FILM REVIEW – ANNIHILATION. With Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez. Written and directed by Alex Garland. Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality. 115 minutes.
Like the 2016 film “Arrival,” ANNIHILATION is a provocative and intelligent science fiction movie that features aliens who are truly alien. At film’s end, there might be some understanding of their motivation and desires, but the mystery is far from fully resolved. It’s a work of science fiction that requires viewers to be engaged and not simply wanting to sit back and watch the special effects. The movie works, but it’s not going to be for every taste.
Alex Garland, whose last film was the masterful “Ex Machina,” has adapted Jeff VanderMeer’s novel about an eerie alien invasion. A meteor has struck near a lighthouse causing a zone called “The Shimmer,” to take root and expand around it. Those who have gone in to explore it don’t come back. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) was one of the men who went. A year later he reappears, but it soon becomes obvious that something is wrong. To try to figure out what’s happened so that she might cure him, Lena volunteers to be part of the next expedition going in.
Without giving away too much, suffice to say that within The Shimmer, nature seems out-of-control, with the group – led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – encountering increasingly bizarre mutations. As they push onward, it becomes an open question as to whether they will survive. We know that Lena does, since she is relating the story in flashback. That doesn’t mean we can anticipate what has happened to her or the others or, indeed, to her husband.
As in “Ex Machina” – as well as his scripts for “Never Let Me Go” and “28 Days Later…” – Garland doesn’t promise a happy ending or even a predictable one. Instead, he crafts science fiction stories that are every bit the equal of the contemporary literature, which is usually looked at as light years ahead of its media counterparts. It’s not surprising that here, as with “Never Let Me Go,” he was adapting a pre-existing novel.
At a time when Hollywood is criticized for rampant sexism, it should be noted that, without making a big deal about it, this is essentially the story of the five women who comprise the latest expedition. Portman and Leigh are joined by Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Gina Rodriguez. While there are some good scares along the way, this is not a movie where a woman screams at an attacking monster waiting for the hero to save her. These women may be spooked, but they’re also ready to fight back.
Ultimately, whether the film works depends on your willingness not only to suspend disbelief, but also to acknowledge that the agenda of space aliens may be beyond human understanding. Is the annihilation implied by the title an intended attack on humanity and Earth, or is it the way these aliens assimilate new life forms? This is a film that is both disturbing and provocative, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.