Annihilation (***) almost overcomes its disadvantages

Annihilation-movie

Annihilation – 2018

Written and Directed by Alex Garland
Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer
Starring  Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac

When Natalie Portman starred in her first movie, the classic Léon: The Professional, she was every bit a force to match her charismatic co-stars Jean Reno and Gary Oldman. She didn’t have to use much more than her steady gaze, either. For whatever reason, she’s never come close to matching the power of her first performance.

Somehow, she was awarded for her increasingly limited range, ultimately with an Academy Award for her frantically rigid performance in Black Swan. This time, with a performance as Lena plays like a kissing cousin of that one, she pushes her way through Annihilation.

It’s not that playing between the two tones of severe and intense is a bad thing when you are heading into the unknown, ever-growing expanse of diffraction called the shimmer. This starts at a lighthouse near a swamp after something lands there from space. Over the next two years, several groups head in. No one comes out. Then Lena’s husband Kane (Isaac) emerges, seemingly unaware of much of anything.  He ends up grievously hurt.

Lena joins the next group (including Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tessa Thompson), who all women and all driven to be there. They work their way through an interesting set of events. Of course, eventually 5 becomes 4 and the rest of the group realize that those who are remaining start to change.

Some want to go back, some want to move forward. One of the best lines either way is one who wants to finish the mission so “the person leaving is the same person that reaches the destination.”

The excellent actors of the cast have a limited character range. This being the first of a trilogy of books, one might figure they’re saving up something for later. That this story only bears a fleeting resemblance to the book is possibly due to the fact that Garland wrote it before he knew the other parts of the trilogy. In fact, he purposely didn’t read the other two books to not be influenced by them.

Uh-oh.

Even so, there are more than a few nice touches in the film. Some original ideas take flight. It’s not as much of a concern if they don’t all land. I do wish that they had spent some more time exploring and a little less time trying to blow stuff apart.

For Garland, this is on par with Ex-Machina. Many will see this as success. I was only mildly impressed with that movie too. So I will just wait for the next Jeff Nichols film and hope enough people notice he’s been outpacing everyone for years.

(*** out of *****)

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