Annihilation practically sits up and begs to be regarded as high-minded genre cinema. But really, it’s a thuddingly literal handful of barely engaged ideas and dangling plot threads standing in for conceptual and narrative ambiguity. Extremely loosely based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, writer/director Alex Garland’s film streamlines a work of really haunting interiority and curiosity into a mostly straightforward soldiers-meet-monsters exercise, substituting melancholy uncertainty and a genuine sense of awe in the face of the inexplicable with expository backstory and generic scary alien movie plot beats.
Five women go on a military mission to explore an anomalous location called Area X, a patch of expanding alien wilderness that almost willfully repels any attempt at explanation. It’s pretty clear from the outset that Garland has seen and feels that he understood Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but this is merely a high-school kid’s approximation of it entwined with the DNA of a girl-power horror movie like The Descent. First we learn of the protagonist’s past emotional/physical trauma. Then the long exposition setting up the premise. Next, the ominous wandering around an alien/unexplored landscape followed by some shock moments and a reckoning between team members wondering if they’re losing their shit. Once everyone else is dead, the last survivor kills the monster, and there’s a dumb last minute twist.
Merely a high-school kid’s approximation of Stalker entwined with the DNA of a girl-power horror movie like The Descent.
Despite the welcome cast of women, these characters have no identity beyond their relationship to some past misery (alcoholic, terminal illness, dead husband, etc), and their activity as both soldiers and scientists is questionable (no actual research appears to be done aside from some looks through a microscope and the characters come to conclusions about their mysterious environment seemingly out of nowhere). A last-ditch attempt to inject some real confusion into the climax results in not much more than a self-consciously trippy light show, the effects of which are almost immediately undone by a far too pat denouement. Garland is convinced that he’s got a stack of ideas to play around with but he fails to engage them beyond simply presenting them by tacking them onto monotonous genre narratives that he’s failed to innovate in any meaningful way.