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Annihilation (R)




Annihilation (R)
Film reviews by Amy Diaz

03/01/18
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com



It’s all people-trees and shark-gators and rat-bears, oh my, in an alien-terraformed bubble in the American Southeast in Annihilation, a not-bad but very “chapter one”-ish sci-fi action movie.

Lena (Natalie Portman) doesn’t know about the shark-gators or the Shimmer, as the impenetrable and slowly growing bubble in the Louisiana-ish region is called. All she knows is that her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), a special-ops military type, has been gone for a year and officialdom has given her no word about his whereabouts or status. She floats through her days as a biology professor, assuming that Kane is dead, until suddenly he shows up. He has a foggy memory about where he has been (about who he is, even) and suddenly starts bleeding. By the time he’s in an ambulance, he seems in serious distress — though it’s not until the government SUVs force the ambulance off the road that Lena realizes it’s not all physical distress.
When Lena wakes after being sedated, she finds herself in something that seems part hospital, part prison, part forward operating base. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, explains that she’s in a place called the Southern Reach, at the edge of the Shimmer. The Shimmer appeared three years earlier, centered on a lighthouse (in the very beginning of the movie, a meteor-like object hits the lighthouse). It has grown slowly, requiring the evacuation of a few small towns (under the pretext of a chemical spill) but so far most of the area it covers is undeveloped swamp land. But it’s still growing and attempts to study it have failed. No transmissions of any kind can go in or out, everything or everyone that has ever gone in it hasn’t returned, except for Kane, who gets sicker by the hour.
Because Lena, who was also once in the military, assumes that whatever’s killing Kane comes from the Shimmer — a pathogen or toxin — she thinks her best chance at saving him is to join the latest expedition headed in to the Shimmer. Thus does she suit up with Ventress, quiet physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), bravado-filled paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) and the steady geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). 
Immediately on entering the Shimmer, stuff gets weird. Lena walks into the Shimmer and then wakes up inside her tent. Based on the amount of rations used, the women estimate they’ve been inside a few days but have no memory of that time. The deeper they get into the Shimmer, the odder the wildlife gets, with a single plant sprouting different species of flower and an alligator sporting shark teeth. What is messing with the DNA of all the lifeforms and how long until it starts messing with the members of the latest expedition? As Anya states early on, the theories about the Shimmer are essentially that something inside it kills the people who enter or something inside it drives them mad and they kill each other.
Annihilation does a thing that is so nice it probably kicks up my overall appreciation for this movie at least half a grade: the women are just there. At one point, Lena asks “all women?” about the group going into the Shimmer and someone else says “all scientists” and the movie leaves it there. I realize there’s a book this may be hewing to in some way but for the movie itself, there is no reason why, in the bad old days, Kane wouldn’t have been made the brother, instead of the husband, of a “Lenny” who goes into the Shimmer with a group of dudes. Instead, we get, in a very organic way, a group of women with different personalities and flaws and abilities without it being a thing about “women fighting aliens” and without all of them having to be superlative. And it’s great! More, more of this please! More sorta mediocre movies with enough women (who, here, are also of various ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations) that a female character isn’t simply “the girl one” and they get to have other standard “military-ish unit on mission” characteristics! 
To be fair, Annihilation scores higher than “mediocre.” It has some nice moments both in terms of the sci-fi and in terms of the human relationships, some good performances by Portman and others and the overall idea behind this specific alien threat is fun, even if it feels like the movie doesn’t completely know where to take it.
As a one-off movie, Annihilation feels like it needs more work with its core ideas — both the alien-life element and the Lena-Kane relationship, specifically in deciding how to resolve both. As the start of a series (and I suppose time and box office numbers will determine whether it becomes that), it left me moderately interested in seeing more of this story. B
Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality, according to the MPAA. Directed by Alex Garland, who also wrote the movie for the screen (from the novel by Jeff VanderMeer), Annihilation is an hour and 55 minutes long and is distributed by Paramount Pictures. 
 





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