Natalie Portman with a machine-gun… on shrooms!
Annihilation is one of the best recent print to film adaptations. Strangely enough, this is not because it’s entirely faithful to the source material. Far from it. Sure, the bones might be same, as they are between any two human beings, but they’re still two very different people through their flesh and their minds. Yet, in spite of that, this is a wonderful adaptation. Director Alex Garland holds tight to his success from Ex Machina and builds further momentum with Annihilation. He forgoes material (a lot of it) that’s cerebral in a way not meant for action, science fiction, or horror films, and embraces and enhances other material that strengthens what’s left.
“So what is left,” interested readers of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy might ask. Concentrate. One hundred-forty proof concentrate delivered in (near) hyperrealism. Garland takes those bones and throws meat on in proportions. With a cast diluted down to the bare necessities, but packed with acting chops any director worth their monogrammed chair would envy, Annihilation works on nearly every level, delivering a mysterious and riveting experience that should shake you at least once, if not again.
Director: Alex Garland
Release Date: February 23, 2018
In literature, Annihilation is book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy. The book does well as a self-contained story, even though VanderMeer wrote and released all three volumes across the span of 2014 alone, meaning that it was never intended to be a standalone tale. Similarly, the film feels like a standalone, and true to form, Garland has indicated he has no interest in working on a trilogy or continuing this particular story. As others have pointed out, there’s nothing to say Paramount won’t do just that if the money equation adds up to boatloads of predicted cash. Studios usually will pinch every penny they can. Should they though? In terms of serving the story, I would argue not.
Annihilation is the story of an event that happens in a southern region of the United States. While the government tells the public it’s a chemical spill, it appears to have origins that are more, well, celestial. Natalie Portman plays a biologist, and true to book form, I’ll leave her title as that, if for no other reason than to entice you to go out and read it once you’ve seen the film (neither pursuit will independently ruin the other). She has a military background, so does her husband. Turns out he’s still involved and he’s got a mission, one he won’t tell her about.
Guess who’s going under the dome? (Some credit must be given to Stephen King here, as his alien dome novel beat VanderMeer’s by a good five years—even if they are entirely different entries.) So, hubby-army-man goes into the phenomena, and then goes missing for a year. Then he returns, seemingly changed. And then gets sick. And then the government intercepts their ambulance en route to a hospital. And the rest is history—the Biologist must go into the “shimmer” to find out what happened to her husband. It’s a need she can’t ignore. It is her purpose. She’ll go with a Physicist, an EMT, a Cryptozoologist with a specialty in Big Foot, and a Boss Lady with a penchant for saying “Shit” when things go wrong.
My facetiousness reflects this being the weakest part of the film—the one that not only doesn’t show the tedious amounts of training such an expedition would endure, but pretends it doesn’t even happen. Why would the government send in entirely untrained civilians to explore this event? As guinea pigs? Sure, but it’s still a tad unbelievable. All it does is serve the function of explaining why the team is so easily unnerved and quickly disassembled once inside, and to be sure they are, on both counts, predictably.
Garland chooses to focus on the surreal and alien nature of the environment under the shimmer, the barrier that separates “Area X” from the world. It’s beautifully imagined and constructed, up to and including the strange lifeforms the team encounters inside. And, much as in Ex Machina, the realism created for these impossible and fantastical elements is a sight to see and to admire. The violence, though sparse, will, quite frankly, shock those who aren’t prepared for it or accustomed to it. It is hyperrealism and it holds nothing back in its delivery.
Portman, though almost going through the paces, displays a calm and serious demeanor that reminds me of what made her acting so impressive even when she was a child. It’s utterly believable. Surely, she is a biologist who spent 7 years in the army that they just pulled off the street and filmed as she did her thing. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the same sardonic Jennifer Jason Leigh as ever, and Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, and Tessa Thompson play their expendable roles to perfection
Former eccentric, billionaire-cyborg inventor, Oscar Isaac returns to join Garland again too. And he’s just fine, though mostly he portrays an emotionless shell of a human being who may or may not be some sort of alien clone, part of an elaborate shell game to find the ‘real husband.’ He’s just dandy, in this limited capacity, but it’s always fun to see actors follow directors from project to project for re-teamings.
Beyond this, it’s important not to give too much away. Pacing and revelation are important to this film’s success and I’d deny you a little of it to grant you the best experience.
I’ll leave you with this thought: only The Revenant has ever shown a more disturbing bear sequence, and that marathon was nearly too grueling to endure. This one will leave you scared without being scarred.