Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist who works as a lecturer, and was married to Kane (Oscar Isaac) until he went missing a year ago, an event that has stopped her life in its tracks, shutting down any social life and now that it seemed there was no hope of her husband ever returning, forcing her to concentrate on her work in lieu of anything else as far as a human connection was concerned. And then one day her husband came back. One night he was there outside their home, and entered to be greeted by a tearful and overwhelmed Lena, but there was something not quite right about him, he seemed distant, and when he started coughing up blood she had to call an ambulance...
The reason Kane is in this discombobulated state is down to what he was doing when he disappeared, which was conducting a military investigation into an anomaly that occurred when a meteorite struck a lighthouse and began to alter everything around it in an ever-expanding diameter. The authorities and scientists are baffled, and whenever anyone ventures into this zone they never re-emerge, making Kane an anomaly in himself. To make sure Portman's character remained at the heart of the action (she was the star, after all), Lena is selected to enter the region pretentiously named The Shimmer along with four other women, all picked for some useful expertise or other.
The comparisons with other "journey into the unknown" movies were obvious, from Stalker to Apocalypse Now, but screenwriter turned director Alex Garland had based the script on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, and there was a literary flavour to the proceedings that apparently deliberately echoed the global disaster science fiction of J.G. Ballard, especially the books where characters conduct excursions into mysterious landscapes such as The Crystal World, The Drowned World or Hello America. With that in mind, Garland seemed to want that kind of journey where the physical realm is echoed in the psychological trip the characters are taking to be translated to a sci-fi flick.
A noble endeavour, but one that would have been more impressive if that psychological aspect had been better delineated and not so vague to the point of being rather blah. As if in a sop to the fans of action in their science fiction, occasionally violence would erupt, so the team are attacked by a mutant bear for instance, and the grand finale sees Lena resorting to punches and an explosion to get the upper hand on what she finally discovers at the heart of the zone, which undercut the film's higher falutin' ambitions far too savagely. The impression was of a piece that would have liked to have simply featured the characters wandering through an increasingly alien landscape for a couple of hours yet did not have the courage of its convictions and was forced to throw in monsters as in many a fifties genre effort.
This was all the more ironic when behind the scenes, the studio had wanted Garland to make it even more commercial. To his credit, he stuck to his guns so that the end result was the movie he wanted make, but as punishment since his bosses regarded the box office prospects of Annihilation as practically zero it was sold directly to Netflix in every territory but the United States and China to be released straight onto the internet. An ignominious fate for what had been seen as the follow-up to Garland's much-praised Ex Machina, but the fact was the studio were not wrong, and what was straining to be intellectual here was merely closing off an audience who would have preferred a more straightforward adventure yarn. The themes of self-destruction being helped along by the environment we find around us were all very well, but when it led up to the final couple of shots which screamed big twist cliché in every downbeat fantastical tale, it was difficult to see this as much more than a well-intentioned disappointment. Experimental-sounding music by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.