Directed by Alex Garland (2018)
by Benjamin Leonard, Best Boy
Alex Garland’s Annihilation has me split in three different directions. As a fan of the books, I’m disappointed. As a fan of Alex Garland’s previous works, I’m more or less happy. As a fan of interesting and thought-provoking sound and imagery, I thought it was great!
The film stars Natalie Portman as a biologist that has been sent into an otherworldly zone that has been taken over by a (divine? alien? environmental?) force that is causing mutations in flora and fauna. Her husband (Oscar Isaac) had gone missing on a previous expedition and she is seeking answers. She is accompanied by a team of women (including Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tessa Thompson) who each have their own reasons to leave the normal world behind. In a land where nothing makes sense and strange creatures are out to get them, insanity and infighting sets in quickly. All of the performances were fine, but Thompson was the standout, partially because her character is the most interesting.
I need to get this out of the way first; if you are a fan of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, you need to put everything you loved in those books to the side and focus only on what the movie presents to you. The problem with this is it is almost impossible. The film takes several elements from the books and sprinkles them throughout. This acts as a constant reminder of those things that I just told you to shove out of your mind and put to the side. Little of the character development, relationships and plot-points play out the same. The environmental themes are not really addressed at all. The tension is definitely there, only diluted because there’s just not enough time to let it build to those extremes in a two-hour feature film. However, some humor was added that I think could be jarring for any viewer but definitely is for fans of the books. Also, all of the characters have NAMES!!! I don’t know how many people this would actually bother, but to me, it was like Judge Dredd removing his helmet. You just don’t do it.
This brings us to the topic of how Annihilation fits in with some of Garland’s previous work. He wrote the screenplay for Dredd (2012) and it did a great job of condensing the vast background of Judge Dredd into a more easily manageable story that could be shot on a budget. Many liberties were taken, but it keeps with the general spirit of the comic books. I think the advantage Garland had here was that Dredd has been interpreted by so many writers and artists in the past that the fan base is more allowing when it comes to small changes. Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina (2014), was a favorite of mine. Again, it is a story that could easily sprawl, but was brought to a narrow focus in order to tell a good story on a small budget. Domhnall Gleeson’s mirror scene was a great moment of psychological horror that really gave me (too) high hopes for how he would handle Annihilation. Instead, the psychopathy was developed through sound and imagery rather than through dialog and acting. Overall, Annihilation fits nicely with Garland’s other work. It’s not my favorite, but it captures the same moods with a bigger budget. So there are things that are done better here simply because he could afford to.
But MAN OH MAN!!! It looked damned cool and the sound design definitely helps make you feel ill at ease. I was actually hoping for a bit higher frequency in the visual effects, but this was well made up for in the quality of the effects. Even though it cost nearly four times as much as Ex Machina, this is still a fairly small budget for the caliber of stars and the heavy focus on effects. The creatures (both living and decayed) are very cool. This is a part that really left me wanting more. There is one scene in particular that reminds me of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal TV series. The look of “the shimmer”, itself, was pretty cool as well.
All in all, this is a better than average film and I recommend you go see it on the big screen for the look and feel of the film if nothing else. If all you’re looking for is an adaptation of the books, you’d be better served going back and seeing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). While, clearly, it was not based on The Southern Reach trilogy, it is much closer to many of the points in the book that made me love it.