Is there a more deceptively shallow writer/director working today than Alex Garland? After receiving a lot of acclaim for the scripts of “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go,” and “Dredd” (all of them over-praised sci-fi that attached larger significance to themselves than they deserved), he royally gamed critics with “Ex Machina.” That was a movie that didn’t make a single point everything from “Metropolis” to “2001” to “Blade Runner” didn’t do better and earlier, but somehow he pulled it off. “Annihilation” likewise would love to be a similar film about humanity’s replacement by a more advanced intelligence, but keeps getting tripped up by Garland’s morose style (his notes to actors: “be more wooden!”) and plodding sense of pace.
What Works: The visuals are sometimes so astounding, you’ll forgive almost any narrative fallacies. From the oil-slick shimmer of the bubble—from which people go in, but nothing comes out—to the wild climax in and around a lighthouse that looks like a hell-scape version of “Chronicles of Narnia.” Best of all, this is a film that will provoke a reaction, and when you’ve seen as many movies as I have, all you can really ask for is to see something you haven’t seen. Deep into the movie, there’s an absolutely spellbinding sequence involving a bear-beast inside a house that is the scariest scene of a movie this year. And even if you don’t fully like the climax—which is like “Black Swan” meets “Contact”—you won’t be able to take your eyes off of it. Even the end credits are gorgeous and provocative.
What Doesn’t: The beginning of the movie is so slow and clumsy, I’m afraid many home viewers (down the road) won’t get to the mind-blowing finale. Also, Oscar Isaac engages in some of his worst tendencies here, playing the flashback version of the husband-character the exact same way the alternate version is. [Only the largely charisma-less Isaac could say the words “I Love You” with an unintentional, annoyed sneer.] The actresses fair better, but most scenes still feel too sterile and drained of life. Garland doesn’t seem to fully get that his extinction-level sci-fi stakes keep getting hampered by the fact he doesn’t give us recognizably human characters to fear for.
What I Would Have Done Differently: Garland is working in the self-consciously arty style of Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris,” but there were deeper layers of warmth in “Solaris” that “Annihilation” doesn’t begin to possess or even seem interested in. Sure, “Annihilation” is essentially a horror film, but horror typically works better when you have characters that don’t seem to have half-way given up on life before they even enter the haunted house. And visuals aside, I’m not sure the film’s ideas on evolution and alien life are half as groundbreaking as it believes them to be.
In short, go see it and join the conversation, but it’s more than okay if you wind up rolling your eyes too.