I may have been in the worst situation to see this movie. I had never read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (part of the “Southern Reach” trilogy). And, I was a huge fan of writer/director Alex Gardland’s Ex Machina from a few years ago. I named it the best movie of 2015. So, you take Oscar Isaac from that movie, and put him in this with Natalie Portman as his kick-ass soldier/doctor/professor wife…what could go wrong? Apparently, a lot.
Ex Machina dealt with A.I. in a way I had never seen before, and it was an interesting character study.
This movie just seems to borrow from other sci-fi and horror flicks we’ve seen before. At various times I thought of the following: Avatar, Solaris, Prometheus, Island of Dr. Moreau, Jurassic Park, Arrival, The Thing, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
At the film’s start, Lena (Natalie Portman) is teaching her class at Johns Hopkins about cells. In one of my many college scene pet peeves, the class furiously takes notes on her every word. What she’s really doing is explaining some things to the audience that may help us understand the metaphysical and biological stuff we’ll be seeing later on.
Her husband (Oscar Isaac) has returned from a mission with the worst case of PTSD you’ve ever seen. He’s quickly rushed to the hospital, as he spits out blood and goes into convulsions.
He’s not taken to the hospital, but a military installation. Lena goes there and gets a bizarre lecture from a doctor (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She explains there’s a “shimmer” in the swamp, and it’s getting wider and wider, destroying everything in its path. The various soldiers that have gone in to check it out, never come back. Lena quickly joins four other women to be the next troop that ventures in. The logic being…none of the men made it out, maybe the gals will have more luck. And at least they got some tough and brainy women to do it. We know at least one of these women will survive, because in another one of my movie pet peeves, things start with an interrogation of Lena by a group of men in hazmat suits asking what she saw when she went inside.
The crew includes Tuva Novotny (A War), Tessa Thompson (Dear White People), Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin).
Things start off okay. They have sexy dreams, see a beautiful, new species of flower, and have a few days of hiking before they’ll make it to the lighthouse, where the mysterious thing first arrived. Yet soon they start getting paranoid and their bodies start to transform. The physicist makes a bit of headway, explaining why their radios and cell phones don’t work, and how the shimmer refracts DNA from everything, combining genetic strands and creating new creatures and plants. That explanation keeps you interested for about half an hour, as we get to see alligators with rows and rows of teeth like a shark, and plants that are shaped like humans.
The third act is utterly ridiculous, and almost completely sinks the film. It’s funny because a lot of my friends hated Arrival (Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner) because they said nothing much happens. Well, this is like Arrival with too much happening, but none of it is all that interesting. It’s also an incoherent narrative that doesn’t explain things in a satisfying way.
And in this day and age when we’ve seen lots of cool CGI and graphics splashed across the screen, it’s not like these visuals are anything special either.
It’s getting rave reviews from most critics, so if you’re a fan of sci-fi, you should probably catch it. I just can’t give it a strong recommendation.
2 stars out of 5.