I’ve been looking forward to seeing this since I first saw the trailer a few months ago, and I’m happy to say it really lived up to expectations. Annihilation brings a very menacing environment to a science fiction story that is familiar at times but yet original when it matters. What I did not know when I watched this was that it was based on a book series.
We start with Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, a grieving widow who believes she has lost her husband, Kane, to some sort of military mission until the day he returns home–a year later–with no real knowledge of where he’s been or what has happened. She tries to discuss the situation with him, but he starts bleeding terribly, so she calls an ambulance. Midway to the hospital, the ambulance is surrounded by masked gunmen from the government and both husband and wife are taken to a military research facility outside a phenomenon known as the Shimmer. There we learn Kane was on a mission within and that’s where he’s been for the last year.
Lena is debriefed by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is the psychologist in charge of deciding who goes into the Shimmer. Here we find out that no team or technology that enters has ever returned except for Kane. We also learn that Dr. Ventress is putting a team together to enter the Shimmer and try to do what all the other teams failed to do: find the source and see if it can be extinguished before the Shimmer grows to engulf more and more and can potentially change the face of the planet if left unchecked. Lena decides she needs to go with this team to help save her husband. Luckily, she’s a biologist and former military so she’s allowed to take part.
When this team enters the Shimmer, everything seems normal until they wake up in tents they didn’t set up. They end up losing a few days to some sort of memory loss, find out their rations are in fact used a bit, and that their compass is spinning wildly. While the time loss wasn’t revisited at any other point in the film, I would presume that we are only shown the first time they encounter it. I’d also guess that the other times they experienced it weren’t eventful, but the book series may elaborate further.
As they travel deeper, they run across an old military post that was used up until the Shimmer engulfed it. Here some remnants of the previous team’s gear are found. Among the items is a video camera that reveals more strange behavior that the Shimmer causes. It’s at this point that the group begins to question their own sanity and that of the previous team, having watched some very gory footage the previous team shot. They stay at the base overnight, but a rather large creature comes along and captures one of the team members.
In the morning, they set out again and after a bit come across some tracks that may lead to their lost member. Lena takes it upon herself to go and see what became of the missing and learns she became a bloody victim to whatever creature took her. Lena returns with the news to her cohorts and they push on. This time they arrive at a city that was abandoned in the wake of the Shimmer and hole up for the night again. One member loses herself and ties everyone up, not trusting anyone after the last day’s events. It’s at this point that we get to see the creature that killed their team member and it’s glorious! You get to take a good look at what this creature is and how it was mangled by the Shimmer. At this point in the story, the remaining team members split off for various reasons and we’re basically left with Lena herself pursuing to resolve the mission and save her husband.
At certain points during the film, she recalls being unfaithful to her husband, which I took to be a lot of the reason she volunteered for this mission in the first place, as a sort of retribution for the cheating. That part gets left behind as the story progresses though, so I’m guessing the books might dig a bit deeper into what she was thinking. This part could have been dropped quite honestly since it wasn’t really expanded on in the later sections.
Eventually, Lena does reach the end of her journey and as I watched this film reach its climax, I couldn’t help but recall a similar scene from the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher. At the time, I thought it was strange that Dreamcatcher came to mind, but after learning that Annihilation is actually based on a book series itself, I kind of wonder if there is a similar change of ending as there was in Dreamcatcher. Based on reviews I’ve read after seeing it, I’d guess that the overall story is pretty close though. Sadly, Dreamcatcher was altered so much that the ending ruined the whole story before it, but I don’t feel that was the case here.
The biggest inspiration for Annihilation is Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Stalker has a very similar premise, except that it’s more of a psychological offering and doesn’t show any of the twisted monsters that Annihilation does. The more cerebral approach wasn’t what I wanted out of Stalker so I felt let down by it. At the same time, I feel like it’s an amazing film I need to see with a different mindset going in. Why that’s important to Annihilation is that when I saw the trailer for this, I said to myself this is the movie I felt Stalker would be. Where the former took to psychological ideas, Annihilation literally brings the monsters on the screen.
Sadly, though this is a really good film, it does have some flaws. The science was explained well enough so that wasn’t an issue and once they get into the Shimmer the movie really excels. It’s the beginning and ending where I have my issues. I can’t quite put my finger on what I didn’t like about the beginning, but there were some things that may have been a bit too convenient or as someone else, I read mentioned, a bit too explained. Also, the infidelity is brought up through flashbacks periodically up until the Shimmer, but then gets left behind. I feel that could have been explored a bit more while Lena was inside. The problem I have with the ending is this bad CGI thing at the climax. The rest of the film was very well made so that part stuck out rather bluntly, to me anyway.