Here’s some assorted snatches of conversation heard as people were leaving a packed preview screening of “Annihilation”: “What the hell was THAT?” “I kind of liked it, but it was too long.” “No, it wasn’t; it was too short.” “Man, I wish I was still doing acid.”
Any film that triggers that sort of talk must have something going for it. This one sure does, as is made evident in what happens just during the first few minutes. Lena (Natalie Portman) a biologist and former soldier, is in a hospital facility, being questioned by doctors wearing protective suits who want to know about her being the lone survivor of an ordeal. A flashback cuts to a large meteor crashing into a lighthouse on a beach. It’s revealed about a year has gone by since Lena lost her Army husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) on a secret mission. Then he shows up at their home, shell-shocked, unable to remember much, coughing up blood. Soon after, he’s grabbed by some military men, then she wakes up in a hospital. All of that in the first few minutes.
But before any questions can be posed — and don’t get your hopes up about answers — another mission is underway, a mission that proves to be a follow-up to the one that didn’t work out so well for Kane, or any of his fellow soldiers. But this one is undertaken by all women, five of them, all of whom have science backgrounds, one of whom is Lena.
This second film from Alex Garland, whose first was the odd but intriguing “Ex Machina,” doesn’t tell a military story. Rather, it delves into a combination of science fiction and horror. The reason these missions are happening is that the meteor that fell from the skies has caused some changes in our world. The area surrounding where it landed has taken on some inexplicable transformations. The misty air is dripping with psychedelic imagery. Trees and other plant life have changed shapes and are brimming with bright colors. Huge crystal formations have appeared on the beach by the lighthouse. Large animals have mutated into creatures you wouldn’t ever want to meet. Many men have gone in to what’s become known as the Shimmer, but very few have come out. Kane was one of the lucky ones (or was he unlucky?) to return. Now this quintet of smart and tough women, armed with lots of scientific knowledge and some kick-ass automatic rifles, is taking a turn at it.
The group leader, a psychiatrist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) intends to bring them through the dangerous terrain and get to the lighthouse where, she believes, there must be answers to what’s going on. Lena, keeping it a secret that it was her husband who came out last time, is determined to go in and find out what actually happened to the man she hardly knows now.
Garland fills the film with flashbacks to better times, but that gambit tends to take away from the story at hand. He also loads the film up with long periods of near-silence, then breaks some of those scenes with doses of extreme terror. Those parts work well, and fit in with the script’s ongoing air of foreboding.
The questions pile up, but the answers are rarely available. When there is one, it comes across like this: “The Shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything.” Nope, doesn’t make sense to me, either. But that’s fine. The characters in the film aren’t sure about what they’re looking for, so it shouldn’t bother anyone watching that they might not understand everything that’s going on. Toward the end, this one-of-a-kind movie does, as that moviegoer up top suggested, slip into what could pass as LSD territory. That could be a lot of fun for some viewers. For others, it could easily turn into a bad trip.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Written and directed by Alex Garland
With Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac