Written & Directed by Alex Garland
Lena, a cellular biologist, is finally in the mourning stages after her husband Kane was sent on a secret military mission. At the twelve-month mark, she is starting to move on when Kane appears from nowhere in their house. He falls into a coma and Lena is taken to a government base on the edge of a phenomenon called the Shimmer. Lena is informed that an object dropped from space three years prior and has created a growing field of energy. Multiple teams and drones have been sent in, but nothing has come back, and Kane is the first person to ever emerge. Lena finds out a team is about to head in days from now and volunteers herself, without informing them of her personal connection. As the quartet travels further into the Shimmer the more bizarre natural mutations, they encounter all until the real darkness is revealed at its center.
I was a big fan of author Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Annihilation (the first in the Southern Reach trilogy), and when I heard Alex Garland was helming this film adaptation, I was excited. Garland has been a long time screenwriter responsible for 28 Days Later and The Beach among others. His directorial debut Ex Machina was a stunning and simple movie, with shades of the cold, philosophical Stanley Kubrick. Garland seemed like the perfect guy for the job.
Annihilation is a visually stunning film with the look and feel of The Shimmer captured beautifully. The Shimmer itself is like a rainbow oil haze painted across the air. Once inside the slow reveal of bizarre lifeforms is pulled off flawlessly. We see a plant that grows dozens of different types of flowers. There is an alligator that has teeth growing like a great white shark. Eventually, it becomes incredibly alien, and we have shrubs that are encoded with the cells that give humans their basic structural shape so that a small town appears to be populated with tree people frozen in time.
The film is a definite diversion from the book. Beyond the initial inciting incident, everything that happens inside the Shimmer is entirely different. This is not a bad thing though, the novel is told through the journals of Lena (merely The Biologist in the book). Taking advantage of the visual aspect of a film, there are recordings recovered from her husband’s expedition that are some of the most horrific body horrors I have seen in awhile. The scene is brief but gratuitous and will stick with you. The discovery of strange technicolor mold blooms that pulse and writhe are amazing. This is a perfect translation of what Vandermeer described throughout the novel.
However, the final product lacked the ambiguity I was hoping we would get from the adaptation. It seems very clear Alex Garland has no interest in adapting the other two books in the series as this movie gets an obvious ending. In the book, The Psychologist is the main antagonist, and there is an entire subplot with her using hypnotic cues to memory wipe the team when needed. Lena inhales spores while exploring early on and finds herself immune to the signals which allows her to comprehend what is happening. The Psychologist is still a low-level villain but more of an enigmatic one than a genuine threat. The entire ending of the film is different from the book, and I liked some elements, but that last scene didn’t sit well with me. There is much more of an alien invasion vibe coming from the third act instead of the transcendent alien-ness of the novel.
Annihilation is a pretty good science fiction film. It has some substantial, cosmic ideas being presented and the visuals are mind-blowing. However, the plot cuts away a lot of what I liked about the book and changes the ending so much that this is an entirely different story. It’s not a bad story but lacks ambiguity and ultimately makes the film a bit forgettable.