Annihilation | Alex Garland | February 23, 2018
Previously, Garland broke onto the directorial scene with the inquisitive Ex Machina that raised questions of robot humanity, having also adapted the gritty harsh law-driven future of Dredd and written the 28 Days Later … and Sunshine screenplays, among other notable sci-fi credits. Now, his long-awaited (at least since the first news broke around the release of Ex Machina) adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation has arrived, but with a muted promotion for a heady sci-fi release near the end of February.
Annihilation is told through the flashbacks of Lena (Natalie Portman), a military veteran turned college-level biologist who joins a confidential scientific expedition after her military husband Sgt. Kane (Oscar Isaac) unexpectedly returns from the same mission after a year and falls ill almost immediately. Something’s not quite right … and that something is revealed by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the psychologist and director of the Southern Reach, a covert scientific organization monitoring the slow expansion of the Shimmer border of Area X, a now-abandoned coastal national park that nature is both reclaiming and mutating. All prior expeditions (manned and unmanned) in the last 3 years since the phenomena was first reported haven’t returned – with the exception of Kane – so now it’s up to the 5-person team of Lena, Ventress, Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and Cassie Sheppard (Swedish actress Tuva Novotny) to venture into Area X, learn what happened to the other expeditions, find a cure for Kane, reach the lighthouse at the epicenter where something interstellar crashed, and halt the progression of the Shimmer.
Garland takes the eerie roots of VanderMeer’s novel (the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy – the rest of which likely won’t be adapted, given how Garland diverged from the novel) and crafts a tale of humanity, evolution, mimicry, and how to explain the unexplained, akin to films like Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Solaris, among other quintessential arthouse science fiction selections, and Cronenberg’s tendency toward body horror/transformations. The unreliable and epistolary stream-of-consciousness format of the novel is translated into several levels of flashbacks, which interweave to better tell Lena’s story (removing the introspection in favor of secrecy and quiet curiousness) and flesh out the rest of the team – with the most focus on Ventress and Anya. This departure from the source material also allows Garland to make Area X his own with touches of VanderMeer’s creeping unearthly flora and eerieness, as well as more subtle transformations (to start, anyway) of the fauna – the humans included. And when Garland moves from subtle transformation horror to weird, trippy, dark, and disturbing transformation horror, it flat-out works.
Returning composer duo Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s haunting string, vocal, and percussion-fueled score helps set the stage with slight minor-key synth undertones that crank into high gear and take over late in the third act when the trippy and unexplainable sci-fi takes over. The early guitar cues mirror Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Helpless” (featured in the film), the recurring vocal intonations call to mind Bjork, and the synth … well, the dark distorted synth calls to mind a theremin. And it all fits.
What’s lost, though, is some of the diversity in the book. Yes, Benedict Wong has the substantial role of Lomax, a Southern Reach scientist questioning Lena, and David Gysai appears as Dan, a good friend of Lena and Kane’s, but both are new additions. There are, of course, Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson, and Gina Rodriguez, who all give good performances (Isaac’s and Thompson’s being more understated than Rodriguez’s). While it’s not revealed in the first novel, Authority (the second in the trilogy) reveals the Biologist’s (Lena) Asian heritage and the Psychologist’s (Ventress) American Indian heritage. Just basing the film off the first novel and not taking at least the second into consideration (if there were ever plans to adapt it) doesn’t speak to a thoroughness on Garland’s part. Esquire goes into more details on the differences, and SyFyWire and io9 both get into the whitewashing of Lena and Ventress. All three articles are worth a read – but be warned of slight book spoilers.
As a follow-up to Ex Machina, Annihilation perhaps raised the bar for Garland with even more trippy yet cerebral sci-fi. It’s compelling, slightly familiar yet manages to be its own thing, and is definitely worth your time – if this sci-fi subgenre is your cup of tea.