There’s a lot to like about Annihilation. It’s directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina), it has a great cast, it has stunning visuals and some tense, gruesome scenes. However, when the credits began to roll at the end of the film, I was left wondering if I had missed something.
Annihilation follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a soldier turned biologist who joins a scientific team (led by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress) trying to gather data on a mysterious “Shimmer” that is slowly enveloping an isolated corner of the American south. The all-woman expedition is rounded out by a former paramedic and recovering drug addict Anya (Gina Rodriguez) and two other scientists, Josie (Tessa Thompson) and Cass (Tuva Novotny). Over the course of the film we discover why the various team members have joined what is an ostensibly suicide mission – every previous expedition sent into the Shimmer vanished without a trace – but it seems as though the filmmakers want the audience to draw their own conclusions.
Is Annihilation asking me to ruminate on all the different factors that drove the lead characters to this situation? Does the alien “Shimmer” and the transformations it creates represent more than just what is theorized by Josie and Lena? Or is the movie just a straight action thriller where the audience can just be happy with the gory set pieces and a cathartic finale?
Annihilation unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, giving more attention to Lena’s marriage to special forces soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac) and how that led her to Ventress and her team. Dialogue heavy scenes provide little insight into character motivations and all of that information ultimately feels inconsequential. The movie is at its best when it focuses on the actual mission. There is a great Alien/Jaws vibe as the environment itself threatens to break down the team like all the teams that ventured before them. Most of the scenes that take place before the mission feel like homework and are distributed throughout the film in a way that disrupts what could have been a tighter, more claustrophobic thriller.
Which brings me back to wondering if there is something else to the movie, a deeper meaning. Even the scenes that occur after the mission with debriefer Lomax (Benedict Wong) don’t offer many answers. Most of his questions to Lena are met with “I don’t know,” leaving the audience with a lot left to unpack, wondering if they’ve missed some crucial clues.
This isn’t to say Annihilation isn’t enjoyable. When firing on all cylinders this is a film that delivers great sci-fi thriller entertainment, and it’s worth a watch for that alone. As it stands, it just feels like something is missing.