Last weekend, we reviewed Sorry to Bother You, a Hugo-nominated indie film that we missed the first time around. This Weekend Review looks at another genre-warping Hugo-nominee that many people ignored on first run, Annihilation.

Title: Annihilation (2018)

Cast and Crew

Directed and written by Alex Garland from the novel by Jeff Vandermeer

Natalie Portman as Lena
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr Ventress
Oscar Isaac as Kane
Gina Rodriguez as Anya Thorensen
Tuva Novotny as Cassie Sheppard
Tessa Thompson as Josie Radek
David Gyasi as Daniel
Benedict Wong as Lomax
Sonoya Mizuno as Humanoid / Katie
John Schwab as Paramedic
Sammy Hayman as Mayer
Josh Danford as Shelley
Kristen McGarrity as Lena Double
Cosmo Jarvis, Daniel Prewitt, Matthew Simpson as Special Ops Soldiers

Premise:

Lena, a cellular biologist with a military past, reunites with her husband, a soldier who disappeared a year earlier during a clandestine mission. Soon, Lena finds herself on the latest, most science-based team to investigate “the Shimmer,” a mysterious region that has been growing in the Blackwater Forest following an arrival from space. Of the people who have investigated, Lena’s husband has been the only one to return, and he has no memory of what happened.

The Shimmer is full of wonders and horrors, some of them inherent to the region. Others the investigators bring with them.

High Points:

Garland gives us intriguing visuals and concepts without considering himself above the more popular elements of horror and SF. In an era of dumbed-down entertainment, politics, and thinking, he makes films that engage his audience’s brains and explore the human condition.

Low Points:

The film is far from perfect, and I could certain note a few problems. While the film is more expensive and expansive than Garland’s earlier Ex Machina, it manages to be a lot less clear in its thinking.

The lowest point for me, however, is its reception. It cost over forty million to make, and made back about that much in its theatrical release. Annihilation simply could not find its audience. One simple theory may be that it had too much indie/theatrical drama and too few mutant animals and excitement for the horror and adventure crowd, and it was a little too disturbing and (in places) gory for the cerebral audience. I’m speculating. It has fared better with home viewers.

The Scores:

Originality: 2/6 I’m not certain how to rate Originality here. The film loosely adapts an existing novel. Its basic plot amounts to a quest, of the sort imagined by countless storytellers, writers, filmmakers, gamemasters, and little kids playing pretend. The party suits up and wanders into the unknown, with the protagonist having something a little more personal at stake. Yeah, stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

The partial solution to the mystery, however, and the enigmatic ending, take the tropes into places viewers will find less familiar. With the recent death of Gene Wolfe, I found myself thinking, at certain aspects of the ending, of The Fifth Head of Cerberus. Many others will see some specific similarities to Lovecraft’s “The Color Out of Space.” Annihilation, in the end, is its own creature.

Effects: 6/6 The Shimmer features horrors and wonders. Some, like the mutated alligator, will be familiar enough to fans of horror and SF. Others defy easy description or explanation. All look impressive.

Acting: 6/6 Against the SF/horror elements, we have a cast acting credibly and realistically. Indeed, they’re often depressingly low-key, until pressed by real danger.

Don’t expect the team to engage in a steady stream of witty banter.

Production: 6/6

Story: 4/6 The story holds, though it has been presented in a somewhat disjointed fashion, parts move more slowly than necessary, and not everyone will be happy with the open ending.

Vandermeer always intended the source novel to be a trilogy, which has since been published. Don’t expect a sequel to the film.

Emotional Response: 5/6

Overall: 5/6 An overly simplified history of SF film would note that giant animals, rockets, and alien invaders dominated the 1950s. After 1977, many SF movies took their cue from Star Wars. In between, we had a lot of mysterious, cerebral films that explored the territory more typical of the period’s written SF. These often had head-ex/panding/ploding twists and turns.

Annihilation has more in common with those “in between” movies.

In total, Annihilation receives 34/42