Annihilation, directed by Alex Garland, is a film which I simultaneously have fundamental issues with and great admiration for. Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and many other talented people, it follows a group of five female scientists and paramedics as they journey through the mysterious “Shimmer”, hoping to find answers in regard to what it is or what it may want. At times, Annihilation is intelligent, trippy, beautiful and disturbing, however, at other points it’s deeply frustrating. While the film does a lot of things very well, there are some fundamental narrative flaws that keep it from being great.
One of the most noticeable and expertly developed elements of the film is the way in which it uses horror. This film is disturbing. The predominantly synth-based score to bring alive the uncanny, unsettling, other-worldliness of the Shimmer. There are some excellent body-horror moments that feel inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing, all of which are pulled-off by some brilliant practical effects and mostly good CGI. Without going into spoilers, there are some concepts and horrifying creatures that will stick with you long after the runtime. Unlike most horror films, however, the characters rarely make dumb or outlandish decisions. There are scenes with people wandering off on their own, but it’s always done for a greater purpose than just a mere jump scare. These characters are intelligent people and, while the Shimmer is potentially deteriorating their capacity for thought, the film treats them with respect.
That being said, the performances of these characters are relatively inconsistent. Some of the line-delivery is questionable; there are a few moments in which a line of dialogue is said in a way that doesn’t quite match the tone of the scene. While this is a minor issue, it happens at various points in the film but never comes across a conscious decision by the actor or director. This could also be down to a few moments of clunky dialogue that wouldn’t sound good regardless if done well. In one particular scene, a character is describing something awful that happened to another character and then explicitly, and non-ironically, says: “I wouldn’t want that to happen to me”. Most of the dialogue is air-tight, yet there a few moments that stick-out just due to how obvious and lacking they are to the rest of the film. The acting is fairly good, the stand-outs being Tessa Thompson and Natalie Portman, but there are scenes in which a few of the other leads’ performances are overdone or feel unnatural to the scene. The characters are well-realised and have different motivations for entering the Shimmer, nonetheless, some hints of over-acting or clunky dialogue often dampens the natural, character-generated tension the film does so well to establish.
As mentioned, I have some issues with the narrative structure and plot conveniences of this film that I will attempt to explain without spoiling anything. Starting the story in the way the film does is always risky as it can lessen the tension of later scenes. Unfortunately, this proved true for me and I found myself detached or uncaring for certain characters due to their fates being predetermined by the film. The beginning attempts to set-up plot developments which I’d argue are fairly predictable. These issues are only accentuated by certain plot conveniences that feel contrived and more generic when compared to the originality of most of the film e.g. the protagonist observing deer as a metaphor for something greater. Characters’ memory loss when they enter the Shimmer also feels like a convenience as it’s never mentioned again throughout the film and could be a way of avoiding explanation for what happens when you enter it.
Nevertheless, there is a lot to love in Annihilation. The final half hour of the film is near-perfect; it’s trippy, mysterious, kaleidoscopic and really quite haunting. Garland knows not to over-explain anything at the climax and it pays off as the film is utterly absorbing. Additionally, the representation of the film makes me wonder why no-one is talking about it. Not only are the five lead characters all female, but two are of colour and one is LGBTQ+, as well as the other male characters also being diverse in regard to race or ethnicity. These characters are complex, smart and professional; the film isn’t overtly flashy about its representation as its characters fit the story so well that it’s rarely a point of reference.
In the end, Annihilation has a lot going for it and is only let down by a few glaring flaws. While maybe not enough to sour the experience of the entire film, its sloppy execution does prevent it from being truly great. For a film about duality and the nature of self it sure has me feeling two ways about it. It’s certainly worth seeing, but I’m more intrigued by where Alex Garland goes next.
Objective Score: 3.5/5
Subjective Score: 3.6/5
Overall Score: 7.1/10
Words by Dan Lyons