Annihilation came with great credentials. It's jam-packed with great actors; it's based on a brilliant, award-winning novel by Jeff VanderMeer; and it is directed by Alex Garland, the mastermind behind indie breakout Ex Machina. And yet, despite being arguably beautiful, this movie fails on multiple levels. Incoherent, implausible, and often downright embarrassing, it verges on self-parody.
What's frustrating about Annihilation is that the acting is superb, and the concept design is mostly gorgeous. Immersed in the film's macabre, trippy landscapes, it's easy to get lost in the imagery and forget that the plot has fallen to pieces until about halfway through the story.
The film's setup is immediately intriguing. A meteorite has crashed to Earth and brought a phenomenon called "the shimmer" with it. A gooey, nacreous membrane wall rises up around the crash site, and it's expanding to encompass towns, a lighthouse, and swamplands. Soldiers from a mysterious organization called the Southern Reach have been passing through the shimmer into "Area X" never to return. Except one, that is. Kane (Oscar Isaac), a special forces agent married to biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), has reappeared with no explanation, nor any memory, and very little time to live.
To find out what happened, Lena volunteers for a scientific mission that's headed into Area X. With her are a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in full deadly weirdo mode), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), and an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny). At first, the world inside Area X is so mesmerizing that it's a delightful ride. The air shimmers with pearlescent rainbows; colorful mutant flowers have covered abandoned homes; and animals have become impossible hybrids like shark-alligators and deer-birds.
Our characters wander in a daze, unable to think straight, slowly descending into a terrifying, dreamlike state. Watching them, we genuinely feel like we've entered an alien landscape.
Silver body paint, required?
And then they start getting clues about what happened to Kane. Without giving anything away, let's just say that the movie goes from exploring how science deals with the unknown to asserting that science is actually a bunch of mystical mumbo-jumbo that involves silver body paint and painfully bad representations of how DNA works. This is particularly tragic because the novel that inspired this movie is a standout example of how to bring plausible science into a story that's nevertheless surreal and mysterious.
The plot of Annihilation quickly devolves into something you'll recognize from 1950s B-movies. But instead of embracing the cheesiness of its underlying tale, Alex Garland lards on layers of foolish randomness to give the illusion of depth. We get one horrible, awkwardly-acted flashback to a guilty moment in Lena's past—which basically feels like an excuse to see Portman naked. But don't think too hard about that! The film just wants you to stare at these fungus skull sculptures, zoomy lights, and gooey CGI blobs. Plus we've got some empty assertions about how DNA is really weird, man.
Annihilation desperately wants to be about the fragility of human identity and the existential dread of the unknown. Unfortunately, it's just a movie about scientists being stalked by magical DNA bears and tripping out about how love is, like, super hard. And that's before the silver body paint and interpretive dancing. I wish I were kidding. Garland strains to make something like the original Solaris, with its bizarre exploration of alien and human consciousness, but he's lost his way.
Despite these flaws, as I said earlier, the acting is a major draw. Portman is steely and intense. Rodriguez sheds her good-girl persona from Jane the Virgin to emerge as a tough-but-troubled action hero. Thompson, who stole the show as a drunk Valkyrie in the recent Thor movie, makes us acutely feel what it's like to fall under the influence of a truly otherworldly force. And Leigh leads the mission with unsettling world-weariness. But with almost no good lines of dialogue, and scenes that mostly require them to stare slack-jawed at shiny crap, this amazing cast feels wasted.
With such incredible talent involved on- and off-camera, can it really be all bad? It's so ambiguous—perhaps a profound inner meaning is just escaping us? I'm sorry, but no. This train wreck substitutes incoherence for cosmic mystery. My advice is to read Jeff VanderMeer's novel, watch Alex Garland's first movie Ex Machina, and pretend that the movie version of Annihilation never happened.