The two most bewildering things about Annihilation are director Garland’s inability to frame for Panavision aspect ratio—did cinematographer Rob Hardy just not want to tell him he was reusing the same three close-up shots, with his subject on one side of the frame, looking off, the other three-quarters empty, or did Hardy not see a problem with it (given the amount of post-production filtering and CG enhancing, it’s hard to guess what they actually shot)—and Jennifer Jason Leigh being a supporting player and not the lead.
Natalie Portman is the lead of Annihilation. She’s a Johns Hopkins professor, married to a special forces guy (Oscar Isaac), who has been dead for a year. We know he’s been dead for a year because Garland (as screenwriter, adapting a novel) has a whole bunch of exposition dumps in the film. We’ve already seen a meteor (or something) crash into the planet Earth, targeting a lighthouse because… V’Ger had a series of romance novel covers on it too and then Portman in an isolation room, with a fantastic Benedict Wong interrogating her, then we flashback to before the isolation room, after the meteor. Isaac’s been dead a year, Portman’s friend at work, David Gyasi, invites her to a barbecue but she can’t because it’s finally time to paint she and Isaac’s bedroom.
Cue flashbacks of Portman and Isaac’s idyllic, playful sex life.
We’ll soon find out—because Isaac interrupts her painting the bedroom—he hasn’t been dead, he’s just been missing. In fact, the Army hasn’t even officially classified him M.I.A.—though Annihilation plays real loose with what one might consider military protocol, there are Chuck Norris movies with a heck of a lot more reasonable verisimilitude as far as military operations go. But something’s obviously wrong with Isaac, even before he starts bleeding uncontrollably. When Portman tries to take him to the hospital, a bunch of stormtroopers intercept the ambulance and kidnap them.
She wakes up in what seems like a hospital room, talking to a psychiatrist (Leigh), and quickly learns Isaac had been missing because he went inside the strange, growing zone of something or other around the lighthouse where the meteor (or whatever) hit in the opening. It’s been three years, this zone, called the Shimmer, has increased exponentially in size and overtaken the towns, military bases, shacks, and who knows what else. No one has ever come back from the Shimmer, except Isaac (and Portman, as the frequent flash forwards to the interrogation remind—it’s not a bookend device, but a narration one)—and, well, Leigh’s putting the next team together.
Leigh, secretly dying of cancer, is sick of sending men to their apparent deaths and is going to go in now. It’s going to be an all-female team; her, paramedic Gina Rodriguez, scientist Tuva Novotny, other scientist Tessa Thompson. And wouldn’t Portman make a great fifth, being a not just a Johns Hopkins biologist, but also a former soldier. There’s a (bewildering) scene where Novotny asks Portman about her CV and Portman says she was in the military so Novotny can ask which branch so Garland can kill another fifteen or thirty seconds of the runtime, which is supposedly okay because the mise en scène of life in the Shimmer—a Florida swamp with lots of colorful plant mutations–not to mention Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s emotive score, is so compelling.
Is the Shimmer visually compelling? Sure? Garland’s not great at establishing shots. Annihilation feels very much like someone aping Terrence Malick aping 2001 but without the commitment to either. Mark Digby’s production design is good enough it’s too bad Garland’s not patient enough to explore it. Whether Digby is a Vertigo Swamp Thing fan or it just happens to always looks like panels (or covers) from that series aside… it’s a great proof of concept for an adaptation of the comic because a bunch of it is straight from those comics. But Garland avoids visualizing too much, instead sticking close to Portman’s perception of things unless he’s got to manipulate the audience to make the next narrative twist work.
At a certain point, Annihilation peaks and then plateaus. The thirty minutes (it runs just under two hours) before they get into the Shimmer isn’t great, especially since Portman’s protagonist is flat. We keep learning more and more about her and Isaac throughout and all of it’s boring. Same goes for the rest of the team (save Leigh, who gets so little onscreen character development it does gin up curiosity). But Novotny, Rodriguez, and Thompson? They’re shadows of caricatures, Rodriguez and Thompson the most. Maybe Garland couldn’t figure out how to write them in a reality where no one in the world noticed a whole section of Florida disappear, which would be visible from space. Maybe he really thought Portman was somehow the most compelling.
Doesn’t matter. Like his framing, like his downgrading of Leigh’s character, like his choice of composers… he was just wrong and it doesn’t work.
Kind of like Oscar Issac doing a Southern accent. No matter how much CGI you throw at it, no matter how much scary gross you make it, somethings just aren’t going to work.
Annihilation desperately wants to be heady, lush, hard sci-fi and is willing to sacrifice everything else to get there.