Natalie Portman examines creature in Annihilation

Review: Annihilation May Make Sci-Fi Fans Think, but It Won’t Make Them Feel

3 out of 5 stars.
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Annihilation is one of those films with a concept that seems like it’s right up my alley, so I’ve been excited about it since it was announced. Female-led sci-fi? Check. Mysterious entity the women have to figure out? Check. I went in prepared to love it. I merely liked it, and somehow that feels worse than if it were bad.

Full disclosure: I have not read any of the books upon which this film is based, the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, so I’m judging Annihilation entirely on its own merits (though you can read about the casting controversy HERE).

Annihilation is the story of Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist, professor, and former Army soldier who at the beginning of the film is being questioned by people in quarantine suits. We learn through the interrogation that its been a year since she lost her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), also a soldier, and she remains in deep mourning.

image: screencap/Paramount Annihilation Natalie Portman Oscar Isaac Paramount Skydance Alex Garland

Then, somehow, he stumbles back into their home, and while she’s overjoyed to see him, he’s very, very different. She ends up at a place called the Southern Reach, a base at the edge of a phenomenon the scientists there call The Shimmer, which seems to emanate from a lighthouse and is growing and growing, swallowing everything in its path. Teams of soldiers have been sent in before, but none have ever returned.

That is, until Kane, who is now unconscious and unable to answer questions.

Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the psychologist in charge of putting together the teams who investigate The Shimmer, decides to go in accompanied with a team of scientists to hopefully succeed with scientific knowledge where military might has failed. She assembles a team of women with varied expertise: Lena, paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny).

image: screencap/Paramount Annihilation Jennifer Jason Leigh Natalie Portman Tessa Thompson Gina Rodriguez Alex Garland

Annihilation definitely has some things working in its favor. The film looks gorgeous, has quality jump-scares, and there were some genuinely unnerving and unexpectedly gory moments for fans of horror. As the nature of The Shimmer is revealed, it inspires all sorts of nerdy sci-fi questions you might find yourself mulling over on the ride home.

And can we talk about this cast? Each of the women in this film, along with Isaac, brought an A-game performance, with Portman and Rodriguez being standouts. Portman gives a performance with her eyes that many actors can’t give with their whole bodies. Meanwhile, Rodriguez delivers a roller coaster of emotion grounded in a deep well of vulnerability. Of all the actors, these two have the most varied journey and are more than up for the task of navigating it.

That said, the actors aren’t given much to work with emotionally. Annihilation is very much a plot-driven film, rather than a character-driven film, which means that while I maintained interest throughout, because yes, I wanted to know what the deal with The Shimmer was, I wasn’t particularly invested in any of these people. Try though the film did to give each of the characters individual ways in which they were “broken,” and give Lena some meager backstory flashbacks, none of it really amounted to anything substantial.

image: screencap/Paramount Annihilation Jennifer Jason Leigh Natalie Portman Tessa Thompson Gina Rodriguez Alex Garland

I remember remarking to my wife halfway through the film that watching the characters hold guns and walk slowly through homes and neighborhoods buried under overgrown plant life reminded me of video games like The Last of Us: sometimes something jumped out at them that they’d have to shoot, but for the most part they were just walking around. Every time they found a new object that ended up being a clue, I had the strong urge to click the X button on my controller to “Examine.”

There were some interesting sci-fi ideas that were brought up once it’s clear what The Shimmer is…but there was no follow-through. The film as a whole didn’t seem to have much of a point of view. It told me a story, but it didn’t tell me why. What was Garland trying to say with this film? I don’t really know. An argument could be made for several things, but generally, if you’re trying to say everything, you’re not saying much of anything.

If you want to support female-led genre films, are a fan of Alex Garland, or are looking for a decent way to kill a couple of hours, definitely give Annihilation a whirl. If you love sci-fi, it might make you think. It’s less likely, however, that it will make you feel.

Annihilation opens nationwide FRIDAY in the U.S. 

(image: screencap/Paramount)

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Image of Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.