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HIGH-MINDED, SENSELESS SCI-FI: There are better versions of ‘Annihilation’ out there

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Every so often, there’s a movie people describe as “intelligent.” Given the current state of cinema, being smarter than an average movie isn’t all too difficult. I’m always intrigued by supposedly smart films because I enjoy a movie that forces my brain out of the vegetative state most others put me in; shake off the cobwebs and do some thinking. I’m usually disappointed by cinema described as “intelligent” because 74.6 percent of the time it ends up being something dense, pointless and not nearly as smart as people praise.

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NO ANSWERS: Natalie Portman stars in ‘Annihilation,’ not quite believable in her role.

Photo by Peter Mountain/ Paramount Pictures/Everett

Have you seen Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris”? How about Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” or Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”? Or maybe Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain”? If so you’ve seen better versions of “Annihilation,” the latest high-minded science-fiction movie where the main character has some kind of emotional conundrum that directly impacts the event they’re investigating. “Annihilation” proudly saunters into this sci-fi subgenre and leads audiences into a senseless journey of pointless self-discovery.

Prologue: a meteor streaks across a star-strewn sky heading toward Earth. It strikes a picturesque New England shore at the base of a lighthouse. Something strange and otherworldly stirs in the aftermath. But, damn it all, it is potentially interesting. So they cut away and introduce the protagonist: Lena (Natalie Portman). She’s a university professor who also spent seven years serving in the U.S. Army—just a typical, ridiculously attractive college genetics professor and badass military-trained killing machine. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), is still in the military and about to leave on a top-secret mission.

A year passes and Kane doesn’t return.  Lena is in a state of emotional paralysis, unable to move on with her life and struggling to find any sense of normalcy. The last shred of it  is thrown out the window when her assumed dead husband arrives at their house alive and well … for about 10 minutes. Soon, Kane is spitting up blood, and government agents abduct them to a super-secret base. 

Lena gets brought up to speed by Dr. Ventris (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who tells her about the strange energy slowly gobbling up real estate they call “the shimmer.” A team of scientists is gathered to enter the shimmer and try to find out the cause before the anomaly continues to expand, ultimately destroying life as we know it. Until this point, the only thing anyone knows for certain is anything that goes into the shimmer never comes back.

What lies inside this strange field? Aliens? Predators? Zombies? Mind-altering body snatchers? A lovely garden and tea party featuring adorable tiny cookies?

I won’t reveal any spoilers, but I will say this much: What lies inside is boredom—mind-numbing boredom. “Annihilation” is painfully dull—exactly a movie people call intelligent because it refuses to answer questions and forces them to fill in blanks. I don’t call that “intelligent”; I call it “lazy.” There are some cool elements; writer/director Alex Garland has crafted an interesting set-up but the payoff is missing. It’s a lot of curveballs and unexpected happenings, none of which coalesce into a coherent story.

It doesn’t help Natalie Portman is absolutely dreadful in the lead role. Her delivery is flat and expressionless. I didn’t, for a single moment, buy into whatever her character was supposed to be. The rest of the cast delivers a hodgepodge of utter mediocrity. I liked the idea of an all-female team heading into the anomaly, but it’d be nice if any of them had any sort of developed character arc. 

I remember when “Under the Dome” was filming in Wilmington—and I asked showrunner Brian Vaughn what the key was to creating a successful story based on mystery elements. He replied, “Once you answer one question, get ready to ask another.” Alex Garland has opted for a story that answers almost zero questions. The entire movie ends with a shrug from our main character and a collective sigh from the audience. “Annihilation” is pretty much the same kind of random dreck that bogged down “The God Particle.” Science-fiction is fun because it asks questions, but, ultimately, the story has something of an obligation to answer at least enough to leave the theater satisfied.  “Annihilation” isn’t intelligent science fiction. It’s intentionally vague posturing with extremely limited entertainment value.

DETAILS:
Annihilation
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Rated R
Directed by Alex Garland
Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson

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