corporate social responsibility

‘Annihilation’ review: A gutsy foray

Iñigo De Paula
‘Annihilation’ review: A gutsy foray

Peter Mountain

Iñigo de Paula weighs in on whether or not Alex Garland's 'Annihilation' is worth the watch

Warning: This review includes minor spoilers.

MANILA, Philippines – There is sci-fi that makes you look up at the stars and consider the possibilities beyond that expanse. And then there’s sci-fi that makes you look at your own body and wonder about the unseen, freaky crap lurking just beneath your skin. Annihilation, a movie based on Jeff Vandermeer’s first book in his Southern Reach book trilogy, is a hybrid of both. It follows in the sticky, slimy footsteps of John Carpenter and Ridley Scott – two filmmakers who’ve built careers on alien assimilation and body horror.

At the beginning of Annihilation, a meteor plummets to earth and lands on a lighthouse in Florida. The fact that the lighthouse is still standing isn’t the weirdest thing that happens. Whatever was inside the meteor engulfs the immediate area in a glistening, incandescent bubble. And that bubble – called the Shimmer by those investigating it – is expanding. A succession of military personnel has been sent to investigate the Shimmer, but none have returned, except for one: Kane (Oscar Isaac), who is married to Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biologist and former soldier in the US army.

KANE. Oscar Isaac stars in 'Annihilation.' Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Annihilation follows a team composed of women scientists: Lena, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Cass (Tuva Novotny). Lena gets embroiled in the mess when her husband mysteriously reappears after a year lost in the Shimmer. When Kane begins showing symptoms of disease, Lena calls 911. Their ambulance is intercepted by a group of soldiers who takes the couple to a secret military base.

The base is located in what is called the Southern Reach; or a place just outside the edge of the Shimmer. There, Lena learns about the Shimmer, and the US government’s efforts to unlock its secrets. With her husband in critical condition, Lena opts to join the new expedition into the Shimmer. Headed by Dr. Ventress, the expedition’s ultimate goal is find the lighthouse and gather data. (A few days before leaving the base, Cass notes that most of the earlier personnel sent in were military; this time, only scientists would be exploring.)

THE TEAM. The ladies who are sent into the 'Shimmer' in 'Annihilation' are played by Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

With scientific gear (and assault rifles, for good measure) packed, the science team enters the Shimmer on foot. As the name implies, the area within is bathed in a shifting, incandescent glow, like the surface of a soap bubble. Large clusters of what look like mutated mold cling to trees, and strange animal sounds call out from just outside one’s peripheral vision. The world-building and cinematography is gorgeous and dreamlike, but there’s still a certain CGI coldness to the setting, much like the environments in the Star Wars prequels.   

And just like in the Star Wars prequels, Natalie Portman’s performance here tends to be on the flat side, which could also be said for the other actors. There are some moments of seething intensity – Anya’s mental breakdown later on and Lena’s post-mission briefing being notable examples. But you still get the feeling that director Alex Garland was trying to reign in the intensity of his actors.

INTO THE SHIMMER. Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in 'Annihilation.' Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Garland steadily ramps up the terror as the mission progresses, at least. Josie gets mauled and is nearly eaten by a giant alligator. After Lena guns down the gator, she finds that the animal has double-rows of teeth, like those found in a great white shark. They reach an abandoned military facility where Kane’s earlier expedition was based. They come across a video recording of Kane slicing open the stomach of one of his teammates to show that the man’s innards had begun to mutate. The video is very Blair Witch, and amps the horror and visceral aspects of the movie.  

That evening, a mysterious creature enters the base and takes Cass with it. The following day, the team finds human-shaped vegetation. Josie posits that the Shimmer actually functions as a sort of biological prism; merging characteristics of one species with another. When evening comes, the creature stalks what remains of the team, and we finally come face-to-face with it. The beast mimics the dying words of Cass, like a myna bird from hell. It’s easily the most gripping, tension-filled scene in the movie.

We’re supposed to feel something when certain members of the team get picked off one by one. But most of the deaths can be met with an indifferent shrug. Character backgrounds are provided via exposition, but it isn’t quite enough to get the viewer invested in each of the characters’ journeys. Lena is ultimately the last woman standing, and finally makes it to the lighthouse. She descends a hole in the ground and finds Ventress, who morphs into a floating nebulous form, and eventually takes Lena’s shape. The entity mimics all of Lena’s movements, and there’s a tense, but somewhat comedic moment where Lena rushes to the door, and the mimic follows, nearly crushing her on it. Lena takes a phosphorus grenade, and using the mimic’s movements to her advantage, places it in the mimic’s hand and pulls the pin. The creature erupts in flames, as does the lighthouse. The Shimmer eventually evaporates.

The final act of Annihilation is as trippy as it is infuriating. It presents several tantalizing hypotheses about life, and then kicks up a cloud of dust just as you are about to arrive at a conclusion. It’s a puzzle box meant to inspire deeper inquiry, but whether the viewer leaves with something is largely up to their tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. –

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.