Annihilation Wants to Be the Ultimate Trip, but It’s Not Always Clear Where It’s Going

The new film from Ex Machina writer-director Alex Garland has a contempt for clichés but can’t always find something satisfying to replace them.

Natalie Portman in Annihilation.
Natalie Portman in Annihilation.
Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The past five years have seen two superb films about the utter foreignness of alien life forms: the crowd-pleasing Arrival, in which Amy Adams’ linguist ultimately decodes the spatter-based language of “heptapods,” and the chilly and ungiving Under the Skin, in which Scarlett Johansson’s slinky extraterrestrial preys upon young men, the whys and hows as unknown as her name. Whatever the working balance is between mystery and revelation, Annihilation, the new sci-fi–horror drama from Ex Machina writer-director Alex Garland, never quite pulls it off.

A loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s much stranger novel, Annihilation offers a better experience than a story. A female group of explorers, the newest among them Natalie Portman’s biologist Lena, enter a former national park called Area X that’s become a kind of Bermuda Triangle on land, where communication and navigation signals go awry and survival is rare. The sole exception is Lena’s soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who returns after a yearlong disappearance with no memory of where he’d been or how he got home. After he falls into a coma, Army veteran Lena joins the planned two-week expedition to help figure out what happened to her husband and why this uncharted zone, bound by a pearlescent wall called the Shimmer, keeps expanding outward.

Annihilation also stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as an eccentric psychologist, Gina Rodriguez as a friendly-until-crossed paramedic, Tessa Thompson as a fragile physicist, and Swedish actress Tuva Novotny as a kindly anthropologist. The women share little camaraderie and are rarely seen doing any science more advanced than peering into a microscope. (The conclusions they draw about Area X are plucked from nowhere, robbing viewers of the pleasure of deduction.) Despite the nearly all-female cast, girl power is in short supply, as the actresses aren’t given much complexity to work with, their whisper-thin characters eventually killed one by one by the unnatural forces within Area X, where genetic mutation takes place at hyperspeed. Is it supposed to be more feminist if your female victims were trained in STEM?

As for the accusation that Garland has whitewashed two of VanderMeer’s characters (whose ethnicities weren’t specified until the sequel, which the filmmaker claims he hasn’t read), including the woman at the center of his story, the adaptation is so detached from the source material that I believe him. Someone working on the project must have read the second book in VanderMeer’s trilogy, though, and even if the cast is diverse at the margins, the fact that the whitewashing of the protagonist was apparently never brought up during production is much more damning of the film industry’s out-of-touch whiteness.

I wish I could have gotten subsumed in Annihilation’s creepy cancer forest or at the very least been wowed by some of its chimeric creatures. I mostly just kept waiting to get lost. A pair of deer with flowers growing out of their antlers seemed like something I’d come across on Etsy. The spiky crystal trees dotting a beach felt similarly familiar, whether from seasonal tchotchkes or The Last Jedi’s own crystal foxes, whom one might imagine scaling their glassy trunks. Most visually disappointing is the entity we meet in the fabled lighthouse, a version of which you can see at least once every season on RuPaul’s Drag Race. A couple of beings did come close to impressing. A bear with a hominid trait that I will not spoil introduces one of the film’s most unsettling scenes. And topiary-esque figures formed of branches but shaped like humans, nearly every surface blooming with a disarming innocence, best capture the mix of beauty, melancholy, and eeriness that Annihilation aims for and attains too seldom.

The camera often leaves the women behind to glance back to Lena and Kane’s marriage, scenes of which are scored by obtrusively mellow guitar music I’d more expect to hear at Starbucks. Shortly before Kane departs for Area X, he attempts to comfort his wife by observing that they’ll still be gazing at the same stars. Lena gleefully lambastes her husband for his cheesiness, but for all the couple may scorn clichés, no other scene between them convinces us that there’s anything more to their marriage. So it is with practically any other aspect of the film you might try to chew on. Garland brings up themes and motivations with a dilettante’s fleeting enthusiasm—bits of meat that slip away before you can sink in your teeth. Like Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, it’s at times deliberately confounding, but at least Aronofsky had something to say.

What remains is just a mindscrew—a maze with a few twists that you go through and come out the same. It’s fine, especially for a movie rolled out in February (though, with releases like Get Out, A Fantastic Woman, and Black Panther, the month has begun to shed its reputation as Hollywood’s dumping ground). With uncertainty, there’s no pleasing everyone; each viewer’s appreciation of (or tolerance for) ambiguity and inscrutability is different. But I spent more time in the theater debating whether I wanted to know more or less about Area X than being invested in what happens to the protagonist. In both the Earthlings and the aliens, there’s just too much blankness.