In many ways, we have been living through a golden age of science-fiction in media for at least a decade. I mean, yes, we have our Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universes all toppling records every year and they have been good. Look past them though and just look at the breadth of choices we’ve had in the last few years: Get Out, Blade Runner 2049, Mad Max: Fury Road, Westworld, Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Martian, Arrival, Uprooted, The Handmaid’s Tale, Saga, Edge of Tomorrow, Spec Ops: The Line, Gravity, Her, The Walking Dead, Inception, Who Fears Death, Mass Effect 2, 2312, The Last of Us. In the midst of that, there’s been writer Alex Garland. First famous for adapting the novel, The Beach, Garland began writing screenplays for movies like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd before taking his hand at directing. His debut, Ex Machina, fits comfortably on the list of titles I’ve listed above: it was smart and confident and unnerving at the end. It seemed a good portent for future projects.
So the idea of taking Garland and letting him adapt the Nebula and Shirley Jackson Awards winning novel Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer seems like a no brainer. Smart sci-fi writer director takes smart sci-fi book to make smart sci-fi movie. Problem being that the novel was told from a first-person point of view, that it has no names and that it mostly takes place inside the protagonist’s head as they either descend into madness, have their consciousness expanded or are suffering from an encounter with an alien entity beyond their understanding. How do you adapt something like that?
Annihilation tells the story of Lena (Natalie Portman), a former Army specialist-turned cell biology professor. She has been living with the memory of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), an Army sergeant whose unit was sent in a classified mission a year before and that never returned home. She has begun to think of him as dead when he mysteriously turns up at their home with no memory of the mission or how he got back. Before they know it, he’s violently ill and both are taken to the mysterious “Area X” — a military compound standing on the edge of an area known only as “The Shimmer.” Here, three years ago, a mysterious object crashed from space and set up an area where signals of any kind cannot enter or leave. All previous expeditions into The Shimmer have turned up nothing nor have returned — until Kane re-emerged from it. Desperate for answers, another expedition is sent into The Shimmer, with Lena, who has both the background and the reason to enter, joining physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), surveyor/geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), medic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) and psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The question becomes: can they find the answers in there that they’re seeking or will The Shimmer claim another group?
Having cut her teeth on everything from the Star Wars Prequels to Thor, Natalie Portman is no stranger to having to act against elements that are not there. She has always been a great actress but there are times that she rises or falls according to the quality of the material — compare her in Black Swan versus in Thor: The Dark World. The good news is that here, she rises to the occasion. Lena is the heart of the story as she rightfully has to be. Her reasons for entering The Shimmer are explored as is her character. I won’t spoil much beyond what you read above but, suffice it to say, Lena is a far more complex than she seems and this complexity is what drives her towards her goal. And Portman gets that correctly in her performance.
The rest of the cast is good with most of the performances falling on Leigh, Thompson, Rodriguez and Novotny as the other team members. They all get at least one moment to shine and do well with it. What’s interesting is that all save Rodriguez give very subdued and quiet performances. It ties into who the characters are and what The Shimmer is doing to them, but I won’t divulge much more than that. I’ll only say that there are reasons why none of them should have entered Area X. Beyond them, Isaac, who brimmed with energy in Ex Machina, is called to be something different here and does another good job. I do wish we got more than the few snippets of his and Lena’s life together as it would have acted as a juxtaposition for their relationship and where they find themselves at the movie’s start.
Rather than highlight a whole mess of the crew that worked on this film, I’ll give a quick kudos to production designer Mark Digby, set decorator Michelle Day, art director Denis Schnegg and sound editor Glenn Freemantle; all of whom work to bring the world inside The Shimmer to life. This is what you came to see: the strange flora and mutated fauna that breathes and lives and sometimes attacks Lena and her team. Though they are symptoms of the greater threat that The Shimmer represent, it’s the beautiful plants that seem to not make sense and the grizzly animals that do things that they should not that represent the most immediate danger to the team.
Garland’s team does also a great job of building up tension which then boils over into action and those should be enjoyed. Whether it’s facing off the dangerous fauna, of which there are two key sequences that are a lot of fun, or it’s making discoveries of what happened to Kane and his team — no spoilers but body horror enthusiasts will have a blast with it while everyone else cringes — Lena and her team are presented with a mission that makes one recoil from moment to moment.
The road for this movie was a complicated one. Agreeing to adapt only the first novel, as the rest of the proposed trilogy was not out yet, seems to have been the start of many issues for Garland and his team. The latter books revealed different racial backgrounds for key characters as well as different courses — Book 2, for example, going into greater detail into the organization studying The Shimmer, the Southern Reach. This has caused some fans of the book to decry the changes that Garland made for this movie. Meanwhile, the production company began getting cold feet at a movie that was turning far more cerebral than they had intended and wanted edits. When the producer refused, Paramount opted to sell the international distribution rights for it to Netflix for $50 million — not bad for a movie that cost something like $55 million to make.
What I will say is that Garland manages to nail, if nothing else, the spirit of VanderMeer’s novel. Inspired by a trek through the woods of St Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, VanderMeer sought to create a tale about a world that was full of life different from and, in many ways, indifferent to humanity. The world inside Area X looks and sounds and feels like our own but it is not. It is alive and it is both beautiful and dangerous but it is not like the life we know and understand. Garland and his team put us inside such a world and ask us to consider just what is life at its basic level and if we could understand it if it got put together in a different way.
Annihilation at times feels like cosmic horror — that genre of sci-fi/horror that asks us to consider the insignificance of man against grander cosmic elements. And towards its climax things can get a bit out there for most mainstream audiences. You’re asked to interpret some of the beats and depending on your taste for such things, you have either bought into it or have rejected. For my part, I was able to buy in and follow the story to its conclusion. And I do feel it is concluded. I don’t get a sense that Garland or Portman meant to make a follow-up adaptation of the other two novels. Like Ex Machina, Garland leaves the story on a moment that seems to portend much more but that we will not get to see.
Overall, I liked Annihilation a great deal. Add it to the list of good sci-fi properties of the last decade. Even with the slow pace it sets on and the sometimes difficult to follow elements, it is a good movie that found ways to make me think of cell biology and life on planet Earth in ways I didn’t think of before. That is usually what sci-fi is best for: making one reexamine what they know and see it in new and intriguing ways. I am beyond happy that we are getting more and good sci-fi now. Here’s hoping for more in 2018!