Talking to fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, if you venture to see Alex Garland’s cinematic adaptation, steel yourself, they are very different animals. Both maintain the general sci-fi Heart of Darkness-style journey, and there are a few plot points intact—like the lighthouse and Area X. But aside from that, they go in two different directions.
I’ll try to keep the book talk to a minimum and look at the film on its own merits, but I want to touch on a few bits right off the bat. Garland, who both adapts the screenplay and directs, takes the heady, esoteric sci-fi concepts and turns them into a thriller. He takes dreamy, ethereal concepts from the page and doesn’t necessarily dumb them down as mush as he files down the edges. This includes things like adding am extra character to the original quartet, explicitly stating the protagonist’s motivations for this journey up front instead of letting them remain shadowy and oblique, and even simply giving the characters names when it’s not necessary—in the book each goes by her job title.
I don’t necessarily intend any of this as a knock on the film. On its own, as its own blend of genres, there’s much to admire. But sitting in the theater, I found myself wishing I hadn’t read the novel first. I’m usually good at keeping the two separate, but in this case, things stuck and pulled at me like sticker bushes on a sweater.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a military-vet-turned Johns Hopkins biologist. When her still-military husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns from a mysterious mission after a year-long absence where she presumed him dead, it leads her to joins an excursion into Area X. A region engulfed in the “Shimmer,” none of the teams who venture in have ever returned. The rest of the expedition includes the psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh); the physicist, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson); Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez); and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny).
Once inside, the team encounters a world where normal biological rules no longer apply. The Shimmer twists and warps the limits of reality. They attempt to track the origins of the phenomenon, uncover evidence of previous expeditions, and begin to unravel both mentally and physically.
A slow-burn, meticulous voyage toward an unclear end, Annihilation mixes science fiction elements with psychological and body horror that edges up to Lovecraft territory. Garland presents heady themes and concepts, with the deliberate pace, and the finished product resembles a light thriller version of Apocalypse Now and 2001.
Some viewers will find a great deal to sink their claws into with Annihilation, and repeat viewings are sure to offer additional rewards. That said, there’s going to be a stark divide between those who love this film and those whom it never truly hooks. I find myself straddling that line. At once, I want to give the film another spin with an eye on certain aspects, but there are also times when my attention wandered and I wasn’t fully engaged. It never quite pushes as far into the depths as it needs to.
Part of the problem is a god-awful frame story that not not only derails any narrative momentum, but only exists to hammer home points home with a distressing lack of subtlety. Awkward, repetitive scenes pull the viewer out of the story and hit them over the head. The conflict between Garland and the studio has been well-documented—one exec was quoted as saying he didn’t think audiences would understand Annihilation. And these clunky detours feel like a concession from the filmmaker to the studio. Intrusive and unnecessary, they’re condescending and destroy much of the tension the film builds because they reveal who makes it out alive.
Natalie Portman stands out as the lead. She’s the Willard of the team, and we spend the bulk of the time close to her, watching her crumble and push forward. Much of her motivation and drive remains similar to what’s on the page, but VanderMeer parses it out gradually over the course of the novel, while Garland drops it in our laps at the outset. It ruins the mystery of why Lena goes on this journey, of what propels her—again, this feels like a concession to a fearful studio.
The rest of the cast is strong—on paper, it’s bonkers good—and it’s refreshing to see a studio film fronted by women and women of color. But they don’t always have much to work with. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s psychologist is the most interesting initially. Having watched team after team enter the Shimmer never to return, she has a unique vantage point, but disappears from the forefront. In the end, her motives get one throwaway line and little more. Tessa Thompson’s physicist is quiet and mousy, nursing her own wounds. That’s the character, but as a result, too often with her limited lines, she blends into the background. Just when she’s the most interesting, she, too, dissipates. More than anyone else, I wanted additional time with her.
Gina Rodriguez’ lesbian paramedic Anya is easily the best of the supporting players. She’s great on Jane the Virgin and takes over the screen every chance she gets here. Boisterous and all out of fucks to give, while the others approach Area X with professional interest and remove, the non-scientist of the bunch is not having any of this crazy nonsense.
Adding a fifth member to the team is the most curious choice of all. Tuna Novotny is fine. But Cass doesn’t add anything. In fact, an additional person dilutes the pool. Lena, Anya, Josie, and Dr. Ventress have much more personality. I wanted to spend more time with them, watching them interact under pressure and stress. With one too many characters, the importance and impact of the others lessens a few degrees, to the film’s detriment.
In the hands of cinematographer Rob Hardy, who lensed Garland’s directorial debut, Ex-Machina, Annihilation is a gorgeous film to behold. With this heightened nature reclaiming the landscape, there’s a twisted post-apocalyptic vibe. It’s damn near always sunrise or sunset, and they paint each frame with a stunning array of hues, if a few too many lens flares. Newly evolved organisms—fungi and moss and flora—climb decrepit buildings and trees in startling washes of color.
Striking imagery and creature design abound. There are times where the sets, locations, and monsters call to mind the likes of Alien and The Thing. Dissonant soundscapes ratchet up the tension and pressure. A minimalist score often comprised of a solitary, echoing guitar veers towards full-on western territory.
Annihilation is most interesting when it luxuriates in the abstract and strange. That is to say, when the team actually ventures into Area X. It’s trippy and weird, philosophical and intriguing, and where the film finds itself. Everything outside of the Shimmer is just noise, a distraction full of heavy-handed explanation. Lena had an affair, and while it speaks to her state of mind, it’s inconsequential in a larger sense. There’s plenty more they could have done to hook the audience. The world inside Area X is simply so much more interesting than anything outside the expanding borders.
It may sound like I don’t like Annihilation, but that’s certainly not the case. Garland’s film offers much to chew on, and as stated earlier, it’s one where I believe on repeat viewings the positives will stand out while the issues will fade. But after one watch, the flaws loom large. That said, I love that this movie exists. More strange, cryptic, cerebral science fiction that takes multiple encounters to fully unwrap, please. [Grade: B]