Ex Machina Director Teams With Natalie Portman for Experimental Sci-Fi
DIRECTED BY ALEX GARLAND/2018
Alex Garland has been in the industry for a while as a writer, with such projects as 28 Days Later, and Dredd on his resume. It was his directorial debut, which he also wrote, that truly brought him to the forefront as a director to watch with 2014’s Ex Machina. A small film in many ways, Ex Machina dealt with big ideas, and featured a fantastic cast with Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno, and Alicia Vikander. The film dealt with the ideas of artificial intelligence (A.I.), and even had a great twist ending that earned Alex Garland well-deserved acclaim. His second directorial effort, which he also wrote the screenplay for, is the adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s award-winning book, Annihilation.
Let me just say from the onset, Annihilation is a difficult film to pin down. This is true whether you are trying to categorize the film into a certain genre, and it is true when trying to review the film, as any discussion would force you to delve deeply into concepts and plots that would push one into spoiler territory. From the trailer, the film definitely stood out in my mind as being a certain type of film, much like the original Alien from Ridley Scott. My first impression was that it would be about a team that is sent in to explore an unknown place where they discover some amazing things but slowly realize that this place isn’t all it seems to be, nor is anyone on the team safe. Having seen the film, I can tell you that the trailers, which are meant for marketing the film, present something that is not entirely true to the film as a whole. For those that appreciated the hidden agenda of Ex Machina, this is good news heading into Annihilation.
The basic story is that Johns Hopkins biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), who is an expert in cell division, has been trying to get by on her own after her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) went on a military mission and has not been heard from in a year. When he suddenly arrives home with no memory of how he got there, who Lena is, or what he has been doing for the past year, and coughing up blood, Lena seeks to get him to the hospital, only to find herself at a secret military facility. There she discovers “The Shimmer”, an ever-expanding area with a shimmering membrane that has appeared when an object from space entered Earth’s atmosphere and landed near a lighthouse in the area, which may hold the key to what happened to her husband and his team, of which he is the only known survivor.
Since Lena has military training, having served seven years in the Army, she joins an expeditionary team of women, including a psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a former paramedic now surveyor named Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), an anthropologist named Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and a linguist named Cass Shepherd (Tuva Novotny). As they enter “The Shimmer”, they will seek to discover the nature of this entity as well as what has been happening to the teams that have been sent in, but never seem to return.
Like Ex Machina’s dealing with A.I., Annihilation seeks to use this object from space to have dialogues on all sorts of big ideas including everything from science, God, extinction, creation, self-destructive actions, and the Hox Gene, to what affects marriages, aliens, mutations, and much more. There is also something very specific to the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song “Helplessly Hoping” which is played multiple times throughout the film. This all helps to build a great shroud of mystery that creates enough tension to move the story forward, even if Garland takes his time to build the narrative.
Despite all of these big ideas, something gets lost by the time you make it to the end where the big reveal doesn’t seem to wrap up the many dangling threads like Ex Machina was able to do so successfully. Here, the film is much too vague. On one hand it seeks to keep the level of mystery it had tried to establish and maintain throughout the film so that it would spur discussion afterwards on what it all meant. On the other hand, it structures itself as a film that will provide you all of the answers if you just wait for it, much like the character of Lomax, played by Benedict Wong, is having to do as he interviews Lena as she recounts her experience in “The Shimmer”.
The cast is well assembled, and Sonoya Mizuno, like Oscar Isaac, makes an appearance in this film after having appeared in Ex Machina as well. Despite having a great cast, and a film that puts females front and center, the story fails to stick the landing. It is unfortunate as there are some great elements here that continue to support the notion that Alex Garland is a filmmaker to watch. His name, after Ex Machina, is what drew me to wanting to watch this film without seeing a cast list, plot, or trailer. Unfortunately, by not giving the viewer just enough information to satisfy some of the loose threads, it compromises the larger aim of Annihilation being a discussion starter because of any unresolved mystery that warrants further viewings. Most will walk away, not wanting to know more.
With two more novels being written by Jeff VanderMeer since Alex Garland began to adapt the first entry, there could be more to explore, but I don’t think most will even care to do so. This may be an unfortunate development as Alex Garland is still a director to watch. I believe future installments could solve my issue with Annihilation‘s inability to balance answers vs. mystery, but as his sophomore effort demonstrates, not every film he does will hit in the same way that his debut did, and thus we probably won’t be returning to “The Shimmer” anytime soon. That’s alright, as I’d rather him swing for the fences as a writer and director, like he did here, and miss slightly, than to play it safe. Here’s to waiting for Alex Garland’s next at bat.