****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT in the theatre. SEE IT on Netflix or cable.
Annihilation, written and directed by Alex Garland and based upon the book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, is the story of Lena, a biologist who ventures into a mysterious and ominous anomaly dubbed "The Shimmer", in order to find out what happened to her husband. The film stars Natalie Portman as Lena, with supporting performances from Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez.
Alex Garland, a Mickey™® Award-winning writer, is one of my favorite screenwriters and his directorial debut, Ex Machina, was simply stellar, so I was very excited to see his sophomore directing effort, Annihilation. Sadly, Annihilation pales in comparison to the science fiction masterpiece that is Ex Machina, and although it is a nobly ambitious film, Annihilation is ultimately unsatisfying because it is so terribly uneven.
Garland is usually a masterful and original writer, but his script for Annihilation resorts to a lot of ungainly exposition, sci-fi/horror film tropes and central casting caricatures instead of complex characters.
There are some errors of logic in the film that are absolutely maddening as well, for instance, why set up a guard post on the ground at night, with a light on in it directed inward not outward (thus blinding the guard), when everyone else is safe in a tower inaccessible to any dangerous elements. Or why run after a comrade dragged away by something mysterious but not take your weapon with you? These logical errors make it difficult to get absorbed into the reality of the film and thus keep viewers at an arms distance when they should be getting pulled ever closer.
The film also suffers because it is, at times, little more than a hodge-podge of the usual horror movie scare tactics, some taken directly from classics like Alien. There is also the rather lame and predictable war movie standard of giving brief background on each of the diverse women making up the group that heads into The Shimmer. There is the tough chick from Chicago, the nerdy physicist, the bitter and grizzled older woman and the wounded soul that everyone likes. You can see these same characters in their male form in any war or sci-fi film you can think of…from Saving Private Ryan to Predator.
The film also struggles with its pacing and never really hits its stride until well into its final third. That said, the third act is Alex Garland at his best. The themes and philosophical ideas tackled in the final act are fascinating, but the journey to get to them so conventional as to be frustrating. In many ways, it felt to me like the film should've have started at the beginning of the third act, as the ending of the movie could propel you into another entirely intriguing drama.
Natalie Portman does solid but unspectacular work as the protagonist Lena. Portman carries the narrative through its twists and turns with enough movie star magnetism to keep your attention but she never rises to any great acting heights, which is not a knock against her as her job here is to be solid and steady and she does that.
The rest of the cast though, does surprisingly sub-par work. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a terrific actress, but she feels disconnected from the material and oddly subdued. Oscar Isaac is particularly bad in his role as Kane, a Special Forces soldier. Isaac lacks the quiet gravitas and physically imposing but understated menace of a believable Special Forces operator. He also gives his character a southern accent, and does it so incredibly poorly that it further undermines his believability in the role. Not only does Isaac's accent slip in and out at random, but when he does focus on it, it is so over the top as to be laughably absurd. Isaac is an actor I have been giving the benefit of the doubt to for some time now, but after an uninterrupted string of really poor performances, I am ready to declare that Oscar Isaac is in fact, not a good actor. All of the other performances in the supporting cast are rather forgettable due to their one-dimensionality.
On the bright side, Rob Hardy's cinematography in Annihilation is truly outstanding. The film is beautifully shot and is a thoroughly proficient exercise in technical filmmaking as both the visuals and the sound are extremely well done. Hardy's framing in particular is superb and his use of vibrant color and crisp contrast turn "The Shimmer" portion of the film into a sumptuously magnificent Ayahuasca fever dream. This dazzling Shimmer effect is further enhanced by Hardy's subdued palette and tones in the "regular world" portions of the film.
In conclusion, Annihilation is a visually beautiful, philosophically ambitious film that stumbles out of the gate and never quite reaches its stride until its fascinating third act, but by then it is too late. Thin character development, clunky dialogue and poor pacing scuttle what could have been a truly impressive film. If you are a connoisseur of cinematography, you may want to venture to the theaters to see Annihilation on the big screen, as it is gorgeous, but if you are more interested in the overall quality of a film, or in simply being entertained, I recommend you wait to see this film on Netflix or cable for free, and arm yourself with a hearty dose of low expectations.