Movie Beat: Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson not enough to save “Annihilation”

By Jenniffer Wardell

Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality
Screenplay by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer
Directed by Alex Garland
Starring Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh and more
Grade: One and a half stars

The science is more interesting than the plot.

“Annihilation,” based on the award-winning novel, follows a team of scientists into a strange realm talking over a portion of the Earth. The principles behind the realm are fascinating for science nerds, exploring the concepts of evolution and chaos theory, and the visuals are gorgeous. The plot, however, mostly seems like an excuse to take audiences on a tour through the place. The few moments that try to make something more of the story, told in flashbacks, fall so flat that it would be better if they were absent.

The story starts with a doctor, played by Natalie Portman, who discovers that her husband went missing months ago because he disappeared behind a mysterious shimmer realm that’s been slowly spreading. She goes into the realm, along with a team of scientists hoping to find out the cause of the shimmer and why none of the previous teams have returned.

The science is pretty cool, a supposed “refraction” of DNA that is mutating pretty much anything and everything (including the humans wandering through it). This leads to everything from deer with blossom-filled tree branches for antlers to a patchwork of mold that includes exploded body parts. Nature itself is playing mad scientist, and I wish they’d spent more time exploring the whys and hows of what was happening.

Especially since everything else in the movie is “meh” to flat-out awful. The characters don’t get a lot of development, though Tessa Thompson in particular made me wish we’d gotten more. Their dynamic is fine, though certain plot developments near the end rely too much on putting the pieces together themselves.

The worst part of the movie is a completely nonsensical infidelity subplot that didn’t exist in the novel. Completely setting aside the fact that only an utter fool would cheat on Oscar Isaac, there’s nothing even slightly convincing about it. The scenes where Portman and Isaac are happy are 100 times more convincing than the scenes where they aren’t, and she doesn’t show even the slightest flicker of interest in the guy she’s cheating on him with. And that’s not including the fact that the movie would work much better, emotionally and narratively, without it.

In the end, “Annihilation” would work better as one of those speculative science specials that sometimes air on cable. Unfortunately, it’s at the local movie theater instead.

(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

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