As a novel, Annihilation is a masterpiece of weird fiction by one of the genre’s most noted working authors, Jeff VanderMeer. It tells the story of an expedition by four women into the mysterious Area X, a world where reality twists in unexpected ways and the truth is even harder to know than usual. Its strange subject matter is something that fits well with Alex Garland’s (writer/director of Ex Machina) style. Garland read the book shortly after release and was inspired to write his screenplay immediately, so the two sequels in the original trilogy offer very different answers for the stories central conflict than the film.
From the opening scene in the film, it is clear that Garland’s Annihilation will be its own story. Natalie Portman is Lena, a biologist whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been gone for a year on a government assignment and she has begun to lose hope that he is still alive. When he suddenly appears at home with no memory it doesn’t take long for the government to come calling and bring them both to a top-secret facility known as Area X. Situated just outside of the Shimmer, a vast opalescent bubble that has been expanding slowly for months, Area X studies the dangerous phenomena in an attempt to stop it. They have sent many teams inside, the last one included Lena’s husband, but no one has come back until now.
Kane’s health begins to rapidly deteriorate, and in a desperate attempt to find out why he is ill, Lena gets herself included on the next mission inside that is currently a team of 4 other women. Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a psychologist who is leading the task force, Anya (Gina Rodriguez) a paramedic, Cass (Tuva Novotny) an anthropologist and Josie (Tessa Thompson) a physicist. All of them are determined to find out why the Shimmer exists and to do that they are heading for the center of the bubble, a lighthouse which is said to be the source of the issue. Almost immediately things begin to go wrong and the world around them begins to change. Plants and animals have mutated in inexplicable ways and none of them can see how or why. As they get closer to their goal, the danger starts to creep in from all sides and it seems impossible they will be able to complete their mission.
The women of Annihilation are dedicated, unique and every actress fits into their role perfectly. Their characters are not deeply developed, but the women’s personalities and actions more than make up for the sparse background detail. Natalie Portman leads the film with her usual consummate skill but each of the other women is necessary for the story to play out the way it does. That the exploring group is made up entirely of women is pointedly commented on once and then left behind, and by doing so it is one of the rare films that allows its women characters to be fully human and is all the stronger for it.
However, its claims of progressivism in characters falls significantly short of the original material. Two of the characters, Lena and Dr. Ventress are people of color in the book series, but the first book, the only one that Garland read, makes no mention of any characters race, or even their names. Garlands choice reveal his own biases and the lack of oversight by both the studio and himself as the writer/director. While there is some argument in there about adaptations, it rings flat in this day and age where there is a vocal push for wider representation. After all, Vandermeer, himself a middle-aged white man, chose to make his two most vocal characters both women and people of color. Had the film fully embraced that aspect of the book its story and the message would have been more powerful.
Annihilation will remind people of the great sci-fi films, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien due to its complexity and multilayered story. It discusses humanity’s inborn drive for self-destruction and the effect that drive has on both the world around us and our own perceptions of reality. The film veers between scenes of deep introspection and sudden violence, with each serving the story in its own way. The dialogue does not quite live up to the film’s high aims, but the many silent scenes are some of the most challenging that Annihilation has to offer. At times it feels almost overwhelming with how many different layers are being set up, and the climax will leave some viewers unsatisfied, but by the end the film it wraps all of its threads together and succeeds in telling its delicate and beautifully convoluted story.
Visually, Annihilation is stunning, Garland crafts a world that is somehow both our own and utterly alien. It employs a prismatic effect throughout the film that compliments the almost psychedelic visuals. Much of the world of the film is impossible to portray without CGI and the creations are lovingly rendered in gorgeous detail. Annihilation is a film that needs to employ a great deal of nuance in order to communicate its ideas, and Garland leans heavily on the background music to provide deeper context. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score washes over the viewer like waves of emotion and the combination of the vibrant visuals and affecting music is not only incredibly well done, it is also necessary for the film to tell this story.
Annihilation is a fascinating exploration of vibrant and captivating ideas that will challenge filmgoers in the best ways possible. It crosses the boundaries of genre and pushes the rules of traditional storytelling by grappling with issues usually reserved for philosophical discussions or scientific literature. That it also happens to be gorgeous to look at is just icing on the Sci-Fi cake. The casting choices that could have been made based on the original material show what is missing, but the casting of Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez is inspired as they provide singular performances that differ from their previous work. Watching Annihilation is an experience that will inspire a wide range of emotions and leave the viewer pondering long after they have left the theater.