Only hard core Sci-Fi lovers can save ‘Annihilation’

By Chic DiCiccio

Photo by Peter Mountain courtesy of Paramount Pictures

After one week in theaters, “Annihilation” has faced the perfect mix of box office disaster. Head to head competition with a runaway hit in “Black Panther?” Check. Genre movie based on a seriously weird sci-fi novel? Check. Last minute freak out from production company Paramount based on horrendous test screenings? You got it.

All of that led to a meager $11 million opening weekend and middling audience scores for this Alex Garland-directed, mind bending, fever dream-like look at the apocalypse. It does make some sense as “Annihilation” meanders from horror to sci-fi to love story and will easily make most people’s mind spin. It works well as an odd series of vignettes that provide maximum creepy crawlies, but leaves you wondering “what does it all mean” when taken as a whole.

“Annihilation” moves quickly and drops you right into an interrogation of Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist who has definitely been through some serious physical trauma. She is recapping recent events that led her to The Shimmer, a giant wall of light that is slowly growing off the coast of Florida creating what is known as Area X.

Lena’s husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), led a secret expedition into The Shimmer and went missing for one full year. He mysteriously re-appears at their home and is quickly apprehended by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the oddest married couple of all time is taken to a base outside Area X.

It would ruin “Annihilation” to say anything more than Lena and a team of women (played by Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) form an expedition into Area X and anyone made easily queasy should then start averting their eyes.

It’s intense, gory, exciting, thought provoking, and, at times, unbelievably frustrating.

When comparing Garland’s screenplay with Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, the phrase “loosely based” cannot be stressed enough. Other than The Shimmer and Area X, the two have virtually nothing in common and this could put off the cult fandom of the novel (which includes this reviewer). They do share a desire to challenge audiences, never providing cookie cutter plot points or easy answers to a variety of inexplicable situations.

There are plenty of things to argue about regarding “Annihilation,” but nobody can argue that this cast, particularly Natalie Portman, is put through the wringer. Gina Rodriguez almost steals the movie away from her, but Portman puts in her best work since “Black Swan.” It’s a very physical performance and seeing her fire a massive machine gun is unexpectedly cool.

If for any reason, “Annihilation” should be seen in theaters just to experience the incredible camera work by Rob Hardy, nerve-wracking music from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, and impressive practical effects. The almost jungle-like setting creates tension on its own, but the effects are photographed in such a jarring, disorienting way that some moments are almost unbearable.

The critical success of Garland’s directorial debut, “Ex Machina,” ramped up the anticipation for his follow up. It was particularly heightened in that the source material for “Annihilation” seemed to be perfect for Garland’s cerebral, pull no punches take on sci-fi. Based on the early box office returns, this will be a fairly large box office failure and will no doubt knock Garland down a peg.

Overall, “Annihilation” is far too niche to reach a broad audience and will only resonate with hardcore science fiction lovers.

There aren’t any easy answers, and casual movie goers will walk away supremely frustrated. It does have the potential to be better with repeat viewings as you attempt to unlock the puzzles contained within and that may lead to future cult status.

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