Annihilation; 105 minutes; Rated: R
“Annihilation,” adapted from the trilogy by Jeff VanderMeers, opens with a meteor strike, somewhere in northwest Florida. The result is what comes to be known as “the shimmer,” a pearlescent wall of pink and blue and violet, a curtain akin to the northern lights with a lava lamp quality. What it is, its source (could it be extraterrestrial?) is unknown. What is known is that government teams, military and civilian, have been sent into the shimmer, also called “Area X,” never to return.
Cut to a professor of cellular biology, Lena (Natalie Portman), teaching a college class.
Cut to a love scene between Lena and her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), as he is saying goodbye, leaving on a mission the purpose of which he cannot disclose.
Cut to Lena mourning what she assumes is his death since he has failed to return for 12 months and the Army has no definitive idea as to what happened to him.
Cut to Lena sitting upstairs in their bedroom, overwhelmed by memories, only to see him walking up the stairs and into the room. He has returned. The only survivor to exit the shimmer. His memory of what took place is gone; he’s unable to explain what happened. His detachment from Lena is total.
There is, of course, more. Kane is mortally ill. He, along with Lena, is taken to a government facility. It’s there that Lena volunteers to join a team of women, all scientists, who are preparing to enter the shimmer. Since the shimmer is expanding, what they learn could save the world.
And so begins a surreal trek into a zone of mutated trees and fauna: a giant crocodile and a massive bear attack them. In act three, there’s a distant lighthouse, where the meteor struck. Is it the touchstone to the unknown?
If there is a plot, it’s incomprehensible. The film takes on an incoherence that is pervasive and strange. It’s a trip into a psychedelic ambiance of the inexplicable, one that bends biology, physics and time. Trees become leaf-covered humanoids; some are crystalline in structure; colors are too bright and defy origin; fungus and flowers subsume found bodies.
The women — Tova Novotny (portraying an anthropologist), Tessa Thompson (as a physicist), Gina Rodriguez (a team paramedic), Jennifer Jason Leigh (in the role of a clinical psychologist) — are lost, one by one, leaving only Lena and Dr. Ventress, the shrink, to carry on the final journey to the lighthouse. I’m not indulging in a spoiler paragraph for it doesn’t really matter.
Incoherence can serve a purpose in a film, if used sparingly, perhaps as a set up for a mystery to be unraveled. In “Annihilation,” the film is from the first frame to the last unintelligible. In other words, while it does possess a sense of a building dread; the threat to the team and then to Lena is present but ultimately beyond understanding. If its source is an alien force, a magnetic field, one that emanates from the meteor that has landed on Earth and now poses a threat, it remains throughout ill-defined. It is so vague that the women never seem in mortal danger though clearly they are.
The result is that the audience, I’m assuming, will find it difficult, if not impossible, to become invested in Lena, Kane or the team. They are blank slates, as is the narrative.