Unlike for other escapist genres, it’s been a long time since “taking itself seriously” could be considered enough to validate a science fiction film. While the 2000s saw Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) and Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) transforming traditionally “low genres” into Oscar-winning milestones, filmmakers have used futuristic technology to tell complex, human stories for as long as there have been sci-fi films. With this in mind, it’s only natural to expect more from modern sci-fi than technical competence. Writer/director Alex Garland has proven himself capable of straddling the line between hard science and more humanist fiction before with AI thriller Ex Machina (2015). With his latest release, Annihilation, he revisits similar themes of technology and identity, albeit with mixed results. While the film features staggering visual and philosophical set pieces, it falters by approaching characters with the same didactic coldness as its science.
Annihilation follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and former soldier whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has recently returned from a top secret military mission under mysterious circumstances. As time passes, Lena is drawn in by the same shadowy government organization that employed her husband. His mission is revealed to concern “the Shimmer,” an enigmatic, expanding region apparently unhinged from earth’s physical rules, from which Kane is the only person to have ever returned. Lena embarks to the Shimmer herself, along with a team of fellow scientist-soldiers played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny.
In addition to his film resume, Alex Garland has worked on several video games in the past, an experience that shows in Annihilation’s pacing and dialogue. After entering the Shimmer, events play out much like a game: The characters venture into a new area, discover clues and items related to the overarching mystery, and then encounter a new monster several times over. The repetitive pacing has the same potential as a well-made adventure game to produce a more fleshed out world, but it is held back by a reliance on dialogue that sounds more like a gameplay tutorial than real conversation. Garland’s screenplay promises a gorgeous, expansive world, but, instead of actually showing this universe, relies on exposition and description. This is perhaps most glaring in a scene that opens with Lena describing the Shimmer’s beauty with a foreboding, wide-eyed fascination, only for the camera to be dragged back down to two characters reciting their minimal, clichéd, tragic backstories.
Despite Garland’s crutch of Halo-level dialogue, the film’s final half-hour does finally grasp the scientific and philosophical potential it promises. The world’s science becomes clear enough to stand on its own and the exposition finally melts away, allowing questions to become visual and more complex. The recent buzz surrounding Annihilation has made overt comparisons to heady films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solaris (1972), but it is only Annihilation’s climax that truly warrants those comparisons. It’s a shame that viewers must first plod through so much underdeveloped dialogue, but it’s hard to imagine anyone walking out of these operatic final scenes feeling anything less than astonishment.
Annihilation benefits from taking its headier philosophical concepts seriously, something that boils over beautifully in its climax. Unfortunately, it chooses to also treat its characters like scientific theories that need broad definitions. For a film with such an awe-inspiring outer world, it is hard to understand why characters’ interiorities need to be stripped down to groan-inducing lines like “all work and no play,” or, shudder, “you don’t hate me, you hate yourself.” The theoretical side of Garland’s film makes it ultimately rewarding; but, in a cruel irony, this same approach applied to its narrative holds it back from being a truly successful work.