There are a lot of spoilers in this, so if you are real serious about Annihilation maybe stop.
I remember ranting in the car at my poor girlfriend shortly after we left the theater. I also remember feeling kinda bad since she initially wanted to re-watch Black Panther before I convinced her maybe we should try this. Going into the film trailers painted a movie where an alien contact on Earth summons Natalie Portman and crew to investigate a potential alien infestation. What I thought would ensue was a mindfuck adventure from Ex Machina director Alex Garland. It’s true it comes with a lot of confusingly gross creatures and at times hauntingly pretty locales, finding ways to distort the familiar into things impossible. However the plot goes nowhere and one by one characters die off for no other reason than to mercifully come to an end.
Spoilers ahead but honestly, tl;dr meh.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, a former Army veteran and current day academia professor. She is haunted by the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) a fellow soldier and (I think?) black ops operative(?). Most of their exposition is watching Portman and Isaac fool around in bed, then we jump to the threat named The Shimmer threatening to infect our world. It’s not as steamy as it sounded, you can safely go back to watching Fifty Shades of Free.
After disappearing for a year and seemingly dead, Lena finds Kane just walk right into their bedroom and act like an obvious clone. A short conversation follows then says he needs to go to the doctor because he’s spitting blood into a cup of water. On route to the hospital big-ass-obviously-government SUVs detour them and kidnap both Kane and Lena. We are introduced to psychologist, and extremely Xanex’ed, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who musters enough energy like a 14-year-old girl looking at you stupidly like of course you don’t know what the fuck she’s talking about, explain a very serious alien infestation threatening to very slowly but assuredly eat up maybe a town in around 40(?) years.
Lena, distraught her newly returned husband dying seemingly for real this time, decides to venture into The Shimmer strapped up with Chicago paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and Dr. Ventress – probably secretly looking for a lost cache of Xanex within The Shimmer because she’s abused her right to have prescription pads like Dr. House.
Thing is I can’t fault the actresses (even the extremely high Dr. Ventress) for trying to bring as much horror and enthusiasm to a movie with all the charisma of a instructional technical book. Oh look: a human being split in two with a giant butthole flower grown from where his torso once was. Let’s get some swabs of it and get some sleep (this literally happens). There are quick sputters of violence, which happen for no other reason than to wake us up. In perhaps the strangest scene in the film, they are confronted by a mutated bear with human bones grafted to its face and it’s roar is a literal human plea for help. This was perhaps the only interesting and possibly cool thing to happen in the movie. After this one of our protagonists has leaves growing out of her skin then just disappears period.
We don’t see much other wildlife aside from some pokemon-looking deer, and we learn that maybe the person who Lena thought was her husband may actually not even be a human after all. If this sounds boring it’s because the movie provides no weight to anything that happens. The film would’ve been serviced with a sub-title: Shit Happens. The movie relies on random gore and creepiness to lull us back into a story really bored with itself.
Kane is obviously gone quite often since he’s a military operative, and we immediately at the start of the movie are introduced to Lena’s co-worker Daniel (David Gyasi) trying to holler at her, but the movie makes a point to establish Kane and Lena’s closeness, then introduces an affair with flimsy context. The love triangle goes no where and takes up time that probably should’ve just been cut entirely. I might’ve been able to forgive the movie had it been 30 minutes shorter.
The only real conclusion I can come to was the writers were written into a corner, then left to get coffee. I’m convinced there must be another hour of footage out there that was meant to be the second half of the movie. The film comes to climax with Lena being forced to confront an alien-copy Lena shortly after seeing a video recording of her husband killing himself with a phosphorous grenade while recorded by a clone copy of him. Yes, I meant to explain it like this did it fuck your mind?
Real Lena slowly learns Alien Lena is learning from Real Lena how to act human, including fighting back when Real Lena tries to kill it. I think this was meant to be a moving moment, but eventually Real Lena kills Alien Lena with a flare grenade thereby seemingly ending the alien plot line. If none of this sounded exciting, it’s because it wasn’t. Nor was there any real suspension in the moment building up to it.
Annihilation builds up suspension to do nothing with it or even bother making elements sensibly tie together. What was the whole point of detailing Lena’s affair (twice focusing on when she was having sex with Daniel, only to just hate him immediately and throw him out when it was recognized she seemed equally at fault for this, THEN to just drop it all together and daydream about having sex with Kane? Why didn’t we get to see the bear again or anything interesting like that again?
Lena and Kane reunite at the end after being the only to escape, but now with us knowing the (real?) Kane died within the Shimmer we are left with an intentionally opaque ending trying to seem like it was designed to invoke mystery and some sort of thoughtfulness. Lena knows this guy isn’t really him, and we know she’s irreparably mutated after spending too much time in the Shimmer. Neither are probably ever going to escape the facility, but are we to assume the infestation continues? I don’t know. And I don’t think Alex Garland does either. If you do, please inform both of us.
I’m sure an argument about unsaid subtext and themes going over my head could be brought, and you might even be right. The whole film is built on distorting our perceptions of the world as we know it including what makes us fundamentally us, but at some point I began asking myself if I was making the story up in my head or I’m actually using what’s provided. Was that maybe the point?