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‘Annihilation’ has its reach exceed its grasp of horror sci-fi

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"Annihilation,” Alex Garland’s much-anticipated follow-up to his smash hit “Ex Machina” is in theaters this weekend. Trailers have teased the film as sci-fi horror with world-ending stakes, a seemingly odd turn from “Ex Machina.” In the end, “Annihilation” is a slow burn sci-fi thriller pondering over gender status, humanity and creation.

Aside from the hype around Garland’s second time in the director’s chair, the film has garnered some press for its release structure -- theatrical in U.S. and China but a delayed Netflix release everywhere else. This is due to Paramount, the distributor, realizing the film’s poor test-screening results may lead to underwhelming box office numbers.

In many ways, “Annihilation” deals with similar ideas as “Ex Machina” but perhaps with less nuance and more mystery. Based off of the first installation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, we follow Lena (Natalie Portman), an Army veteran and biologist, into what has been dubbed “The Shimmer,” a Florida coastline that has been hit by a meteor and left with a  bubble-like glow around the area. The Shimmer has been growing and will eventually consume major cities and states according to Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), so the crew assembled is tasked with reaching the meteor’s initial point of contact to find out what is happening, and more importantly how to stop it.

A major selling point for the film is the fact that it stars five women, something a little too foreign to the sci-fi genre. “Annihilation” makes progress on that front as the women on screen are all quite independent entities with their own agendas and backgrounds.

Portman is successful in her restrained performance but truly, this film is more about its concepts than its characters. And that may be the fatal flaw with “Annihilation.” Characters seem to not matter as much as we are told they do. It is clear as day that Garland is so fascinated with concepts of destruction, rebirth and life that he leaves the characters in the background.

This is a small flaw that could easily be overlooked if it weren't for the dysfunctional pacing and mess of tension and boredom. At times, the film can be truly horrifying with stomach-turning gore. While wonderfully put together with a methodical direction, Garland’s mastery of these horror scenes struggle to fit into the film as a whole.

It is, for the most part, a visually stunning film, and does so with the middle-class budget of $55 million. “Annihilation” successfully fleshes out some of its themes, but the mess of some misplaced horror, poor pacing and an inaccessible third act makes the film unpalatable.

Still, “Annihilation” is a bold move for a major studio such as Paramount, who have been taking big swings lately, and films like it should be encouraged -- even if this one may be better suited for its Netflix release plan.

Grade: C

draju@theeagleonline.com


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