If there’s one game franchise that has never taken itself too seriously, it’s id Software’s Doom. Even Bethesda’s most recent games (2016’s Doom and its upcoming sequel Doom Eternal) lean heavily into campy demonic aesthetics and ludicrously over-the-top ultra violence even as they take great pains to flesh out the series’ grim lore. I’m not sure how seriously audiences are expected to take the newly available direct-to-video Doom: Annihilation, but whatever the intention, the film lands squarely in the realm of trashy B-movie schlock, and that can either be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective.
Paint By Numbers
If you’re a fan of sci-fi/horror films (and maybe even if you’re not), chances are you’ve seen the bones of Annihilation’s story setup many times before already. After a United Aerospace Corporation (or UAC) research team’s attempt to link a teleportation gate between Earth and Phobos (one of Mars’ moons) inevitably goes wrong, a squad of marines is sent from Mars to investigate. Once they reach the Phobos UAC base, the marines encounter monsters that have seemingly come from hell, forcing them into a fast-paced escape scenario as they’re hunted down and killed one-by-one.
The film’s opening does its best to introduce viewers to each and every one of the marines in the squad even as horror movie etiquette dictates that most of them will soon meet a grisly end. Unsurprisingly, the various members of the squad each fit into distinct archetypes which consequently serve as the full breadth of their personalities. Among others there’s the obnoxious Australian, the brawny big guy, the stoic captain, and not one but two tough-as-nails female marines peppered into the full squad.
Annihilation’s protagonist is the squad’s third female marine, Lieutenant Joan Dark (Amy Manson). It’s made evident from the start that the rest of the squad dislikes Dark for some unknown reason, and the friction between their dislike and the fact that she outranks them is mined frequently up until the point when the monsters start showing up. In fairness, the fact that Dark is a more experienced lieutenant and most of the other marines are mere privates does somewhat justify how she’s able to survive against odds her squadmates quickly buckle (and die) under, but that might be giving the film’s writers too much credit.
Making the Most of It
Viewers with low expectations might be pleasantly surprised by what Annihilation manages to pack into its hour-and-a-half runtime. The film’s special effects, set dressing, and acting are all serviceable, though the actors are clearly trying to do their best with an incredibly weak and cliché-ridden script. There’s also a decent buildup of tension before the monsters reveal themselves, but once bullets start flying and bodies start dropping Annihilation begins to buckle under its own weight.
Monster vs. marine attack scenes (at least those not involving Lieutenant Dark) are poorly-choreographed, with several members of the squad seemingly forgetting in the moment that they’re a highly-trained and heavily-armed marine when a single ghoul gets the jump on them. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Lieutenant Dark’s skillset appears to outclass those of her peers to such an astonishing degree that it’s almost comical. The film’s script makes several attempts to humanize Dark, but then she dispatches an entire group of demons with skilled firearms use, close-quarters combat, and acrobatic takedowns and suddenly any illusion that she’s just a run-of-the-mill “normal” soldier is shattered.
Again, such faults aren’t a huge problem, especially if a viewer knows what they’re in for, but Annihilation has plenty of other weaknesses as well. One of the biggest issues that bugged me as I watched was that the film never adequately explained how exactly the Phobos research team is transformed into the hellish ghouls the marines fight.
The opening sequence shows a single character having been transformed after travelling through a teleportation gate, implying that it’s the teleportation process that triggers the hellish deformities. However, the marines encounter dozens of transformed staff who never went through the teleportation gate, they just…somehow inexplicitly became monsters. Towards the end of the film, a human character is kidnapped and taken off-screen and then when they’re next seen mere minutes later they’re transformed, again with no explanation as to how.
Much like the ill-fated 2005 Doom film starring The Rock, Annihilation manages to work in a few obvious nods to its video game source material. The marines’ heads-up displays are clearly meant to evoke a typical first-person shooter HUD, and more obvious references to the Doom games include color-coded key cards and the use of weapons like a chainsaw and the BFG 9000. There’s nothing quite as memorable as the 2005 film’s extended first-person sequence, but fans of the games will at least appreciate these clever little callbacks whenever they do pop up.
Sadly, Annihilation’s full lean into the Doom source material can’t make up for a clear lack of production resources. There’s a climactic finale of sorts set in a hellish alternate realm, but it’s painfully obvious said realm was constructed using a green screen and cheap CGI. There’s no sense of urgency or danger attached to the final battle and ensuing escape, and the film itself ends shortly after with an abrupt pseudo-cliffhanger (director and writer Tony Giglio has previously mentioned he wants to do a sequel).
In many ways, Doom: Annihilation is most certainly a bad movie, but it’s not an irredeemable one. Tony Giglio obviously cares about the Doom source material (he apparently first pitched the film to producer Universal 1440 way back in 2015 but only got approved after the success of the 2016 video game) and he did the best he could with what was clearly a small filming budget.
If all a viewer is looking for is some decent B-movie horror action set to the backdrop of a well-known video game franchise, they could do a lot worse than what Annihilation offers. They just need to set their expectations accordingly and do their best to ignore some of the film’s more glaring plot holes and structural weaknesses.