"Annihilation" astonishes, frustrates, provokes ...

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Alex Garland‘s "Annihilation" is based on a trilogy of books by Jeff Vandermeer. In the initial book, for which Garland's film is based on, a team of female scientists are assembled at Area X, located in Southern Floridian marshland, where a trippy, pinky purpled and blues wall of blow-bubble liquid has surrounded the area. They call it the "Shimmer." The last 11 teams that have walked through this psychedelic wall have not returned, safe for one man (Oscar Isaac) who returns to his wife Lena psychologically disturbed, with no memory of what happened and spitting blood, with, no doubt, his insides having been infiltrated by the unknown entity.  Lena joins a crew of five women for the twelfth expedition, yes these people keep sending crew after crew despite the obvious dangers that seem to arise from every expedition not coming back.

These are well-armed women — a biologist played by Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh's psychologist, Tessa Thompson's biologist, paramedic Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny's M.D — but they seem rather ill equipped and under-trained to enter this realm of the unknown. The goal as you might imagine is rather obvious, try to to figure out the root of it all which seems to be coming from a lighthouse that is around a week away by foot.


What follows is a CG-fest with creepy surprises laying around every which corner. Visually, Garland's film is quite astounding,  It’s “inventive,” as the crew starts to realize that science-defying mutations are happening all around them, plants, animals, even humans binding together in unexpected ways, they also realize that, no kidding, they're in deep trouble. 


Of course, Garland's film is much more than just an alien film, its ambitions would like you to think that it is about the meaning of existence, but it rather shares striking similarities to John McTiernan‘s "Predator" and James Cameron‘s "Aliens", two American-made sci-fi thrillers that have been relentlessly copied over the years by hundreds of filmmakers. Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker" also comes to mind, but one wishes Garland was more influenced by the latter than the former. One cannot qualify 'Annihilation" as a "creature feature," it's a blend of different genres, even though spliced monsters do show up to wreak havoc on our female heroines (Check that Albino Alligator!)


Portman is her usual solid self, this is the chewiest, meatiest role she's undertaken since 2010's "Black Swan," but, despite all that, it's Gina Rodriquez that steals the show from her, completely castigating her sweet innocent role in "Jane the Virgin, by playing a torn character slowly but surely losing her mind in the wilderness. When that breakdown does occur, it's gloriously unnerving stuff. Ditto a a horrific video made by an earlier expedition, which sends the movie off into higher tension. 


The familiarity that comes in watching the narrative structure of "Annihilation" is compensated by the fact that this film is just gorgeous to watch. Cinematographer Rob Hardy has given us images of sheer terror and beauty. the visual inventiveness of the multi-colored DNA mashups in the "Shimmer" reveals a world unlike any portrayed before on-screen. A natural biosphere filled with animals and plants spliced into trippy hues that seem so foreign but relatable that they exude an extra air of creepiness. And wait until you see the visually audacious, eye-popping, finale which unlike, say "2001: A Space Odyssey," a film Garland has clearly been inspired by, doesn't have the kind of heft it thinks it does. It's not as ambiguous or puzzling as the rumors had hinted it was and that's all fine and dandy because the sheer risk-taking is enough to compensate in "Annihilation." 


For all the supposed inventiveness displayed through Garland and Hardy's images, the narrative is fairly simple and cohesive enough to please the mainstream. There's an accessibility to the film that dulls or rather plods the film along in parts. The way Garland manages to turn interior settings into gloomy, isolate dorms of hell very much has to do with the way Garland frames his characters as singular entities rather than as a whole crew. 

Garland could have benefited from having a more interesting central character than Lena, whose personal life, a tumultuous marriage, a secret affair, is revealed to us over a series of flashbacks that feel too pat and obvious to make you care about this clearly troubled human being. That, in essence, turns out to be the film's handicap. Despite the beautiful aesthetics and the gloomy, visionary ambitions, "Annihilation" feels empty inside.  [C+]