I’m no stranger to smart sci-fi films. One of my first genres that made me fall in love with films was science fiction (it was Star Wars so some fantasy is mixed in). After getting through Arrival, I didn’t think I would encounter a smart but weird sci-fi film. Then I walked into Annihilation.
(This review is Spoiler-Free)
Annihilation follows former military soldier-turned-biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman), concerned about her military-officer husband, Kane (Oscar Issac), who has been missing for the last year. When he returns from his mission, he’s not the same person. While it should be a blissful reunion, it doesn’t take long for things to go wrong. Joining an expedition team of female scientists, they journey into an environmental disaster zone known as ‘The Shimmer’.
Portman is supported by strong supporting class, especially by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr. Ventress, the enigmatic, obsessed lead scientist that knows the most about this unexplained, supernatural force field that continues to threateningly expand outward. Called the Shimmer, the borders look like the gloss of a soap bubble and possesses the classic trope of ‘once someone goes in, no one has come back out’, excluding Kane. But this intelligent female group take up that challenge: along with Lena and Ventress, brash Anya (Jane the Virgin‘s Gina Rodriguez), gentle Cass (Tuva Novotny), and brainy Josie (Thor’s Tessa Thompson). Besides Lena’s search for answers as to what happened to her husband and Ventress’ obsession, you aren’t really sure about why the others are here but it all becomes clear.
At first, life inside the rainforest-dense bubble is beautiful, but enough to tempt curiosity: a mutation on a flowery vine and full of colors that brighten the cool but dull gray and dark blue color setting. But there are dangers that the team must face, including the mutated animal life (I’ll be like the trailer and not spoil this) and an unreliable compass that can’t find True North. As the team goes deeper inside to reach the epicenter of the phenomenon, things get darker, stranger, and more unnerving. Let’s just say that if there is an explanation for what’s going on, they won’t be found on Earth.
I will say my disappointment hit around the last twenty minutes of the film as the explanations come along, more or less. The toggling between Lena’s present-day in the classroom and journey into the Shimmer and intimate flashbacks before Kane’s deployment and her time while he was gone. These loose ends don’t get tied up at all by film’s end, making you wonder if it was really necessary. With the present-day, once the answers come, I was left curious as to what I just watched.
The characters aren’t developed into deep, three-dimensional figures. The dialogue can be hokey and bombastic in that particular sci-fi way. But the overall effect of the film is extraordinary: a magnificently visual feast that’s threaded through well-earned jump scares and real metaphysical force. It’s the sort of film that leaves you dazzled and shell-shocked with the visuals and certain heavy dramatic scenes, sort of raising the bar for science fiction films to reach…If only it weren’t for those loose ends. I still would give this film a try.