Annihilation (2018)

Annihilation (2018) Cover

Before saying anything else about Annihilation, I want to say this first: Annihilation is like a beautiful waking nightmare of intense flowering macabre that could be described as a Frieda painting sprouting forth from a Monet. There are a lot of flaws with this film, but what it does well, it does so well that there are no supplements or substitutions to be found elsewhere and my criticisms may even be over harsh. I am my harshest when I want better.

Given the dreamlike nature of Annihilation, if the above is all you need to know then I would recommend going and watching the film before reading further. With that said, Annihilation’s greatest strength is the intense focus and control that director Alex Garland exercises over every single frame. In addition to a meticulous eye for composition, Garland excels here by exercising a rarely seen skill for manipulating the color throughout. Each image is carefully composed and balanced, which sometimes can be lost given the organic nature of the locations we’re exposed to as an audience.

From this bed of astounding cinematography, Alex Garland grows a garden of dreamlike images. Both beautiful and horrifying, the pictures that Alex Garland paints are deeply provocative. Be warned, though, that Garland delves into the grotesque. The darkest and goriest scenes in Annihilation stand out as frightening and horrifying to watch but are viewed so clinically that they are more upsetting than frightening. They are impactful, but in the same way, a dream that doesn’t wake you up may be.

The detached half-wakeful way that Annihilation drifts from scene to scene bridges is both a strength and weakness. The best films that have followed dream logic through their narrative start off grounded and end someplace meaningful, such as Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately, there is no bridge between the believable and unbelievable here. From the beginning, Annihilation feels loose and ethereal in how it deals with the details of its world.

To get into this, I do need to go over the core premise of the film, though all of this information could be gathered from the trailer or from the back of the first book. Lena (Natalie Portman) has been missing her husband for over a year, when suddenly he returns. Without telling her anything about where he has been or what he’s done in his absence, he falls seriously ill. A team of shadowy government military agents takes Lena captive and tells her that for the past several years a “shimmer” has been growing outward from a lighthouse on the nearby coast, that nothing and no one that has gone inside it has ever returned… except Lena’s husband.

Right from the beginning, though, everything feels so loose and shallow. The shimmer itself is just vaguely defined and described, and we never get a sense of basic attempts to simply go into the shimmer and immediately come out of it. The government institution and all of the characters surrounding Lena are poorly developed, and even Lena herself never gets a last name. This is the part of the film where we need to feel grounded and get a sense of normality and a solid feel for what we think we’re about to experience so that when everything changes it feels like falling into sleep. Unfortunately, because it never feels solid, it’s jarring right from the start and it continues through to the end.

More tragically, the end fails to feel connected to the story in any meaningful way. It’s not an over cerebral ending, just the opposite, it’s incredibly mundane, but at the same time failing to explain anything or impart any kind of meaning to the experience that leads up to it. It’s the worst sort of ending that tries to upend the story in a way that the narrative hasn’t earned the right to do. The close is easily the worst part of the entire film and it had me reeling with disappointment as I walked out of the theater.

Despite all of these negatives, Annihilation does something that few horror movies do, and that is to capture the beauty in a nightmare that feels as though it cannot be escaped or woken from. When it accomplishes this at its best, Annihilation delivers something that doesn’t exist anywhere else with this degree of quality. I just wish it had done more than that, because it feels like it easily could have.

Final Verdict:An important work for the horror genre that fails to excel to its full potential.