Ghostbusters Without Ghosts
by ETHAN PETERSON
dir. Alex Garland
The only remotely interesting aspects of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy were his ideas about faith. To summarize briefly: once certain people became intoxicated with alien spores, they begin to have different priorities. The resulting erosion of the self began with the title of this first, well-intentioned book.
I didn’t particularly agree with where VanderMeer went with things next, but if Annihilation is successful, they will probably have to do a completely different story for a sequel. There was no way to film the changing of a person’s mind, so Annihilation begins with a scene where Lena (Natalie Portman) is beginning her class on how a cell changes. This introduction is meant to convey that we will see, in the following, a mutation of human cells.
Portman has not seen her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) for an entire year at that point, since he departed on a military mission. They met in the military, which is so surreptitiously convenient that it sounds like a cover story. Director Alex Garland (The Beach) loves these kind of chicken or egg moments, because he believes they describe some aspect of the human condition. “Most of us here,” a woman later explains to Lena, “don’t exactly come from happy lives.” Lena’s depression is existential — practically, it is not related to Kane at all.
Suddenly, Kane returns. All he can do is to take a single sip of water, in what he believes is what should be human behavior. In order to determine what has befallen him, Lena is introduced to the concept of Area X: an alien-affected area near a lighthouse which is slowly expanding until it takes over the entire planet.
No one returns from Area X, and certainly not groups of men. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s psychologist character, Dr. Ventress, has cancer, so she is not expecting to come back from this survey of the area they call “The Shimmer.” Lena “agrees” to join.
Garland manages some exquisite visuals, but they lose a lot of the earthly feeling in the novel. In the book, there is a sense of being tied so close to your own biology that every breath is either a vindication or a repudiation of it. It would be a lie if we said there was not something essentially patronizing and transparent about this all women group of explorers. Relationships between any of the major characters in Annihilation are not fleshed out whatsoever, which I guess leaves a lot implied.
Portman is always entertaining for a max of 45 minutes. After that every director runs out of ways to make her react, so they inevitably go with some cheesy scene where she is giggling a lot, like more than a person should or would ever giggle. It happens in Annihilation, as the movie slows to the kind of placid place where the audience has to collectively pretend to agree it has not run completely out of ideas.
Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.