To baffle someone is one thing – to flummox them is something else entirely. A distinction made by the best of science fiction, it is not made here.
The highly-anticipated (maybe) sophomore Directorial feature by Ex Machina veteran and critical-darling Alex Garland has and will only endear itself to a heft of fans by being effectively rejected by his studio backers. Paramount, reportedly confronted by a clash between Producers which ultimately saved Garland from adapting notes on the film or tweaking the ending and much else, sold, or offloaded if you will, the distribution rights to Netflix in several major markets, including Australia.
A healthy dose of scepticism generally greets any inkling that a studio is willing to meddle with a respected filmmaker’s vision, as occurred with the significant reshoots appended to Rogue One, which, by fan reactions, turned out a lot better than expected. We’ll never know if the suggested interventions would have made Annihilation better, but the studio weren’t wrong that the film needed a push.
Opening with some nondescript object emerging from the stratosphere only to propel itself at a lone lighthouse, Government-types, among them Jennifer Jason Leigh’s appropriately named Ventress, decide to send expeditions into the zone, from which none return. With the ‘shimmer’ emanating from the object and concealing all inside slowly expanding, soon biologist and ex-soldier Lena (Natalie Portman), mourning the disappearance of her husband who had remained in the Armed Forces (Oscar Isaac), joins the next contingent to enter the unknown.
The name of Leigh’s character is not the only clear facet of the film’s heavy servings of symbolism. The unusual moniker of one central figure, sparingly adopted but of great biblical significance familiar to all, proffers but one of many interpretations that can be drawn from the film’s deliberately oblique events. Emerging into a colourfully-realised filmmaker’s fantasy, events that occur are not readily explained or discernible, save a few moments where the characters blurt out exactly what they think is going on and Garland seems otherwise determined to offer us at least a few breadcrumbs.
The film errs greatly when it diverges from its cerebral, optically-entrancing fixations to fleetingly delve into realms of explicit philosophical treatise which grind to a halt the sense of wonderment that otherwise pervades this feature. Being told what to think, as Annihiliation alternately insists on doing, is not nearly as mesmerising as being shown; the creators here neglecting to fully capitalise on their redoubtable conceit. Propelled by a visually-deft and thoroughly-intriguing concept that offers profound, exciting opportunities for production designers, digital artists and audiences alike absent the blatant literal intrusions, Garland’s deployment of his rich premise is surprisingly restrained, lacking the vibrant treatments of the predicaments he has previously penned.
The extended penultimate sequence, which occurs only following the most eyeroll-worthy of the film’s efforts to jam its ideas down our throats, thankfully reverts to a beauteous serving of science fiction-fantasy visual feasts. Readings of these elements will be rife among viewers, and no doubt can and will range from biblical and environmental metaphors to oblique, varied considerations of modern psychology and emotional well-being. This sequence would have been that much more impactful had the film not submerged itself in this collage of semi-articulated, divaricated strands where it could just as well have been populated by one or few more focused if labyrinthine branches ala those classics that Garland so sought to emulate, most notable among them 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The promise of wildly divergent readings a valuable aspect of the film in and of itself, regrettably Annihilation like mother! before it (to which this film, on more than one reading, bears more than a few garish thematic consistencies) explicitly and inexplicitly hurdles ideas at you in the hopes some will stick. More confounding than it is perplexing, Annihilation’s central and hugely underdeveloped early revelation, itself the crux of its myriad visual and thematic notions as well as any visceral appeal, absent much else would have done just as well to extol this film’s virtues had it been given room to thrive.
Annihilation is now streaming on Netflix