In spite of its standard concoction of arty inactivity and lizard-brain butchery, “Annihilation” makes an effort to stand out from the sci-fi genre. Alex Garland’s sophomore directing endeavor never presents itself as anything less than a swing for the fences, an even more lavishly abstract and slippery work than his previous artificial-intelligence-Frankenstein chamber piece “Ex Machina.”
It’s as actively idiosyncratic a piece of genre filmmaking as could possibly sneak through a studio, but a stuffy attitude prevents it from fully embracing its air of mystery.
The story begins with a biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman) mourning the presumed death of her military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) when he inexplicably stumbles back into their home a year after his departure. Soon after, the two are intercepted by military forces and transferred to Area X, a swampland research station studying an expanding force field that could cause global extinction. Lena eventually heads inside “the Shimmer” along with four women posted at the base in search of answers.
Though “Annihilation” gets caught up putting these pieces in place, its talky personality is mercifully toned down once the expedition is under way. The typically antiseptic presentation of Area X is instantly forgotten as Garland unleashes the intoxicating death dream he’s been teasing. The unnaturally diversified flora and occasional leviathan fauna are presented with a matter-of-factness that bluntly states their indescribable appearances without lingering on their intricate details.
This consistent clarity of the Shimmer’s ecosystem is the film’s prime force of discombobulation; each impossible image is seen with such impartial lucidity that a paradoxical luridness begins to envelope the experience.
What’s more accidentally disorienting is the useless flashback structure that Garland employs to look back on the final days of Lena and Kane’s marriage. Portman and Isaac’s brief scenes together mostly read as phony, all pitched in a forebodingly idealistic tone so as to lend Portman’s performance some semblance of interiority when contrasted against her confused grief.
Adding to the sense of organizational arbitrariness is the fact that these are flashbacks within flashbacks; the film is framed by Lena’s post-expedition interrogation back at Area X. While this opens up the possibility of exploring her emotional subjectivity or the hallucinogenic properties of the Shimmer, the film remains stubbornly literal in its realization of its events, too distant to ever inhabit its protagonist’s collapsing headspace.
Yet Garland continues to pull out visual ideas from his sleeve, soaking in the monotonous dread he’s brewed up to pass the time between the occasional inspiration. What he ends up with is essentially a self-conscious version of “Predator,” the primary concern of which is convincing the audience to take it seriously.
The basic pleasures of, say, witnessing professional competence or camaraderie in the field, are smothered in favor of re-emphasizing just how doomed these characters are. The film is too insecure about its fantastical elements to function as a credible drama, so instead it adamantly demonstrates its headiness before resorting to rote thriller impulses, hoping to find some sort of ambiguity in the kinetic whiplash to pass off as a theme. It poses itself as survivalist, but every beat feels prewritten, and the stakes of the situation are an emotional wasteland.
The gonzo finale that Garland eventually arrives at almost makes up for these shortcomings, relenting to an inventiveness in imagery that stands apart from the pesky narrative. It’s impressively indescribable stuff, offering an inarguable explanation as to why Paramount gave up on selling this movie overseas.
But the compulsion to intellectualize everything follows “Annihilation” to its end, undercutting the intense oddity with a desperate and deflating epilogue. There isn’t anything wrong with having a lot on the mind, but the film’s creative energy is just poorly distributed. Garland takes it upon himself to lend science fiction an unnecessary air of respectability.
The film fashions a simple enough conceit to bounce ideas around in, but it’s too busy selling us on the setup to ever go for broke until the film’s final moments. Certain elements, such as the ubiquitous, ambiguous language and relentlessly droning sound design, are banality masquerading as style, keeping this relatively entrancing yarn from ever becoming genuinely investing.
“Annihilation” is currently playing at Shattuck Cinemas.