As weird as ANNIHILATION undoubtedly is, it has all the right ingredients for a memorable story. The concept is very unique, the visual effects are incredible, and it has an outstanding cast. But for me, the film never comes together cohesively.
ANNIHILATION opens with a meteor crashing into Earth, unleashing a weird environment that slowly begins to spread. In response, the U.S. government begins sending expeditions into this area (dubbed The Shimmer) but every expedition fails. When Kane (Oscar Issac) mysteriously reappears outside of The Shimmer, becoming the first survivor from an expedition, another team is quickly assembled to journey into The Shimmer and attempt to discover a cure for Kane. The team includes Kane’s wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Cast (Tuva Novotny). Together, the team ventures into the heart of The Shimmer, uncovering an alien world that is as beautiful as it is dangerous.
The cast is very small, and (refreshingly!) almost entirely female. The film focuses on Lena, and Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances of her career in this role. She is utterly vulnerable in the film, but with a strength that carries her through the film. In a film where the world seems so vibrant and different, Portman’s character feels exceedingly real. It’s easy to empathize with her character and root for her. I also really enjoyed Gina Rodriguez’s portrayal of Anya. Rodriguez brings some much-needed charm to the film, and I really appreciated how complex her character was.
I was less impressed with the surrounding cast. Oscar Isaac’s performance in ANNIHILATION is so singularly terrible that it has to be seen to be believed. He exhibits no emotion throughout the entirety of the film, and a late twist doesn’t give the audience any reason to care. Tessa Thompson is, sadly, wasted in the film – her character has little impact on the story and her background is relegated to info dumps in dialogue. I was also deeply disappointed in Jennifer Jason Leigh’s portrayal of Ventress – a character that wasn’t quite villainous, but who had the potential to be a memorable character. Instead, Ventress lurches through her scenes with no emotion. Like the rest of the cast, she has no character arc.
The film is, without a doubt, beautiful. The whole concept behind The Shimmer is that the alien meteor is transforming the area around it. It mutates animals into terrifying and beautiful creatures, and it has a unique effect on nature. The film is littered with beautiful flowers and overgrown wildlife. But whereas ANNIHILATION has a deep connection with beauty, it also has a tantalizing connection with the horrific. There are scenes of intense terror in the film, and what makes the sequences so perfect is how they juxtapose with the more peaceful scenes.
The last 20 minutes are what makes ANNIHILATION so polarizing. The climax has almost no dialogue, leaving the interpretation of events to the audience. For me, the strength of ANNIHILATION was when the characters were all together and playing off each other. But in the film’s climax, the focus is solely on Lena. It’s an incredibly weird, trippy experience – and one that definitely lends itself to the film’s stunning visuals. But then the film ends, and it feels very unsatisfying. There’s too much left unexplained and unknown.
A disjointed ending and poor acting keep ANNIHILATION from reaching its full potential. The film is wonderfully unique, and it is a shame that some major flaws drag it down. The film’s concept is wildly interesting, and it is incredibly tense. But even Natalie Portman’s excellent casting can’t outweigh the problems that I had with the film. It’s a decent film, and certainly one that can lead to plenty of deep discussions after the credits roll, but it was ultimately a disappointing experience for me.