Annihilation is a movie that quite honestly, I'm surprised hasn't been more polarizing with critics. Generally even if they have qualms with it (as I do), there is an agreement that it's a good movie (which I also agree with). I would expect however, that a film that takes the kind of risks that Annihilation does would fall flat with more critics than it does. Risks are something however, that I respect, and here I think that the risks that are taken pay off, even if the overall product isn't quite the sum of it's parts. This is both a weaker, yet more ambitious project for Alex Garland, and though I think it has several technical issues, I believe as a whole it's a film that was worth seeing, and a film that was worth making and fighting for by Garland.
Annihilation is a movie that, at least on the surface, is making no concessions for audience members who feel lost or uncomfortable. There is plenty of exposition in the film, although it does get better after they enter the Shimmer, but the pace of the movie is one that is not meant for the faint-hearted. After some basic introductions of the premise and the characters, we are locked into a ride that refuses to slow down until the very end, regardless of what happens along the way. As the characters get closer and closer to the lighthouse, everything becomes more abstract. The environment changes to become something that ceases to make sense, their bodies begin reacting and evolving at the same time as their minds. They begin to lose their grasp on their identities and their reality, and at the same time the film slowly begins to unravel itself, straying farther and farther from what we as the audience might be comfortable seeing, until the climax, the final 20 or so minutes of the movie which push the envelope in ways that nothing Garland has been involved in has. In Ex Machina and in the scripts he wrote, he has clearly enjoyed messing with the audiences expectations and fears, but not until now has he dared put something so challenging and strange to the screen. He's gaining confidence as a writer and director, emboldened partially I assume by the success of his previous movie, and by the material he was given to adapt. He fought with the studio for the right to keep his cut of the film, and they dismissed it as something that wouldn't work for general audiences. In a way, they may have been right, I seriously doubt there exists a release model for which this could turn into a profitable movie. But sometimes, that's okay. It's okay to take the risk and make the absolutely insane, out-there, weird, experimental stuff and try your best to see if audiences like it. If the result of this movie is that more like it get made, then I am all in.
However, the movie isn't without it's flaws. In fact, for some people, the flaws will outweigh anything else, which in a way is fair. The characters here are for the most part, very bland. It's sad in a way, because they are each given an extremely brief backstory which, written correctly, could have been expanded on in a fantastic way. I feel that probably what happened, was that Garland got too caught up in the high-minded intellectualism of this film, and forgot that the characters desperately needed development and dialogue. It's very unfortunate that they are how they are, because all the actresses involved I believe did what they could with what they were given. Tessa Thompson in particular did a great job bringing out the subtleties of her character with the dialogue she had to work with, but ultimately none of them were given the screentime they deserved. Another critic I listened to said that in actuality, there wasn't much of a movie to be found in between the long downtimes and pauses. I believe the exact opposite actually, I believe that if each character was truly given time and care, they could have been used to explore the Shimmer in a much deeper way, and that they themselves could have been explored in depth as well. It's a little heartbreaking to think about, because I honestly think that this version of the movie could have been a real masterpiece. Each character was given just enough to work, but there was never enough depth, never enough realness to any of them, even Natalie Portman's character was mostly just a vehicle for the audience to ride on. Some will find this issue with the movie too much, and they will dislike it for this. I can't find any fault in that reasoning, honestly, and if I were being more technical and objective in my criticism, I would probably put more weight on the lack of something that normally I find to be of critical importance in everything I watch. But the positives of this film outweigh it's negatives, at least in my mind, enough to justify it's existence.
As I said before, I appreciate risk. What we're seeing now, challenging, interesting, independent movies being created constantly, is due to risk. The reason Alex Garland now has a recognizable name is due to the risk he took in directing his first movie. The reason we have indie or experimental films at all is because producers, studios, and young directors are willing to take risks to create films that people might not like. If all you ever produce are films that people love immediately and make a profit at the box office, then you'll never create anything that challenges and shapes the status quo. What Annihilation has done is toe the line, to see what audiences are really ready for. Truthfully, I do have sort of a soft spot for this movie due to how obviously is draws influence from Stalker, which is one of the best movies I think has ever been made. In Stalker, a meteorite has struck a part of rural Russia, transforming the surrounding area (which the locals call The Zone) into a mystical place where reality shifts around, and at the center is said to be a room where any wish can be granted. There are obvious parallels here to Annihilation, and the sense of danger and mystery of The Shimmer is clearly reminiscent of The Zone. Annihilation comes nowhere close to the genius and beauty of Stalker, but to see a movie at the very least try to emulate Stalker and to create something interesting and new, that to me is worth so much. The challenge of trying to channel the spirit of Tarkovsky's finest work into a new piece of strange, horrifying sci-fi is not a small one, and for Garland to take that task onto himself for only his second film, well I believe it's something to be commended. There is beauty, mystery, and intense horror to be found here, in particular the scene with the screaming creature, and everything that happens after Portman's character reaches the beach, are extremely well made. You cannot help but be totally engrossed, completely on the edge of your seat just because what you're watching is something you've never seen before. The film gets so abstract towards the end, that I'm sure not a single person in the audience could have told you what they were looking at exactly, and that in and of itself created an unexplainable horror in me that I couldn't shake until the credits rolled. That, combined with the unique and unsettling imagery we're given (glass trees burning with phosphorus fire, human shaped plant structures) makes this an unforgettable movie-going experience for me.
To bring it all back home, I would have to say that Annihilation falls short of greatness. It is ambitious, challenging, and fascinating, but I would not call it "great". I think that it is a flawed creation that highlights the fact that Garland will be a force to reckon with. Decades from now, people will be unearthing Garland's little-known second movie, and they will be pointing out how it's a precursor to some of his later work. I have no doubt that Alex Garland has within him a masterpiece of horror and sci-fi, and Annihilation is not it, but it is the beginnings of one that we will see at some point in the future. Annihilation on it's own is a worthy experience, flawed in terms of character development and perhaps pacing, but gutsy enough to try new things and to ask the audience to get used to being extremely confused and uncomfortable, because it wants to show them something that they've never, ever seen.