The essence of “Annihilation” comes from the structure that we might be taken over or changed and have no concept of the texture of our transformation. Like “Ex Machina”, director Alex Garland examines the idea of the existential. What is interesting is that you don’t usually see it in a big budget movie. Having talked with Portman over the years, I can understand in many ways how come this idea appealed to her and especially with Garland coming off something like “Ex Machina”. The movie has its own pace to be sure and does take a while to move but that is somewhat the texture of its madness. It doesn’t want to explain which is why the paradox of the film structure and even the music can be misleading. Watching how the movie is told in an essence of flashback can almost be seen as lazy. Some of the dialogue too obvious. But the use of time (which in many essences could have been used to greater effect) has potential. Again “Ex Machina” was working in a more confined space where the darkness just lurks. Annihilation moves it a bit out in the open which might work against it. It is the ethereal and the notion of self that swells in the final moments and the metaphor it is showing that stays with the viewer. It is a trick of the mind in many ways.
Like “Mother”, it is a movie that is very true to its identity but a little out of sync with the current blockbuster mentality. You are watching Portman work her way through the dissolution of her character but within the canvas of “The Shimmer”. Make no mistake, it is wonderful to see her back in this kind of world. Like Jodie Foster before her, she imbues the struggle with intelligence, as if her instincts are fighting against it. Oscar Isaac, who did some great work in “Ex Machina”, knows the key here is moving like a wave past Portman which makes her performance swell. Great supporting actors like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson (more subdued and nuanced than her Ragnarok performance) and Gina Rodriguez offer a definite groundedness.
The fact that the female actors permeate the meat of this film as the team that we follow gives the pace a sense of introspection that would be missing if even one male was interspersed. A scene inside an abandoned house with a lost cry of a comrade is eerie in what it portends. That said, the film doesn’t include as many spine tingle moments as “Machina” did. Like “Machina” as well though, “Annihilation” will wander better the more it is watched, especially with the scenes involving The Lighthouse. It is a continual evolution of a filmmaker interested in bigger ideas with genre constructs that doesn’t need to convene to an idea of reality. It is more about where we are going versus where we have been.
By Tim Wassberg