Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, I was initially very intrigued by the trailers for “Annihilation” and had a great deal of promise. I was especially excited by the premise of a female lead in a science fiction film. Natalie Portman is a talented actress with the skill to play such a complex character. While the visual elements are elegantly designed and Portman breathes life into her character, the promise of the movie falls apart due to lack of development of both secondary characters and story.
Written and directed by Alex Garland, the story begins with a group of soldiers entering an environmental disaster zone called The Shimmer, caused by a meteor striking down to earth. One soldier comes back alive, Kane (Oscar Isaac) and returns home to his wife Lena, grievously wounded. Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and ex-army, decides to enter the zone to attempt to figure out a way to save Kane. She joins an expedition with consists of the Dr. Ventriss (Jennifer Jason Leigh), leader of the expedition, Gina Rodriguez as Anya Thorensen, a paramedic, Tessa Thompson as Josie Radek, a physicist and Tuva Novotny as Cass Sheppard, an anthropologist.
The group journeys into the area, encountering mutated plants and creatures while trying to solve the mystery of what is causing the transformations and disappearance of all the other expeditions. The story is interwoven with scenes of Lena’s life with Kane as well as her containment after she escapes The Shimmer. While she is interrogated in the future by Lomax (Benedict Wong) who is trying to discover what happened to the other women, Lena’s shares the story of their journey to the center of the infection.
The visuals are stunning and beautiful, surrealistic in their design. The world within The Shimmer is incredibly well designed, with thought put into how the transformations happen and creating an intriguing mix between creatures and plants as well as how humans are impacted by mutation, their DNA warped. The concept and use of the idea of refraction is interesting and a spin on the idea of transfiguration. The worldbuilding is beautiful, creating a wonderful, dreamlike quality to the story and environment.
I found Natalie Portman dynamic and adept in her portrayal of Lena. There is one scene where she kills a transformed alligator. Her stance shooting is perfect and her face fierce. Her fight to find out what happened to Kane is vibrant and impassioned. I love that she plays a smart woman, a scientist who uses her brains as much as her fighting to try and solve the problems in front of her. In fact, the best part of the film is how female centric it is.
In addition to her acting, I truly felt that Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny did an excellent job with their performances within the constraints of the writing. There are some beautiful scenes between the women. I especially liked Tessa Thompson whose performance was understated but lovely.
The story and writing are where most of the problems arise. My husband brought up the question of why the expedition goes in with only a group of scientists and no soldiers but Lena into a dangerous area. This seems forced to make the group all women instead of allowing them to take center stage on their own. In addition, while Natalie Portman’s character is well developed, the other characters are not. The other women end up feeling one note, with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, either because of the direction or the writing, lifeless and dreary. Oscar Isaac, normally a vibrant actor, only shined in one scene in the film. The other women are given back stories but none of it is used within the story.
Much of the film’s storyline is telegraphed by a few scenes at the very beginning. In addition, disjointed scenes and flashbacks pull the viewer from the movie and leave the timeline confused. There are also visual designs that are highly reminiscent of a short lived science fiction show Threshold along with the idea of DNA transformation. The mutations are compared to cancer which is not highly original and one design reminded another viewer of a scene from “2001:Space Odyssey.” Lastly, a meteor as a cause has been done in so many movies it seems overdone here and the ending is very open to interpretation.
Overall, Natalie Portman’s performance as well as the gorgeous visuals are what save this film for me. She is breathtakingly good and the construction of the world is impressive. There are some interesting spins on DNA mutation as well as solid scientific thought. The science concepts are believable. The ending is thought provoking but predictable while the other characters were just not developed enough. If you like fantastical visuals and strong female leads, you might go see this. I just wish it had lived up to its full promise.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Lena, a biologist and former soldier, joins a mission to uncover what happened to her husband inside Area X – a sinister and mysterious phenomenon that is expanding across the American coastline. Once inside, the expedition discovers a world of mutated landscape and creatures, as dangerous as it is beautiful, that threatens both their lives and their sanity.
From visionary director Alex Garland (Ex Machina, 28 Days Later) and based on the acclaimed best-selling Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation stars Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny.