Alex Garland makes it very difficult for me to review his movies. Of course, he doesn’t care, nor should he (of course, perhaps you don’t, either, for that matter, nor should you). The noted screenwriter of flicks like 28 Days Later, Dredd and Never Let Me Go has now directed two features himself, both of which have challenged me to like them despite my personal taste. 2014’s Ex Machina was hailed as a new-generation sci-fi masterpiece, and while I agreed with that label in general (see my own review for more detail), it was hard for me to totally love the film because I found its premise slightly offensive morally. Well, Garland has gotten another muddled emotional/intellectual reaction out of me with his latest directorial effort, this month’s Annihilation, but for entirely different reasons.
Based (somewhat loosely) on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation tells a story of a meteorite crashing into an idyllic scene—a lighthouse situated on the coast of a swampy national park. Two years later, a strange, ethereal barrier has spread across that part of the land, looking like a floating but structured mixture of oil and water, shimmering in purple, blue, and yellow, standing like a wall between our own reality and the unknown. We’re told that teams of mostly military personnel have been going through the barrier, called the “Shimmer," for at least a year, but the expeditions have been unsuccessful in returning any information, as they all disappear without a trace.
The character upon whom we focus is Lena (Natalie Portman), a biology professor and Army veteran, whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) was part of the last military team to enter the Shimmer. She hasn't heard from him, or anything about him, for a year, and given the secretive nature of his mission, assumes that he is dead. Just about the time she seems on the verge of accepting his apparent death, Kane reappears inside the house. He seems something of a blank slate, though, as he doesn't remember how he got there, what or where his mission was, or what happened while he was on it.
Events take them to a secret base called Area X, just outside the Shimmer’s boundaries, where Lena learns about the Shimmer, the meteorite, and the purpose of her husband's mission. Lena decides that the only chance to learn what happened to her husband is to go into the Shimmer with the next team of explorers and find the source of its creation. What she and the rest of the team find therein will be beyond anything they expect, and may change life on this planet beyond their ability to comprehend.
I really want to like this movie, and I actually do like all of its individual parts - it’s the collected whole that leaves me feeling unsatisfied. Garland has, much like he did in Ex Machina, crafted a visually stimulating sci-fi experience, and told a story that will provoke lots of thought and discussion. His choice of cast and locations, along with visual effects that do not overwhelm any of the scenes that use them, are all excellent (the sight of plants growing in the shape of human beings, for example, was both beautiful and inherently unsettling). All of the actors/actresses deliver fine performances, and Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s haunting, minimalist score greatly enhances the feeling of mystery inside the Shimmer.
What frustrates me is how despite intentionally abandoning the notion of directly adapting the source novel, and merely telling a story based on how he “remembered feeling after reading it” (his words, not mine), he hasn’t come up with a story any more enjoyable to follow than VanderMeer did in the novel. That's not to say that the story, the science, or the final point of the film doesn't make sense - quite the contrary, the concept of DNA alteration, and different forms of life possibly modifying our world to become a better fit for it is fascinating. After all, if there is life beyond our planet, couldn't we also assume that such life would be beyond our understanding of life? Does an extraterrestrial entity even need a goal or a reason to do what it does? What if it just does those things because it’s supposed to?
I understand that we as an audience are meant to interpret the story how we each see fit and discuss the various interpretations amongst ourselves, and I have no problem with that. I suppose how I’m left feeling is that, much like I did with the novel, we don’t learn enough about any of the people involved in the story to really care what happens to them. The team that accompanies Lena into the Shimmer is made up of four other women who, like her, are as one character puts it, "damaged goods," but none of them are explored in any depth, so their ultimate fates really don’t carry any emotional payoff when those points in the film are reached. Sure, the lack of emotional investment may have been a conscious choice of Garland’s, as a means of keeping the narrative an intellectual one, but I can only speak for my own reaction, and I was left feeling somewhat empty.
Given the opportunity to provide an explanation for what has happened or what has been learned over the course of Annihilation, one character offers what is perhaps the only rational response: "I don't know." This is something of a rarity for a mainstream science-fiction film, and while I admire a film that wholly embraces the Unknown and the Uncertain, and certainly admire Garland’s filmmaking skill in crafting this one, I do wish he’d made me give more of darn about it.