Area X, which has swallowed up dozens of prior expeditions. The area is bordered by a strange, invisible phenomenon that swallows up anything that crosses it. And it’s growing.
Inside Area X, the explorers find a bizarre, primeval environment populated by bizarre, yet oddly familiar animals. They also find a bizarre inverted tower and a lighthouse that seems to hold all the keys.
In the film, Alex Garland, who brought us “Ex Machina” before this, has substantially changed the details of the story, without losing the larger narrative. The women are now five instead of four, and the border is now a strange, shifting miasma of color. Once inside what the film calls the Shimmer, our heroines attempt make it to the lighthouse (gone is any reference to the tower) in hopes of stopping whatever is causing the strange remaking of the world inside Area X.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, in the book referred to only as The Biologist. One of the big changes Garland makes is to give the characters personalities and histories, something VanderMeer seems to be less interested in, caring more about archetypes and how the beauty and brutality of nature can swallow up our assigned roles. Here, the story is more about Lena and the relationship she had with her husband, victim of the last expedition. For Lena, crossing into the Shimmer is about reclaiming something lost. For her cohorts, as well, this is a journey of self discovery or self-immolation, depending.
I’m not as keen on some of the changes Garland makes in this film, but in this case, the characters are relatable and less cold and detached. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny fill out the cast, and each do a marvelous job with their roles. These characters are still kind of archetypes, but it’s not nearly as cut and dried. The gimmick of an expedition populated solely by women turns out to be a great idea, narratively. I loved watching these characters interact, their relationships so different than what we’re used to seeing.
I’m being deliberately vague, because a movie like this is best experienced cold. It goes places you don’t necessarily expect and the last segment, gorgeously rendered and shot, is something to think about in terms of the rest of the film.
Suffice it to say that the final climax of the film is certainly somewhat mindblowing, but not as surprising as I was expecting. I don’t know if that’s because I had read the book and had an inkling of where they were going with the story. This is one aspect of the film that I was not as pleased with. Garland chooses to draw back on the monumental import of the event that’s occurring, and focus more on the personal.
That’s fine, but I was waiting for the epic reveal and what I got, though pretty, was a little bit of a letdown.
It should be said that, for anyone who can’t stand horror movies, “Annihilation” may not be your cup of tea. There are monsters, both human and otherwise, and they are scary and unsettling. There is a fair amount of gore here, though not gratuitous, necessarily. I usually shy away from horror sci-fi, but this film has so much else to offer that I wasn’t turned off.
Though it wasn’t the unequivocal home-run I was hoping for, “Annihilation” was definitely worth the visit. The performances are great, the effects are stellar, and there is plenty to think about and discuss, a hallmark of any great sci-fi film.
There are two more books in the series, but it remains to be seen whether they will be adapted, considering that Alex Garland’s ending is drastically different from the one VanderMeer dreamed up. Who knows, though. If enough people go see this film, maybe they’ll work it out. I hope so.
“Annihilation” is rated R for gruesome violence and language.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.