Alex Garland’s Ex Machina was a wonderful surprise when it premiered three years ago. Restrained, tense, and with just the right level of thought-provoking ambition, it stands among the best of this decade’s science fiction cinema. My expectations were undoubtedly high then for Garland’s second directorial effort in Annihilation, a science fiction-horror hybrid about a mysterious alien zone. Maybe it was my expectations holding me back, but I came out of Annihilation unmistakably wanting. The film has some truly fantastic moments of chilling horror and beautifully unsettling surrealism, but these don’t always overcome the clumsy storytelling that glues it all together.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) went missing on a military tour roughly a year prior. After Kane returns, alive but disoriented and severely ill, the couple are taken to a remote military base. There, a Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) shows Lena “The Shimmer”, a continuously expanding alien zone enclosed by a shimmering border. Kane was a member of the last expedition to travel into The Shimmer, and also the only one to return alive. Lena volunteers to go in with the next team of three other women, plus Ventress, in the hopes of learning something to save her husband.
My biggest disappointment with Annihilation lies in its narrative and pacing. It takes the film nearly a third of its runtime to actually get to The Shimmer, and doesn’t spend nearly enough time exploring its intricate corners and crevices once there. Despite what it may seem, I’m not complaining about any perceived lack of action. On the contrary, taking the time to build up such a mysteriously threatening locale is an absolute necessity for the narrative to hold its weight. The problem is that the film doesn’t do that with The Shimmer sufficiently in this third. When The Shimmer is in discussion, the language is often tediously cliché. “We’ve lost communication”. “Nobody has come back alive”. This type of dialogue just isn’t compelling, and shouldn’t be found anywhere near a high-concept science fiction film.
Even outside of these wasted moments in the first third, Annihilation’s pacing is lacking. One of my biggest annoyances is that the entire narrative is framed as an interview flashback, establishing Lena as the only survivor of her mission. In this case, it’s not nearly as engaging to watch a story unfold if you know its eventual outcome. Though there is some re-contextualization of Lena’s fate at the end, the interview structure is still a clunky plot device. Imagine if Apocalypse Now cut back and forth between the journey towards Colonel Kurtz and a post-mission debriefing with Captain Willard. It’s completely unnecessary, but even worse it runs a stampede over the nightmarish tone that the film is trying to achieve. The score for most of the film is also quite odd, opting for a calming acoustic guitar in many scenes. Only towards its end does the music match the cinematography, and when it does it’s an overwhelming experience to say the least.
Annihilation is the rare case of a film that would have benefited immensely from a lengthier runtime. When you only have two hours to spend, you have to ensure that every scene flows smoothly into the next; the pacing has to be flawless. This is where Annihilation lags. Its script is wildly uneven in tempo, dragging and rushing in all the places where it should do the exact opposite. It’s truly a three hour science fiction epic trapped in the body of an extended Black Mirror episode. This feeling of a great film being trapped in the body of a lesser one rings true for many of its other narrative elements. The later, majestically surreal moments are weighed down by a film that earlier focuses far too much on the literal.
I also have some picky, pedantic issues with the plot, which is troubling because I’m usually blissfully ignorant of such trivialities. Here’s just a few of many awkward plot moments. At one point, Lena wanders off, alone, to look for the body of one of her team members who was viciously attacked by a mutant bear, knowing full well that the beast is still out there. In another scene, a grisly video recording left behind by the previous group is found, showing Kane cutting open a man’s chest to reveal his organs moving unnaturally. It’s an effectively grotesque moment, but Lena’s team refuses to watch the full video out of disgust, even though one of their mission goals was to literally determine what happened to Kane’s expedition. One of the women even obnoxiously denies what she saw, claiming it to be a ‘trick of the light’. Finally, there’s a whole subplot where one of the women goes insane that feels an awful lot like a contrived plot device to frame a tense creature attack.
Despite all its missteps, Annihilation has some genuinely wonderful and memorable moments. The handful of body horror scenes are just the right cocktail of uncomfortable and gruesome, never crossing the line of becoming exploitative or shocking for their own sake. There’s also a deliciously horrific and unnerving bear attack scene about two-thirds of the way through. The mutant bear is blind but revealed capable of mimicking a woman’s screams as bait. It stalks around the group in a claustrophobic living room, shrieking a woman’s dying scream into their faces while they try their best to remain quietly hidden. It’s set up like a tense scene in any standard creature flick, but the disjointed, pained screams of a woman coming out of the beast’s mouth adds an especially uncanny touch.
Much has also been praised about the film’s final twenty minutes, and to a certain extent, I agree. It’s in these moments when Annihilation finally finds itself, when it finally kicks into its promised surrealism. Incidentally, these brief twenty or so minutes are the film’s best. The alien creature is a nightmarishly beautiful demon, a shimmering rainbow humanoid that mimics Lena’s every move. The score also finally feels right, morphing into a pulsing and nightmarish soundscape of dubstep waves, overwhelming and disconcerting yet somehow elegant.
I wouldn’t be giving due credit by claiming Annihilation is a misstep for Alex Garland, but it certainly represents a degree of missed potential. All the press and hype leading into its release, comparing it to science fiction masterpieces like Stalker, Solaris, and 2001, left me confused as I left the theater. While perhaps similar in premise, it’s clear while watching that Annihilation shares little else in common with those films. Annihilation stands as an entertaining sophomore effort from Alex Garland, but it should not be mistaken for the science fiction masterpiece we have all been awaiting from him. It’s simply not daring or confident enough in itself to ever stand among the ranks of Tarkovsky and Kubrick. I look forward to the day when Garland makes an uncompromisingly avant-garde, science fiction masterpiece. Till then, I’ll settle for Ex Machina.