Alex Garland wow’d movie watchers and critics alike with his 2014 Science Fiction/Horror indie Ex Machina. It made three times it’s budget and was a verified hit for the first time Director, even if this wasn’t his first foray into the movies. Garland is also the screenwriter of some very good films including Sunshine and 28 Days later and is the novelist of The Beach, which Danny Boyle adapted in 2000.
Garland knows movies, it’s very safe to say, and with Annihilation, he really seeks to boldly solidify himself as one of the best working directors in Hollywood. With looking at his past work it would be a safe bet to say that Garland fancies the Science Fiction genre, with most of it being routed to the larger humanistic themes one would find in the writings of Philip K. Dick or Robert Heinlein.
He continues driving towards these themes with Annihilation, which opens with Kane (Oscar Isaac) returning from a military operation in what is referred to as “the forbidden zone”. Lena (Natalie Portman) is relieved to have her husband home, but soon she is asked to assist with exploring the same forbidden zone that her husband was lost in for a year. When a medical emergency befalls Kane, Lena doesn’t have much of a choice and she feels compelled to venture in with a team of female scientists to aid in their search.
Visually there is a striking quality to Annihilation and while I’d like to celebrate it’s willingness to show a unique and creative vision, it feels largely false. The visuals are CGI’d to death, to the point of being oversaturated, style without any warmth of craftsmanship. There is such a thing as good CGI, used minimally and with a coherent story to back up it’s aesthetic. There were many long takes of the landscape, the trees made out of what appeared to be glass or crystal, attempting to capture the atmosphere of the forbidden zone.
When Garland attempts to add some horror elements it’s done in a clumsy and befuddling fashion. The woefully designed “monsters” that the team encounters are at points laughable in their function as well as the plot elements intertwined into their actions. There are so many design flaws and seemingly foolish execution missteps that it’s a wonder this has been so highly acclaimed and praised as a masterpiece of science fiction.
The dialogue throughout the movie is sparse and limited in it’s revelatory capacity, not giving much away in each character interaction. And that by itself doesn’t bother me. Some of my favorite movies have very limited dialogue and more is spoken in looks or facial expressions. But that isn’t the case in this film, the prose doesn’t work in a lot of scenes and the urge to laugh was difficult to stifle more than a couple of times. Some of the character insight had to be given away in spoken word conversation which feels forced and out of place where it could have been more fitting to use voice over.
These are just some of the puzzling choices by a very talented and visionary director, who’s 2nd film that stops just short of being an incoherent mess. I can appreciate the attempt to try to tie the convoluted story up with explanations throughout of a symbiotic, seemingly plant based, alien life form that ultimately absorbs everything and takes it over. There are elements from such films as Alien, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, and The Thing that stand out but Annihilation never is able to stand up on it’s own narrative to make much of a lasting impact. It attempts to comment on our own relationship with nature, with ourselves, with our planet.
I can appreciate all of that, but this attempt was just a big ol’ whiff of the bat. And to hit home runs you have to swing for the fences, if you have a vision you have to follow it. That’s what makes this art form so incredible, that if you have a dream you can put it on that screen and show it to everyone. The very best artists are constantly trying new things and swinging for the fences to show us their dreams, to show us what journeys they are ready to take us on.
This one didn’t quite work out for Alex Garland, but it was a bold decision, a bold choice to make this film which is the furthest thing away from being safe. This was a film that I was sold on, that I needed to see in the theater. It didn’t carry that weight for me as something I could recommend to fellow movie lovers to inspire a passion for it, it fell flat. But I’m glad that Alex Garland made this film at the end of the day at least it’s different, at least it’s something that tries.