Last year, “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” made an entire movie theme from the 1972 hit song “Brandy,” by “Looking Glass.” That sci-fi was a comedy, but “Annihilation” is a very serious and cerebral sci-fi. This one reaches back to 1969 for the rich harmonics of “Helplessly Hoping” from Crosby, Stills & Nash.
We are not big fans of Natalie Portman but she is well cast as Lena, a biologist who evidently lost her beloved husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) to war in the mid-east. She is fascinated by the rhythm of cells of every species splitting endlessly. This phenomenon has continued since the beginning of time. As the chorus goes, “They are one person, they are two alone, they are three together, they are four, for each other.”
Based on the first novel of a trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, writer-director Alex Garland (“Ex-Machina”) sends this surreal plot further into dreamland. Instead of silly teens walking mindlessly into each “horror” scene, this team of scientists and professionals explore an unknown environmental disaster zone called “The Shimmer.”
There are some movies you just love or hate. Then, there are those that you love and hate. Initial screenings concluded the film was too intellectual and too complicated to appeal to a wide audience. Feedback suggested Portman’s character should be more sympathetic and the ending needed to be changed. The filmmakers decided to hold firm and not change a thing. After all, what do audiences know about movies?
Not much of the plot or message is obvious. Somewhat like “The Matrix” (1999), some of us might need our kids to explain it to us. Although we had to work harder than usual, we think we eventually got the gist of the points. What we do know is that a small geographical area is experiencing an unusual condition where people just disappear.
The affected area has been cordoned off by officials but is growing in size. Teams of soldiers have entered and not returned. It seems the search parties either kill themselves or kill each other. Now, a team of thoughtful women scientists is dispatched. Dressed in khaki jumpsuits, backpacks and rifles, they kind of resemble the cast from the last “Ghostbusters” (2016) movie. We assume this was not the intent.
As they make their way through the hypnotically stunning jungle, a giant crocodile and mutant bear attack them mercilessly. They trudge on to their destination, which is never quite defined, but every step is a physical and psychological battle.
Psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) notes, “It’s destroying everything.” Lena responds, “It’s not destroying, it’s making something new (cells splitting).” The scientist, Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) asks, “Did it communicate with you?” Lena says, “It reacted to me.” Anya follows, “Can you describe its form?” Lena answers simply, “No.” And neither could we.
Give credit for a cerebral (often smug) kind of sci-fi combined with a few moments of survival terror. It’s not as good as it thinks it is but the conclusion is somewhat mesmerizing and does make you think (even if you have to ask). It’s ambitious and leaves you pondering bigger questions about life, nothing wrong with that.
“Annihilation” is 115 minutes and rated R for violence, bloody images, language and sexuality. The movie is original, intelligent and flawed. Even after pulling together enough of the plot points to understand the message, it just seemed like there was not enough coherent storyline to be entertaining. Mostly, the payoff was not totally worth the effort.
It is told in flashbacks but the editing adds to the confusion, possibly intentional. The pacing is slow but the actors keep your focus and build tension as we share their scientific curiosity. Don’t be surprised if you’re often confused, lost or turned off. Just hang in there and its possible it will all come together. Then again, it might not.
Ron’s Rating: C
Leigh’s Rating: C