Let’s start with the obvious: it’s great to see a sci-fi/action movie with women in the lead roles. Sure, Gal Gadot and Charlize Theron kicked butt in “Wonder Woman” and “Atomic Blonde” last year, but there wasn’t much science in those plots. There have been female cast members in sci-fi movies like Daisy Ridley and Carrie Fisher in the “Star Wars” series, but they weren’t the stars. I think you have to go back to Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in the “Alien” series to find a female lead character in this genre.
“Annihilation” stars not one, but five women — Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, and Tessa Thompson — as scientists sent in to investigate a weird phenomenon called The Shimmer. It started when something landed from the sky at the base of a lighthouse three years ago. It’s been slowly growing ever since and it’s on the verge of enveloping large cities. The military has sent several missions inside The Shimmer to try to figure out what the hell’s going on, but no one has ever come back.
Portman’s character, Lena, is an Army veteran who now teaches cell biology at Johns Hopkins. Her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, disappeared on a mission a year ago, and was presumed dead — but he suddenly shows up at their house, which leads to her being drafted to join the new excursion. Don’t worry about the back-story, as it will be revealed in flashback throughout “Annihilation.”
I won’t give away too much of what happens inside The Shimmer, other than to say it feels a little bit like a female version of “Predator.” There are several jump-scares caused by scary creatures, and a couple of gross scenes of things the women discover en route. There’s an old expression that says it’s not the destination, it’s the voyage, and that’s certainly true in “Annihilation.” The surreal ending doesn’t really pay off what we’ve been promised during the adventure, but it will definitely kick off discussions after you leave the theater.
Aside from the so-so ending, there’s also a flashback sequence to Lena having an affair with someone who has nothing to do with The Shimmer plot. It’s a useless distraction that director Alex Garland should have cut.
I was not a fan of Garland’s previous movie, “Ex Machina” (listen to my review here), but I was more impressed by his work on “Annihilation.” The visuals are stunning, as if Garland had re-watched the last ten minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s classic “2001: A Space Odyssey” and set out to update it with modern CGI technology. The sound design is even better — you can feel it in your bones — including the music by James Newton Howard. Garland also got good performances out of his leading women, especially Portman.
I didn’t love “Annihilation,” but I liked it enough to give it a 7 out of 10.