When novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland made his directorial debut in 2014 with Ex Machina, I thought I was witnessing the emergence of a talent that could revolutionize high-concept sci-fi cinema. Now that I’ve seen Annihilation, I’m worried that I might have given him entirely too much credit. What could have been another exemplar of hard science fiction in the vein of Arrival instead comes across as a flaccid collection of big ideas poorly executed, like a slightly more mature tween-lit franchise builder with a substantial budget and a couple of A-list stars. There’s a reason that Netflix picked up the foreign distribution rights on this one — it feels tailor-made for the streaming market, the kind of thing that would ordinarily skip a theatrical release entirely.
If that direct-to-video dig seems a little harsh, it’s only because I had such lofty expectations for Garland. His writing has always been strong, and the visual sensibilities that he demonstrated with Ex Machina suggested a double-threat talent with a hefty dose of Kubrickian influence. Annihilation feels less like Kubrick and more like cut-rate Ridley Scott (which, coincidentally, would be current Ridley Scott). It’s not a bad film by any means, and it does have some inspired moments, but Annihilation’s poorly animated zombie bears are never going to equal the anarchic surrealism of Oscar Isaac’s android dance party from Ex Machina, at least in my estimation.
What does work here is the genuinely creepy atmosphere created by the film’s central conceit, the mysterious Area X. Also known as The Shimmer, Area X is a region subsumed by an alien presence that looks like soapy water and seems to eat people. Into that particular breach steps Natalie Portman’s Lena, a Johns Hopkins biologist whose husband Kane (Isaac) is the only person ever to have entered the Shimmer and returned. As details are slowly dropped about the nature of Area X, Lena and a crew of badass women led by Jennifer Jason Leigh mount what is revealed to be only the most recent expedition into this bizarre no-man’s-land, one that will almost certainly result in their deaths.
If Garland aped Kubrick with Ex Machina, here he’s leaning heavily on Andrei Tarkovsky. The unmistakable influence of films such as Stalker and Solaris is indelibly imprinted on Annihilation, but such comparisons don’t really do this film any favors. Directorially, Garland pulls off some impressive set pieces, but his script never quite measures up to the visuals. Many of his characters’ motivations are murky at best, some of their decision-making thoroughly inexplicable and all of their conversations insufferable. But the film skates by these flaws on the basis of Garland’s aesthetic acumen, and the result is either an eminently watchable B-movie or a particularly schlocky failure of an A-budget franchiser. Garland is likely to redeem himself with futures efforts, but the fact remains that my expectations for his work will be decidedly more tempered in the wake of Annihilation. Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality.
Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.