There’s a good chance you won’t like Alex Garland’s new science fiction thriller, Annihilation. I don’t say that to suggest that you shouldn’t see it (you absolutely should) or that it’s not a very good film (it’s often astonishing), but it’s a hard movie to develop an emotional attachment to. Garland has created another film of ideas and fascinating concepts, similar to his last project, Ex Machina (2014), but far more ambitious. Annihilation keeps the audience at arm’s length like other great science fiction films have in the past. (For an example, check out some of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s original reviews.) It may take more than one viewing to warm up to, but it’s absolutely worth it.
Natalie Portman anchors the film as Lena, a biologist who was originally nameless in Jeff VanderMeer’s original novel. She is in the midst of a great loss — her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been missing for months after participating in a mysterious expedition. Yet one day he arrives in their home with no explanation and barely any memory of where he has been or what he has done. He convulses and falls into a coma shortly after, the victim of some kind of sickness contracted during his mission.
Kane was part of an expedition into a rapidly expanding plot of land known as Area X, though most of the characters refer to it as the Shimmer. A kaleidoscopic barrier has encircled the area, which looks as if it might have originally been in the everglades, though the location is never specified. The Shimmer radiates the colors of an oil slick — purples, greens, and blues which obscure the terrain contained within. Lena agrees to join a follow-up mission into the Shimmer, led by a psychologist with a chilly demeanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuvo Novotny round out the group in roles greatly expanded from VanderMeer’s original conceptions.
Garland’s version of the Shimmer is vibrant and mysterious. Strange, alluring flowers in every color imaginable have begun to spring up in the marshy forest. They’re beautiful, yet the sight of deer with these flowers growing out of their antlers also suggests the flowers are some kind of parasites. As Lena’s group ventures further into the heart of the Shimmer, they encounter more chilling creatures. There’s a horrifying scene briefly referenced in the trailer involving a bear-like creature that has stuck with me since seeing the film. It shouldn’t be spoiled, other than to say it is without precedent.
At an advance screening for Annihilation, Garland explained that he read a pre-publication copy of the book, and proceeded to adapt it from his memory of the story, rather than returning to the page constantly. The film benefits from that hazy sense of adaptation, as what was barely concrete in the novel becomes even more abstract and disturbing (although it also opened up Garland to some bad faith claims of whitewashing). Garland has changed many of the book’s set pieces, replacing them with ones of his own. This might be frustrating for fans of the novels (which are worth your time), but they’re logical choices for the film Garland is trying to make. His half-remembered version of Annihilation is its own self-contained entity — not just the setup for a series of sequels.
Garland’s characters have more emotional depth than the people in VanderMeer’s books, who seem to lack energy and empathy, yet they’re still cold and distant most of the time. It’s a calculated choice that displays Annihilation’s clear debt to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Stanley Kubrick. It’s established wisdom among some critics that characters must be fully-fleshed out in order for a film to be compelling, but Garland wisely ignores that bromide. The audience doesn’t quite understand any of these people, including Lena, which makes it impossible to game out the film until the very end. The goal isn’t to make the audience feel sorry or scared for her; without the safety of having Lena as an audience surrogate, the film’s shocks and discoveries act directly upon us, rather than being displaced on the protagonist. By distancing the film from Lena, Garland paradoxically makes it more immediate.
The echoes of Kubrick are also felt in the film’s mechanics. In the opening scenes, Garland favors medium shots with Lena directly in the center of the frame. In most films, characters are placed off to the sides of the frame, but putting them smack dab in the center emphasizes their displacement from the world around them. Whenever someone has a conversation while framed head on in the center, the other party is necessarily left off screen, further emphasizing a failure to connect and integrate with the world around. It’s a kind of framing Kubrick used throughout his career, most effectively and disturbingly in The Shining (1980). In this case, Lena is unable to connect to the people around her in her cushy university position. Only when she enters Area X does she become a fully connected part of the landscape.
Garland shows off his devotion to other films, particularly with a gruesome mural of sorts that shares some of the disturbing grandness of Alien’s mysterious space jockey. Where Alien (1979) was a haunted house movie in space, Annihilation is sometimes a haunted house movie in a forest. The sections devoted to horror are done masterfully — Garland excels at creating suspense — but the film’s greatest strengths are when it explores the creation of Area X, which Garland does with a grim sense of wonder.
Annihilation, thanks to the vagaries of movie distribution, will only have a theatrical release in the US, Canada, and China. All other territories will have access to the film immediately on Netflix. Though the move will far expand the film’s reach, it also diminishes the film’s impact. Garland has crafted a work of art that deserves to have its horrors and wonders tower over us on a big screen.