Alex Garland's 'Annihilation': A Masterpiece?

It's a visually stunning sci-fi epic, but something is missing. What is it?

Natalie's getting her mind blown off.


Film trailers can be a fickle bitch nowadays.

Some can be too revealing while others are entirely misleading—which is why I decided to avoid most of the marketing for Alex Garland's adaptation of the 2014 novel Annihilation. It was an attempt to walk to do something I haven't been able to do in a long time: to walk into a film with no expectation; to ride the rollercoaster without waiting for specific story beats, jokes, or imagery in an era of over-saturation—what an interesting experience.

Now, I'm someone who is usually all in for films that make you think, question what's happening; films that won't spoon feed you. Annihilation checks every single one of these boxes yet... something felt like it was missing. I walked out of the theater, fairly staggered by visual experience but there was one thing I just couldn't shake: this film never made me care. Later that night I was channel surfing and came across a TV spot for this movie, and to my surprise, critics were tossing around the word masterpiece like Gordon Ramsey uses the word fuck.

Is it? What makes this film a masterpiece?

Here's a quick synopsis to bring you up to speed, or maybe just a little refresher as to what the hell you just experienced with your eyes. After Natalie Portman's thought-to-be-dead Oscar Issac (husband) returns from military duty after a year abroad, he's quickly quarantined by shadowy government agents due to a mysterious and deadly ailment. Immediately, Portman's background as a biologist and veteran sends her with a team into an anomaly designated The Shimmer—a beautiful mass of unexplainable energy slowly expanding to consume Earth.

I'm just going to dig into the meat of this right away—THIS POST WILL SPOIL THE FINALE AND MANY IMPORTANT PLOT POINTS OF THIS FILM. If you haven't seen Annihilation, I don't want to ruin it for you. If you have, or just don't care—welcome! First, let's look at the merits, then we'll move on to the failings.

MERITS!

Production Design and Visual Effects.

Alex Garland is masterfully taking a page out of the book he received from the school of Stanley Kubrick with this film. Visually stunning—sometimes breathtaking. There are moments where practical effects are utilized exceptionally well with disturbing, yet gorgeous designs like that TRIPPY lighthouse with H.R. Giger's basement, and well, that poor guy in the pool...

Garland strikes the right balance between the practical effects and set designs with just enough digital effects to hammer home the psychedelic look and feel of the film. From constant multicolored sunlight refracting through the veil of The Shimmer to the alien-organism made of folding and warping light—this film is undoubtedly a masterpiece in at least one regard—visuals.

Acting

Natalie Portman leads a cast that, across the board, knocks it out of the park. Each performance is deep and involved—they're human and relatable, with problems, physical ticks.

Another merit—wait. I've been staring at my cursor, trying so hard to conjure up another solid strength to this film. It was hard justifying acting up there because frankly, while the actors put in very human performances, we were given very little reason to give a damn about them —you know what? Screw it.

FAILINGS!

Identity Crisis

Garland could have been helped the story by focusing more heavily on it's sci-fi aspect, rather than creating a second act that plays more like slasher when the mutated animals begin picking the team off one by one. What was he going for here? We know this wasn't the adding to the plot of the film. And while the characters were able to further the whole refracting DNA thing during this time, the slasher animals didn't do much but act as a serviceable obstacle, only forcing the characters to linger on the DNA plot point for too long.

Story

Here's where most of my issue lie, as you might be able to tell.

There was a story. I'll give it that, but what was the focus supposed to be? The Shimmer? The Lighthouse? Or Portman and Issac's marriage? All the flashbacks that chronicled Portman's marriage and her eventual affair that sent Issac into his volunteered suicide mission were great, but were we to surmise this was the main story arc? The information taken from these flashbacks lead to the twist where Issac and one of the men in his unit have melded DNA to the extent of becoming complete duplicates. It was an A-HA! moment almost set up too perfectly to garner that response. Before the twist, we'd been conditioned to understand that all DNA—humans, plants, animals—was merging. You might've noticed that Portman's forearm tattoo was transferred as a result of being next to Gina Rodriguez' character, Thorensen, too. The multitude of evidence dulled the biggest twist of the story, making it more of an "oh, that's interesting," instead of an "OH MY GOD," reaction like it probably should've been. All that time spent watching Portman and Issac's marriage deteriorate; all that time spent fighting off mutated animals, but not much in the way of building to or setting up the actual climax with the alien species at The Lighthouse. Oh, hey, a perfect segue to the next segment—

THAT DAMN LIGHTHOUSE.

Bowman's room at the end of 2001. Jack Torrance's photo smiling back at you during the finale of The Shining. The spinning top just before the credits in Inception. The gargantuan black hole from Interstellar—damn, can you tell I'm a fan of Kubrick and Nolan? I know there's so many more, but I think you know what I'm getting at here: puzzle endings.

If executed well, these endings can be highly rewarding for those who enjoy rewatching movies to put the pieces together for that mental CLICK where everything comes full circle. Annihilation is a little more ambiguous.

I saw the difference in Issac's hair. I saw the tattoo on Portman's arm. I noticed the divide in their relationship—I get all that. I'm wondering what happened in that damn Lighthouse. We're given a BRIEF scene at the beginning of the film where Portman is explaining the division of cells—cancer cells to be specific. The Lighthouse finale calls back to this as the hypnotizing organism made of floating light consumes a drop of Portman's blood, creating a large cell, which becomes two, and so on—until it gives birth to a human hybrid.

I'm all for metaphors in film, but I'm wondering if Garland sacrificed great storytelling to create a giant metaphor. Humanity is the cells of cancer spreading, multiplying across the earth. This would make The Shimmer the reset button, making life anew in its image.

I'd accept the argument that this film is good art, but are we at the point where we're willing to give the claim of a masterpiece to a film that pulls off some good metaphors about society and an all right twist? I know there's no such thing as the perfect film, and I'm not saying a film should be perfect to be called a masterpiece, but shouldn't it be damn near close? Maybe I'm in the minority here, and possibly I'm too de-sensitized for the emotions to hit me (even though I recently teared up during Blade Runner 2049, and the end of The Last Jedi got me all misty-eyed, so...).

I hope someone can prove me wrong because ever since I'd seen it, I can't stop thinking about it. I have this feeling that I'm missing something; that I SHOULD think it's a masterpiece, but sadly I can't get past the weak story.

Those are my ramblings for now. Thank you so much for reading if you made it this far! I hope to keep creating content for this site, so if you enjoy reading film reviews, lists, theories, rants, ramblings—keep an eye on my page for new stuff weekly. I'm sure I'll delve into TV, maybe video games now and then as well, and if you have requests for any content, I'm all ears! Please don't feel obligated to donate to the page, but if you do, it's appreciated very much and would enable me to keep writing for whoever is willing to listen!

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Nick LaMacchia
Nick LaMacchia

I'm an aspiring screenwriter/filmmaker that loves to write. I'll keep dreaming big but for now, I'm gonna stick to grinding away and enjoying life.

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Alex Garland's 'Annihilation': A Masterpiece?
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