The Sophomore Slump forgives not. The expectations following a promising debut sometimes can spur artistic leaps (see, e.g., Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky). More often for the brash auteur, critical capital dries up on the second try. Just ask Ana Lily Amirpour or Richard Kelly. Definitely don’t ask Michael Cimino, whose third time behind the camera is truly the stuff of ignominious legend. To this list, I submit Alex Garland, the screenwriter-turned-director responsible for some of the most noteworthy sci-fi thrillers of the new millennium. The fine “Sunshine,” the haunting “28 Days Later,” and the sublime “Ex Machina” all set the stage for Garland to up the budget and casting antes in service of a magnum opus. Those expecting his coronation with “Annihilation” will have to wait at least another picture more.

Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation” tells a story far less bewildering than it presumes. Johns Hopkins biologist Lena (a relatively inert Natalie Portman) mourns the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). Kane kept his Army-issue weapons, while Lena traded hers in for a microscope. Having been presumed killed in action, Kane suddenly reappears like a drugged-out Lazarus to shake Lena out of her mitosis lecture languor. In no time at all, she is chatting with psychologist Dr. Ventress (a nearly flat-lining Jennifer Jason Leigh) and signing up for a repeat of the mission that we learn had kept Kane away for almost a year. A force field known as the Shimmer hangs like a curtain of oily water. But no one knows what it is or why it’s wreaking all sorts of havoc. Species are mutating in very un-Darwinian fashion. Radio waves no longer transmit in its radius. All the human race knows is that a lighthouse was struck by some celestial debris and the Shimmer is slowly creeping over more and more terrain. Several brave souls—the ones in Kane’s expedition team—have already been lost, perhaps killed, wandering beyond the border.

Where those men failed to provide answers, a crew of take-no-prisoners, brainy women venture into the same heart of darkness. Joining Lena and Ventress are Anya, a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and anthropologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). Their number predictably dwindles with the film’s run time in quasi-horror set pieces featuring some fantastical beasts. Whether paddling down a river or traversing thickly set forests, the potential heroines trade stories, barbs, and looks of suspicion. Does the Shimmer make entrants go mad and turn on each other? Or do they want to destroy themselves and each other by their own volition?

Frankly, none of the answers—to the extent they emerge—matters to the filmmaker and thus to the audience. Perhaps it’s the curse of the adapted screenplay. There’s little alternative explanation for the unbelievable stilted script, punctured as it is with histrionic outbursts (mostly from Anya), attempts at didactic eureka moments, and other platitudes. The presence of two Oscar-caliber performers can’t save the proceedings from the dreaded watch-check. Along with the meandering pace comes a wholly unnecessary backstory involving one of Lena’s colleagues. “Annihilation” earnestly attempts moments of existential profoundness and winds up with wince-inducing pablum.

And somehow the final twenty minutes provide some of the most astonishing visuals in recent cinematic memory. Another, vastly more effective, version of “Annihilation,” would only include Lena’s visit to the lighthouse. The special effects work is categorically dazzling. Colors and shapes splash across the screen in something far more glorious than technicolor. Portman’s dialogue-free, physical performance reminds us of her virtuosic abilities. And the score loses its borderline annoying haphazardness, settling into something that ties a deeply unsettling, Lynchian knot around the final frames. That is, until Garland fades to black on what feels like an unnecessary stinger scene.

Only true science fiction devotees may find enough in the threadbare story to enjoy the entire two hours. For the rest of us, the search for a narrative hook remains as elusive as the satisfaction that Lena’s government inquisitor receives when she returns from the trek. There simply isn’t enough visual spectacle to hold one’s attention or sufficient character development to make viewers care about their journey. Is it any wonder, then, that Paramount decided in December 2017 not to distribute the film internationally and assign those rites to Netflix? Every burgeoning directorial talent should have a mulligan up his or her sleeve in case of emergency. Let’s hope Garland used it wisely here.

CLGJr Verdict: A snooze-fest dressed up as sci-fi gold, the poor woman’s “Arrival.” If it’s still in a theater near you, save your money and wait for this week’s streaming release.      

Annihilation opened in theaters on Friday, February 23 and will stream via Netflix on Monday, March 12.

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