Annihilation is a film that tries too hard to be interesting with material that's been covered many times before.
I finally got around to seeing Annihilation yesterday and, since Barney hasn't yet seen it, I figured I'd do the inaugural review and see if he chimes in with a Five Second response once he gets to it.
Let's put the positives up front: I'm an Alex Garland fan. I loved Ex Machina, often for what it didn't do, since it avoided many of the tropes that have been attached to androids and artificial intelligence in contemporary SF and instead approached the topic on a very personal level. He didn't bother trying to ask any of the "societal impact" questions introduced by films like Blade Runner or TV series like Humans, until the very end of the film, when the audience gets a chance to consider the magnitude of the personal becoming the global. It was smart storytelling and I appreciated his moody style. Annihilation is filled with those same hallmarks. If you didn't know that Garland had directed this film, you'd be able to pick it up fairly quickly. Similarly, although I haven't read the novel that the film is sourced from, I respect the fact that it was hugely popular within the SF community, earning Jeff Vandermeer a Nebula.
All of that said, I think the film falls short in many ways, mostly because there aren't a ton of interesting or original ideas in it and those ideas that are interesting are presented in a very bare bones, matter-of-fact manner. First things first: This is The Colour Out of Space. For those of you that have never read the HP Lovercraft short story, it's essentially a tale about a hard-to-define, amoebic-like creature that crashes into a small New England town via meteorite and begins to mutate the flora and fauna around it and drive the townsfolk insane. Yes, this film is basically the same plot as a 1927 short story. I realize that, despite the efforts of reprobates like myself to keep telling Lovecraft stories, he remains relatively obscure to the wider public but it was still pretty jarring to get halfway through the film and turn to my girlfriend and say: "This is the Colour Out of Space." (Her response, of course, was: "What?")
The "twist" on the theme is the concept of "echoes" taking place in the environment and within the people that enter the Shimmer. That's not to say that said concept is uninteresting. It is pretty fascinating, depending on how it's presented. Unfortunately, the screenplay didn't give us a whole lot of room for that, since the concept of the Shimmer being a prism for not just genetics but life and its progression is presented in a brief academic lecture by physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson.) There was no real moment of discovery that the camera showed us (film is a visual medium.) It was just flatly stated and then virtually ignored by Lena (Natalie Portman.) Later on we get more demonstration of how that echoing/prismatic concept works when Lena encounters the alien in its lair at the lighthouse, but by then we're already well past the point of discovery and on to Act 3: resolution.
In short, the story doesn't tell us anything particularly new nor does it tell it to us in a particularly innovative way that might have let the audience discover what was going on, rather than having it served up to them. Yes, there are a bunch of nice touches throughout the film that keep the themes alive in small details, like the house deep in the Shimmer having an identical interior to Lena's and the ouroboros tattoo appearing on multiple characters' arms, not only representing the classic snake eating its tail but doing so in the form of an infinity symbol. Both of those imply constant re-creation, while the ouroboros can also imply self-destruction, which is a rather pointedly emphasized aspect of the story. Indeed, the Norse version of the ouroboros, Jormungandr, is the serpent that encircles the world and will initiate the end of everything when it releases its tail and signals the start of Ragnarok. All of this stuff is kinda old hat to the SF-inclined among us.
And the film doesn't stop at drawing obvious inferences from ancient legend or 1920s pulp literature. The principle of "echoes" through time/reality caused by aliens isn't really new and, in fact, has been used quite recently in the 2016 film Arrival. Furthermore, there was plenty of imagery plucked from one of the most famous modern alien horror films of all time: The Thing. As soon as Anya (Gina Rodriguez) had the rest of the cast tied up, threatening to kill them unless they confirmed whomever she felt was the traitor, I could think of nothing else but Kurt Russell doing the same in John Carpenter's brilliant remake, as he stuck hot wires into blood samples of the men tied up in front of him. The little shock moment at the end of Annihilation, where you see the irises of Lena and Kane (Oscar Isaac) change color, indicating that they're still at least as much the alien echoes of themselves as they are the originals, was redolent of the kind of uncertain ending that The Thing employed, as well.
Unfortunately, as good as the direction was, no one's performance really stood out to me in any marked fashion. The visual effects were adequate, but nothing outside of the remains of Kane's colleague in the abandoned swimming pool really stuck with me. In the end, it's a decent film, but it's still The Colour Out of Space with a bit of emotional entanglement woven through it. Lovecraft really didn't do emotion other than despair and fear, so the film steps a bit higher than that, but not that much higher.