If Garland’s Ex Machina was revisiting the claustrophobic sci fi horrors of the 70s such as Demon Seed and Silent Running, then Annihilation sees him taking on the more expansive, existentialist legacy of 2001, Solaris and Stalker. This is where a film that has many elements to recommend it, comes up short ultimately. Garland is a sort of Kubrick-Lite. You sense that he really wants to explore issues of identity, humanity, existence. But he doesn’t have the intellectual depth to take us to a place, like the end of 2001, where we are left pondering if we understand not only what we’ve just seen, but our own sense of the universe. He is too much of a conventional film maker to pull this off, which is why Ex Machina worked reasonably well, because these considerations were contained within a tight three person drama.
The best thing about Annihilation is the all women team that enters the mysterious Shimmer, where Portman’s husband along with several armed forces missions has disappeared, only to be the sole person to return. Tessa Thompson makes a convincing transition from hard ass Valkyrie in Thor, to team boffin, and the continued renaissance of Jennifer Jason Leigh is a joy to witness. Portman can be a rather distant, cold actor, which can produce an effective jarring in some roles, such as Black Swan, (or Jackie) but in this the requisite sympathy needed to feel her urge to right the moralistic error in her past is absent. She states that she is the only one who has a reason to return, but the audience don’t share this drive. The “Predators with women” summary that has been bandied about Annihilation does it a discredit, but beyond having the five female leads, Garland doesn’t really explore the dynamics of such a group, much of the same plot would apply with an all male cast. Maybe that’s the point (as it was in The Descent), but it is interesting to inagine what a women director such as Patty Jenkins, Dee Rees or Sarah Polley would have done with the material.
The Shimmer is effectively created, a world like ours, but just off, like those paintings of Disney characters on ice cream vans. The discord starts with wildly differentiated flowers blooming from the same plant, goes through unusual crocodiles to increasingly alien lifeforms. Garland is adept at mixing action with plot progression, but there is always a risk in his films that it doesn’t satisfy either demand. Instead of Predators with women, we have Solaris with Predators, and that probably doesn’t keep either camp happy. As the story progresses so does his desire to ensure that we get there is meaning here, but this is where his ambition outstrips his talent. By the time it gets to Oscar Isaac strapped in a chair saying things like “Am I me? I can’t tell where I end and you begin” it’s like Sci Fi Existentialism for Dummies. I wanted to like this more than I did in the end.