February 20, 2018

CINEMA | Natalie Portman Shimmers Into 'Annihilation'

"It's not destroying. It's making something new."
Natalie Portman Jeff VanderMeer Alex Garland | Annihilation

Novelist turned filmmaker Alex Garland moves further into his cerebral brand of cinematic ambitions exploring deeper human and metaphysical ideas in the science fiction genre. Loosely adapted from the first book in author Jeff VanderMeer's acclaimed Southern Reach trilogy of novels, Annihilation is a strange, darkly immersive journey into biological and otherworldly discoveries.

A chilly and detached Natalie Portman stars as a military veteran and biologist whose special forces husband Oscar Isaac disappears in the mysterious Area X, a contaminated zone in southern Florida engulfed in a dome-like cloud called "the shimmer". Portman leads an all-female crew of scientists in Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny to find out why every previous mission's crew disappeared without contact and what exactly happened to her husband.

Portman is dramatically impressive feeling the weight of her circumstances in a fully realized character with a nice depth and well motivated despite the difficulty in grounding so many of the film's moving parts. Sadly, the rest of the supporting cast, outside of the handsome and feverish Isaac, are severely underdeveloped and not given much beyond their superficial character types.

Rodriguez and Thompson's star qualities in particular never get to shine through the strangeness of their situations. Each play a different type of damaged character only hinted at with varying degrees of self-destructive tendencies that echo the effects of everything inside the shimmer.

Natalie Portman Oscar Isaac Alex Garland | Annihilation

The moody film is expertly shot, framed, and pieced together but sags and drags due to the extra mysterious nature of the plot and mission's unfolding. Its ambiguity is not so much frustrating as it is imperceptive. The nightmarish qualities promise a dreamlike execution of weighty sci-fi ideas that don't quite come together but not for a lack of some truly out there visuals from cinematographer Rob Hardy.

Garland's direction is ably superb and tensely mature, but his indulgence of atmosphere, tension, and mystery aren't as clever this time around. The rescue mission and intriguing exposition don't quite validate the in media res narrative device with its many jumps in time to reveal the rather straightforward story told very slickly with a maddeningly tense musical score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury.

The more you think about Annihilation, the more it digs into your consciousness. It has big, ambitious ideas wrapped in imagination. However, its climatic ending and intense reveals feel underwhelming and slightly misleading. Ominous and eerie, Garland's film unnerves its viewers through a viscerally cerebral vision remixing VanderMeer's heady themes of human biology in astounding and impressive but ultimately unsatisfying ways.


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