When I had initially seen the poster for this movie about a month-and-a-half ago, I made the decision to indulge in a few drinks and a long smoke before going to watch this film. It’s the first quarter of the year still, so there’s not much residue worth dusting off, making it an oasis for prime time bad movie viewing. Unfortunately, Alex Garland’s auteur sensibilities poked through Universal’s commercial mandates; muddling with a flaccid product until something interesting and overarching could be interpreted from it.
Based on a novel, and a recent one at that; funny considering Hollywood continues to further cut costs on investing in actual screenwriters, I suspect it translates much better over the course of its 208 pages, as opposed to the 115 minutes of screen time this film has been edited down to. My gut feeling is telling me Universal wants to turn this thing into a franchise, as Hollywood is want to do, but it’s only made $55 million dollars as of this writing; decent, but only two-and-a-half times its budget. If Universal wants to entertain us, they’ll spare us a sequel.
After a minute-and-a-half of Chris Stuckmann’s1 review of this film on his YouTube channel, it made me only more confident in my rather sullen feelings on the film. He said,
This is the kind of movie film nerds are going to want to get together and talk about.
I agree, but since he also (correctly) states we live in the era of the aggregated score; forgive me in advance for perhaps being too disparaging. Annihilation did not have good initial test screenings, leading Universal to think they had a film that was “too intelligent” on their hands. Ah, the old artsy director has a poorly received test screening with one of the more awkward actresses of our time as the lead? Must be the audience is too dumb to get it.
Whereas Warner Bros. loudly announced reshoots for Justice League, kindly letting everyone know months in advance the film would be hastily edited, Universal allows this smaller-scale filmmaker to hack away at what I’ve been told is a thrilling read. The female leads, starring Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, are unnamed in the novel, but they’re given names in the film to help the audience grow an attachment to them, or so film theory would have you dictate. Truthfully, when two of the crew members are mauled by a strange creature, and the other member of the crew has her DNA augmented into a plant-based life-form natural to this alternate reality, I felt no remorse; not very well-developed.
These three characters are thrown into the plot around the 45 minute mark; starting the second act. The pacing of the story is slightly off due to the cliché nature of the storytelling, where the main story is comprised as flashbacks of Portman’s character Lena being interviewed by scientist Lomax, portrayed by Benedict Wong. I found myself wanting to lose myself in this world, especially when we are shown the vibrant, regal colors of “The Shimmer,” or even during the wide shots of this mysterious world; Portman’s mediocre acting gives the entire film a serious problem with maintaining the gravity of the situation, or tone, if you will.
Film nerds, especially those who loved Ex Machina, will crucify me, but reflect on the film momentarily. What was really that interesting about the film? It’s 2018, so instead of a bunch of roided-up meatheads saving a damsel-in-distress, we get Natalie Portman carrying a gun without ever really using it, to discover what happened to her lover. The most thrilling scenes all involved Oscar Isaac’s Kane, and I’m fairly certain the only scene that isn’t him as a clone is when Lena watches the final video, when he records his suicide with a phosphorous grenade. The first video they discover of the previous crew is really grotesque stuff that I would actually recommend you go see; lest my words fail to translate the disturbing visuals.
I was expecting a bad movie, instead I received an ambitious film. Portman’s role in the Star Wars prequels has become metaphorical for her career, as her awkward line delivery and acting style is more suited for something like a Wes Anderson film, which unsurprisingly, resulted in a great performance in his 2007 short, Hotel Chevalier. The encapsulation of that awkward acting is best displayed at the start of this actual story, as the cuts between the “A” and “B” shots when Lena is speaking to Daniel are abrupt, not very smooth; awkward. This cast is talented, particularly Jennifer Jason Leigh, but the characters really aren’t that interesting.
Only the initial monster they kill is poorly rendered CGI, so kudos for not distracting us the entire movie. Instead, Garland uses interesting shots to progress the film along, because the plot is much more simple and exploratory than the public is being led to believe. Everything just happens in this world without a great understanding of why, and all these women are trying to do is understand it.
Rather than commit to a complete scathing review, I’ll use this space to praise the filmmaker’s ambition, as well as the cast’s talents. Condensing a book, or not striking the correct tone, can absolutely kill an adaptation before audiences can have time to let it gel in their mind. I slept on my opinion, and I say, people, please just think a little harder. Hollywood, give this one the Eragon treatment, don’t rest your film on Natalie Portman (unless this is Black Swan), and let’s go about our days. Annihilation doesn’t outright suck, but when you’re aiming to be an ambitious film that has to regulate itself to modern Hollywood standards, you’re usually left with something not terribly memorable.