Film: Annihilation

Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation (2018) is stunning, ponderous, muddy, occasionally chilling, and rather ambiguous. I’m having a hell of a time figuring out if I liked it or not. Mostly I did, but I think I was hoping for it to have a stronger impact on me.

When a meteor strikes the earth in the southern U.S., it has a strange, transformative effect on the environment, resulting in a colorful, hallucinatory “Shimmer” which is gradually expanding to consume the landscape. When circumstances make biologist and former soldier Lena (Natalie Portman) privy to this baffling scientific mystery, she learns that several groups have ventured into the strange new territory, but none have returned. For personal reasons, Lena joins a scientific expedition into the Shimmer, its mission to travel to its source and figure out what’s going on. The resulting journey is full of beauty and terror, as Lena and her companions explore a perilous, strange, and mysteriously transformed environment.

Annihilation has a confident, eye-popping look and style; director Alex Garland of Ex Machina fame is definitely still on his game in that regard. The slow-building, adventure-horror atmosphere develops an engrossing momentum, thanks in part to a winning group dynamic among its primary cast: Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny, all quite good. The overall plot, on the other hand, is on the underwhelming side, fizzling down the home stretch as it fails to satisfyingly resolve the mystery. There’s definitely thought-provoking potential for fantastical metaphor as the characters confront dizzying, daunting change in various ways—a symbolic mirror, perhaps, of human reactions in the face of a frighteningly transforming environment. But I’m not sure the artistic message lands all that squarely, which left me less fond of the destination than the journey.

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