Science fiction can be a difficult genre to tackle and it is even more difficult to please an audience in that genre. While science fiction can cover everything from robots, aliens, depictions of the future, man-made monsters, advancements in technology and so on, the point of the genre should be to show how we maintain our humanity and soul in the face of these new and unexplored perils, or in some cases how we lose ourselves. The reason films like “WALL-E” and “Blade Runner 2049” work so well isn’t just because of the impressive visuals or captivating stories, but because of their exploration on how we as a species changed with advancements in technology and artificial intelligence.
Side-note – For this reason, I don’t see “Star Wars” as science fiction, but as a space western.
But at the same time, it is possible for a sci-fi film to overdo it on the philosophy and human condition, to the point that the film loses its audience, like a pendulum swinging too far in one direction. Films like “Solaris” and the original “Ghost in the Shell” have this problem – too much style, not enough substance. Now we can add another film to that category – “Annihilation.”
This the second film directed by Alex Garland, who previously made “Ex Machina.” My feelings on that film are fairly similar to mine on this film – it is visually captivating and well-performed, but thinks way too much of itself to the point that most of it comes off as pretentious. The difference between the two films though is that “Ex Machina” was pretentious through its high-and-mighty dialogue, while “Annihilation” takes a page from “2001: A Space Odyssey”‘s book by having many ambiguous scenes without any lines of dialogue.
In fact, that’s how I would describe “Annihilation” – as a cross between “Ex Machina” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” With its stunning visuals and high concept ideas about alien life and identity, it has long stretches of silent moments to let those images sink in. But the film does meander for quite some time, as it deals with a dull plot about the government and regulations before they get to the good stuff.
The film follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biology professor and a former soldier, as she copes with the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Issac), who has been on a mission for over a year and hasn’t heard anything from him in over six months. But one day, Kane pops back up and isn’t acting like his usual self. After Kane suddenly grows ill, the two of them are taken captive by a secret government organization and taken to a top-secret area in Florida, dubbed “The Shimmer” that has been slowly expanding for years and changes everything inside of it – no team that has gone inside of it has ever come out alive. But when an all-women team of researchers is hell bent on making it to the center of the Shimmer, Lena volunteers to head inside as well and possibly get some answers about what happened to Kane.
Outside of the impressive visuals, I enjoyed just how vulnerable and broken most of these women were, making this a rather emotional ride as they enter the alien bubble. They all bring their emotional baggage with them, especially Gina Rodriguez’s paramedic as she starts grows more paranoid and abusive as they journey towards the center. Tessa Thompson plays a quiet physicist with a dark past that plays out like the opposite of her character in “Thor: Ragnarok,” while Jennifer Jason Leigh leads the expedition and grows more ruthless and uncaring over time. They all wear their emotions on their sleeves, and it makes some of this feel like a tragedy at times.
But the main problem with “Annihilation” is that, while it does leave you pondering questions about what happened, none of it was truly investing or satisfying. The mix of ambiguity and pretentiousness leaves me feeling like nothing was accomplished, causing everything to blend together in a rather bland film with no substance to it. By the end of it, I had lost interest in the questions the film was asking, because I did not care about its lackluster (and predictable) ending.
That being said, “Annihilation” is not a bad film, but an underwhelming one. The performances from its minor characters are solid and the visuals are stunning. But the story moves too slowly for its own good and thinks way too highly of itself. In the end, its pretentiousness overpowers everything else about it.
Final Grade: C+