Alex Garland’s sci-fi Annihilation arrives with a ton of anticipation, deflated somewhat by being consigned to Netflix and forcing its psychedelic, mind-bending, components onto a smaller screen than ideal. To some, the film’s dismissal by producer David Ellison as “too intellectual” and “too complicated” for commercial success was just another factor in its attractiveness. While generating an eye roll at the time, Ellison was probably right as Annihilation veers closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker than it does the likes of Predator or Alien – though it’s not as much of a slog and has often stunning composition and special effects as opposed to, say, wind blowing some grass (see also: The Happening).
Garland’s subjective take on Jeff Vandermeer’s novel streamlines some of the source material, shearing off massive chunks elsewhere, as it follows the latest in a line of presumably ill-fated expeditions who never returned from a mysterious, slowly-expanding, zone known variously as Area X or the Shimmer – the latter for immediately obvious visual reasons. Why the team (Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny) are all women gets merely a mention, though Portman’s biologist is driven by curiosity about what happened to her husband in the Shimmer. The guilt she carries about their relationship proves crucial to the character’s motivations and a surface reading of the film’s conclusion.
Many readers of Southern Reach trilogy, including yours truly, would be swift to acknowledge the impossibility of a direct adaptation of Vandermeer’s confounding work. That would be especially true in capturing its most Ballard-ian and Lovecraft-like elements – fever-dream shifts in logic and reality, creatures and motives that defy description and even, at times, the reader’s imagination. Garland’s nailed the eerie tone, helped by a cast serving up understated performances with often masked motivations – thankfully for the audience, they get on better with each other than the written version. The director also makes his own mind-bending contribution to the third act, playing Kubrick to Vandermeer’s Clarke as Annihilation defiantly declares “so what if we can’t show that, try writing this”.
Unfortunately, with a few too many of the book’s most memorable scenes missing, and an ending that recalls some of the obviousness of Garland’s previous writing gig on Sunshine in personifying the unknowable, Annihilation isn’t all it could be. It’s still highly recommended viewing, a patient puzzler that invites comparisons to Solaris (hi again, Tarkovsky) and Arrival in how it sees the deeply personal collide with the incomprehensible.