So I just got home from a free screening of Annihilation and my review can basically be summed up this way: don’t waste your money. Or your time.
Someone on Twitter said one of the things that was so refreshing about Black Panther was white characters were used merely to drive the plot forward, which is usually how Black characters are used in films with a predominantly white cast. I wish I could say the characters played by Tessa Thompson and David Gyasi served a different purpose in Annihilation, but I’d be lying.
After watching a film so committed to showing Black people the beauty in ourselves, a film that reflects back to us our beauty, intelligence and innovation, I can no longer watch films that relegate Black characters to the sidelines. What simply annoyed me before has become unbearable.
The basic premise of Annihilation is something called The Shimmer appears around a lighthouse in a national park. No one that has gone into it has come out except for Lena’s, played by Natalie Portman, husband, Kane, played by Oscar Isaac. When Kane returns home, after being missing for a year, he’s…different. He falls ill the night he comes back and is rushed to the hospital. En route to the hospital, the government runs the ambulance off the road and captures Kane and Lena. Lena wakes up at a research facility and meets Dr. Ventress, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh; then Anya Thorensen, played by Gina Rodriguez; Josie Radek, played by Tessa Thompson; and Cass Sheppard, played by Tuva Novotny, who all plan to enter The Shimmer in six days. As you’ve probably guessed, Lena decides to go with them.
Before I get further into what happens in the movie, let me just say how much I don’t appreciate the protagonist and the character of Dr. Ventress being whitewashed. In the series of books this movie is adapted from, Lena is of Asian descent and Dr. Ventress is half-Native. Though I think Natalie Portman put in a great performance, for the most part, Maggie Q would have killed this role and Alex Rice could have easily played Dr. Ventress. Leigh’s deadpan acting style may have worked in Single White Female, but I didn’t care for it in Annihilation. There are four supporting characters of color in the film. I guess writer and director Alex Garland figured that was enough to keep people happy. He was wrong.
The women enter The Shimmer and seem to have been inside it for days, but have no memory of that time. Josie, Thompson’s character, points out nothing that broadcasts a signal works inside The Shimmer. Garland could have left that alone. But he couldn’t help himself. Of course they don’t, Dr. Ventress snaps at Josie, implying Josie’s an idiot. Ventress then points out that’s why the facility hasn’t received any communication from anyone who’s entered The Shimmer.
Shortly after this exchange, Lena, who is a military veteran and biologist, begins inspecting the plant life and realizes several different plant species appear to be growing from the same source, which isn’t possible in the regular world. Contrastingly, Josie, who’s a physicist, doesn’t seem interested in how the laws of physics may operate differently inside The Shimmer at all.
Then, Josie gets attacked by what turns out to be a mutated alligator. My first thought was, If the only real supporting Black character dies this early in the movie, I’m walking out. Like, I literally would have walked out of a free movie. But she didn’t die. She also didn’t add much to the story. Josie is a shrinking violet, which would have been fine if her intelligence had been displayed as much as her shyness. It wasn’t.
Garland does deign to throw Josie one crumb: she has one shining moment in the film. After happening upon trees shaped like human beings, Josie realizes The Shimmer is a prism. It refracts light, sound waves, even plant, animal and human DNA. That’s it. That’s all Josie gets. There is no other moment in the movie that demonstrates Josie is an intelligent physicist and not just some hapless hippie who stumbled her way onto this mission.
Now that we know The Shimmer is capable of mixing plant, animal and human DNA, I would have expected to find a much more creative combination of creatures inside it. You had no idea the alligator that attacked Josie was mutated until Anya opened it’s mouth and revealed row after row of jagged teeth. Given the seemingly large budget for this film, surely Garland could have created a creature that was half-alligator, half-frog. Or half-alligator, half-antelope. If he needed help creating creatures, he should have given Guillermo del Toro a call.
There is a scene where Dr. Ventress, Josie and Lena are terrified by a nasty-looking mutated bear, which looked somewhat like the alien in Alien. Of course, there was the obligatory scene where Josie stares terrifyingly into the eyes and mouth of the creature. This scene was, as Simon Cowell would say, incredibly self-indulgent and of a much lower quality than it’s predecessor in Alien.
This half-bear, half-who-knows-what killed Cass earlier in the film and when it opens its mouth, somehow her voice crying out for help comes out instead of a growl. I’ll admit, that was cool. This creature kills Anya in a gruesome manner at the end of this scene. The manner in which Anya was killed really bothered me. At first.
But then Garland chose to dispose of Josie by having vines and flowers begin to sprout out of her body before she rounds a corner and turns into a tree. This is when we learn those human-shaped trees are actually former humans. If you live in a timid way, you die in one I guess, but I found Anya’s death scene, gratuitously horrific as it was, preferable to Josie’s. Anya was a smart, strong, badass and she, like Josie, died how she lived.
Alone now, Josie makes her way to the lighthouse, enters and discovers a video camera on a tripod. She turns it on and learns it is not her husband that has returned to her, but his clone. There is a tunnel inside the lighthouse that leads to some strange space created by The Shimmer. In the center sits Dr. Ventress. She explodes into a ball of energy after a pointless conversation with Lena and this ball of energy, which was beautiful and somehow boring at the same time, draws a drop of Lena’s blood into it and clones her.
This happens with about 10 minutes left in the film. The rest of the film is bizarre, yet completely unstimulating, and the ending is completely predictable.
Oh, there’s one thing I forgot to mention. Daniel, Gyasi’s character and the only other Black person in the film, has an affair with Lena. Yet he has no qualms about cheating on his wife because he believes he and Lena have an “intellectual and physical attraction.” He has three scenes in the movie. Two of them are sex scenes. So Daniel, the only Black man in the film, is overly-sexualized and lacking morality. Nicely done, Alex Garland. NOT.
While we’re on the topic of sex, I’m tired of filmmakers using sex to make women characters seem more complex. Garland did it here with Lena’s affair with Daniel and Guillermo del Toro did it with Eliza in The Shape of Water. Why don’t directors try complicating a woman’s mind or her personality to show depth of the character instead of showing her engaging in sexual acts?
As I said in the beginning of this review, don’t waste your time with this one. Honestly, this movie didn’t deserve the time it took me to write and edit this, but if I can stop some of you from losing two hours you’ll never get back, it was worth it.