We are in the midst of a new era of science fiction.
While series like “Star Wars” are as strong as ever and continue to expand, a few directors are leading a small revolution that’s exploring epic sci-fi. They don’t rely on fantastic sci-fi action or humor to tell their stories. These new films utilize complex ideas, elaborate visuals and decidedly realistic settings. Recent examples include Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” and Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.”
Alex Garland is among these new sci-fi leaders, despite his significantly lower profile. His directorial debut, 2015’s “Ex Machina,” garnered critical acclaim and an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
“Annihilation,” Garland’s second feature, follows biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) and a group of four other women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny) as they enter The Shimmer — a strange region that sprouted from an extraterrestrial object. Nobody from prior expeditions has returned, save for Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who lies comatose for most of the movie.
That’s about all the plot that’s safely spoiler-free, as revealing any more would take away from the viewing experience.
This movie is certainly one of the weirdest of its genre in recent memory. It bends sci-fi by borrowing from other genres like body horror, slasher, monster and psychological thriller. The movie lives and dies by the big ideas it’s playing with.
The way it plays with the ideas, though, lacks clarity and consistency. Specifically, the characters talk about whether the Shimmer is destroying the Earth rather than creating something new in one scene at the end of the movie. Other than that, hardly any other big ideas are directly addressed by the characters, and if they are, it’s in single scenes. Much of the extra big idea conversation gets left to the audience, which may or may not have that discussion because of the ambiguity around the concepts.
One of those on-screen-happenings is the Shimmer itself. The visual style employed by Garland in the Shimmer is completely unique and original. In one shot, the camera pans across a beach, subtly displaying the full spectrum of color on the sand.
The vibrant and unique use of colors extends into the plant and animal life within the Shimmer. No other movie has trees made out of salt crystals, plants that are made from human DNA or a mutated bear that can replay the screams of its victims (it’s freaky, I know). These aspects allow The Shimmer to transcend being a setting or plot device and become a character itself.
That’s where the interesting characters end, sadly. Portman gives a perfectly good performance, but it doesn’t matter that she’s playing Lena, or a biologist for that matter. She could’ve just been “Woman One” and the movie wouldn’t have been different. The women surrounding her are also disappointingly useless, with Leigh giving a notably stale and dull performance.
Another disappointing aspect is the music. While the originally composed music worked and fit the movie perfectly, some of the soundtrack songs don’t. Specifically, Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” plays at a point early in the movie that ought to be deeply emotional. And while it’s a good song on its own, the placement of it in that particular scene muddies the tone and bewilders the audience as to what it should be getting from the scene other than the progression of the plot.
Overall, Garland’s ambition created a stunning movie visually, but disappointing in substance. Unfortunately, the confusion surrounding its ideas and some lackluster characters knock it down from a truly excellent designation.