This space thriller featuring Natalie Portman as a former soldier-turned-biologist who helps lead a team of female scientists to investigate a mysterious, malevolent force called “The Shimmer” has plenty of atmosphere, scares and great performances, but its final half-hour annihilates all the goodwill built up before with a thoroughly confusing and nihilistic ending.
Seeing a scary movie can be a great date experience, providing plenty of chances to hold hands in fear, snuggle up in tension and have fun by gasping, screaming or talking to the screen. The new movie “Annihilation” has quite a few of these moments in its first hour or so, with terrific performances, sympathetic characters and outstanding atmosphere to boot.
But then, it blows it all in its final half-hour, with a maddening collapse of logic into psychedelic-style confusion and a dragged-out, utterly confusion mess of bizarre imagery that left the audience at my screening audibly angry by the time it ended and as they left the theater. The best comment I overheard among many irate ones was “Well, it was interesting to look at.” If you want to leave the theater confused and complaining, this is your movie!
If you want to spend up to 30 bucks or more on a couple of tickets, only to be thoroughly confused and annoyed, THIS is your movie. I’m assuming you won’t like that result, so I’m warning you that “Annihilation” will annihilate your chances of engaged conversation after it’s over.
Female fighters in a thriller built on mood more than mayhem
An alien space thriller built around Natalie Portman as Lena, a former soldier who leads a group of women on an expedition to find out what is behind a mysterious force that has the potential to endanger the entire planet, it relies on smarts and emotions as much as scares—before annihilating most of the goodwill it’s built up with an absolutely maddening ending.
The film opens on Portman’s Lena shown in mourning over her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), whom she believes has been killed while on a covert ops mission since she hasn’t seen or heard from him in an entire year. But after a powerful montage of memories, Kane suddenly appears in her home with an utterly vague explanation of where he’s been— only to suddenly start bleeding internally.
As Lena races to a hospital in an ambulance with Kane, they are suddenly stopped by a team of government operatives on the highway and taken into custody. Waking up in a mysterious cell on a government compound, Lena finds Kane strapped to a gurney on life support.
A psychiatrist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells her that Kane had been on a mission to discover what was inside a lighthouse that a mysterious force that the feds have termed The Shimmer has centered its power on. The Shimmer appeared out of nowhere three years before and has been slowly growing and consuming everything in its wake, forcing every creature in sight to mutate into disturbing new life forms.
Kane may have returned from his mission a bloody and deranged mess, but he was the only one in his team to come back at all. Driven by a need to know what happened to her husband, Lena–a former seven-year Army veteran who’s a badass with a machine gun—insists on joining Dr. Ventress as she leads a team of female scientists into The Shimmer in the hopes of stopping it once and for all.
A masterpiece that devolves into a mess
Much of what follows is a masterpiece of mood, emotion and atmospheric tension, as writer-director Alex Garland (adapting a novel by Jeff VanderMeer) avoids easy shocks to really dig into the sadness that is motivating each woman to risk their very lives for this cause. That slow-building sense of dread pays off terrifically when the few key action sequences do appear, with the women fighting off vicious mutated beasts like a giant crocodile with multiple rows of massive teeth or a giant bear whose roar sounds like the dying screams of the team member it slaughtered earlier.
Portman delivers an amazing performance, moving from the throes of grief to impressive resolve repeatedly throughout the film, and Leigh has her best role in ages as Dr. Ventress (yes, she’s even better here than in her Oscar-nominated turn in “The Hateful Eight.”) But ultimately, the movie falls apart as Portman makes her final advance against The Shimmer.
Even if I wanted to give away the ending, it would be impossible, because it completely lacks any sense. Writer-director Garland has crafted other challenging films that paid off all the way through (“Sunshine,” “The Beach”) but he blows it all here in the closing moments. Don’t let this movie blow your date night.
Carl Kozlowski is a Catholic comedian, film reviewer, and journalist who is also the founder and co-owner of the podcast station www.radiotitans.com in Los Angeles. He reviews movies for the Catholic News Agency as well as the Christian site Movieguide.org, but has also worked with secular outlets including the Pasadena Weekly, Chicago Tribune and Esquire. He has also produced and hosted comedy shows for the LA Catholic Archdiocese's charities and performed at some of the nation's top clubs and with top comics including Dane Cook and Dave Chappelle. He strives to find the way to work with both Christian and secular audiences in all his career paths.