'Annihilation' film review: Esoteric, unconventional flick underwhelms
There are films that organically achieve the fragility of a dream-like experience - then there are films that are forced approximations of the surreal that reek of desperate contrivances. "Annihilation" (opening in theaters nationwide Feb. 23) is the latter.
In short: A biologist (Natalie Portman) joins an expedition of scientists into the mysterious Area X, where previous soldiers had entered but none have returned. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Oscar Isaac also star.
First the good news - "Annihilation" does not care for the audience's expectations or wants from this sci-fi thriller. The latest from writer-director Alex Garland ("Dredd," "Ex Machina") defies conventions for better and for worse. No one can brush off this sci-fi/mystery/thriller/adventure as a throwaway pedestrian or clichéd flick. If nothing else, "Annihilation" deserves credit for not condescending to the audience and throwing an utterly bizarre story at the viewer. This is sci-fi with no training wheels.
But do not mistake the convoluted and nonlinear elements as "heady" - it ratchets up the intrigue on several fronts, but ultimately underwhelms as "Annihilation" stumbles toward something resembling an ending. The film attempts to weave multiple mysteries at once - about the strange Area X, the protagonist's internal motivations and what happened to her husband - all the while also tracking the backstories for its squad of scientists and the trippy backpacking journey they are on. It's a lot to juggle and "Annihilation" is not up to the challenge.
Esoteric is one thing, but "Annihilation" is vague to the point of frustration. First and foremost, general movies audiences will be discouraged with how little of the plot or story elements, at first blush, makes sense. This film is simply not as straightforward as "an armed group walks into the jungle" - it's much, much weirder.
But many great films have been accused of "not making sense" -- but basic plot points do not add up. The first act establishes a threat - however, it's unclear what the group is truly trying to achieve. They have a destination, but aside from basic plot-driven objectives, "Annihilation" doesn't establish what its main characters truly hope to achieve or how they will achieve their goals. Even the protagonist's personal objectives and stakes are barely defined. The few plot points that are explained are directly stated, delivered by artless bits of exposition that plainly spell out plot elements.
"Ex Machina" was a masterpiece worthy of all the Academy Awards - yet it only won Best Visual Effects ... an award "Annihilation" will not win. Most of the film takes place in an enigmatic expanse that feels utterly alien and eerily familiar. While this successfully throws the audience off balance during the claustrophobic jungle scenes, the third act visuals are less convincing. The world-building of "Annihilation" is fundamentally vital to the film's credibility - yet the final act looks like an extended cutscene from a PS4 game. It's distracting.
This all culminates in a third act that limps the movie to its "ending." Rather than resolving the many, many tantalizing plot crumbs dropped throughout the film, "Annihilation" elects to introduce new plot twists in its closing scenes. And prepare for one of the most underwhelming and lame resolutions to a final battle. Keep in mind that numerous soldiers have entered Area X never to return - yet the third act surprises, but only in how unimpressively and anticlimactically the final battle unfolds.
Despite its narrative missteps, Garland does succeed in establishing an creepy and disorienting atmosphere, one that keeps the audience just off-kilter enough. As the team begins to lose their composure, the audience is right there with them as the line between what is real and what is not twists and contorts. A few moments are uninspired jump scares, but overall "Annihilation" does create an unnerving tone.
Final verdict: "Annihilation" raises more questions than it provides answers - but the fact that even basic aspects of the film are vague reduce this wannabe "thought-provoking head scratcher" to "well, that happened" status.
"Annihilation" opens in theaters nationwide Feb. 23. This sci-fi thriller has a running time of 115 minutes and is rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality.