WASHINGTON — Alex Garland is one of the most daring filmmakers we have going today.
His directorial debut “Ex Machina” (2015) was an instant classic of the sci-fi/thriller genre: an A.I. masterpiece that cemented Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson as stars and launched Alica Vikander to both an Oscar for “The Danish Girl” and a blockbuster future as Lara Croft.
This weekend, Garland makes his anticipated return to the sci-fi genre with “Annihilation,” which boasts an intriguing premise and plenty of creative existential ideas, but ultimately gives into blockbuster impulses that pale in comparison to the indie gold of “Ex Machina.”
Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, the story opens with an Extra-Terrestrial fireball streaking across space and crashing to Earth at a southern Florida lighthouse. This creates a colorful force field that grows its own unique habitat, which scientists have dubbed “The Shimmer.”
Several military units are sent inside to investigate, but when none of them return, a special team of women scientists is tasked to penetrate The Shimmer, including Army veteran and microbiologist Lena (Natalie Portman), who mourns her M.I.A. husband Kane (Oscar Isaac).
The cast is superb with believable spousal chemistry between Portman and Isaac. They’re surrounded by Jennifer Jason Leigh (“The Hateful Eight”) as a psychologist who seems to be hiding something; Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”) as a paramedic who hates liars; Tuva Novotny (“Eat Pray Love”) as an anthropologist whose child died of leukemia; and Tessa Thompson (“Creed”) as a mousy physicist who cuts her arms just to prove that she’s alive.
Garland’s adapted screenplay admirably offers bonding moments between these characters, particularly a conversation between Portman and Novotny as they paddle a kayak down the river. Unfortunately, as the script rolls on, we never fully understand Leigh’s motivations, while the ragtag team is mostly just fodder for a hoard of mysterious creatures to attack.
These jumpscares range from thrilling to ridiculous, requiring a flurry of machine-gun fire to slay the beasts. The first jumpscare features a rapid tug with the kind of jolt often reserved for cheap horror movies, followed by a digital crocodile that is clearly CGI. The second jumpscare is more effective because we only see a glimpse of the giant bear — causing one audience member to faint — while the third jumpscare features a boar that echoes its victims screams.
In this way, the film recalls John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982) with rapidly-evolving creatures that adopt the very body parts they consume. Film buffs will also notice the chest-bursting of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979); the body-horror mutations of David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” (1986); and the hypnotic, kaleidoscopic vortex of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). There are also fresh visual touches, from human-shaped bushes to flower-antlered deer.
Beyond these various special effects, Garland’s best directorial moments come in clever camera setups: (A) shooting through a glass of water (foreshadowing fluid hand movements), (B) shooting through a bedroom skylight (foreshadowing the coming alien invasion); and (C) shooting from inside a crocodile’s mouth (symbolizing the eventual human consumption).
To achieve all this, Garland reunites with his “Ex Machina” team of cinematographer Rob Hardy, production designer Mark Digby, and composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, whose otherworldly synthesizers recall the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score in “Arrival” (2016).
Still, for all its high-minded aspirations, “Annihilation” never quite rises to the level of “Arrival,” which featured a far more mind-blowing twist. After such an intriguing premise and thought-provoking themes, the ultimate payoff is admittedly underwhelming here. Perhaps, we were spoiled by the time-bending of “Arrival” and the switcheroo finale of “Life” (2017), but the ultimate reveal doesn’t live up to the expectations that we’ve been building for two hours.
“Annihilation” keeps its secrets close to its vest like a poker player concealing a deck of cards. But when it shows us its hand — with echoes of the Marx Brothers’ mirror gag in “Duck Soup” (1933) — we realize it doesn’t have pocket aces, but rather, it’s been bluffing this whole time.
This isn’t a knock on Garland; even Scott underwhelmed us with “Alien: Covenant” (2017). “Annihilation” is far too creative to be labeled a “sophomore slump.” Far from it; Garland still remains one of our most daring filmmakers. I honestly can’t wait to see what he does next.
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