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Dreams and Nightmares: ‘Annihilation’ Is Shocking Sci-Fi

Director Alex Garland and Natalie Portman team up to make a terrifying if not entirely successful adaption of Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi novel

Paramount/Ringer Illustration

Alex Garland wants to disturb you—that’s his thing. The London-born author and screenwriter behind the new sci-fi thriller Annihilation got seriously famous in his mid-20s after the publication of his 1996 novel, The Beach. Like Bret Easton Ellis a decade earlier, Garland was acclaimed for (or accused of) trying to make a damning generational statement. The Beach’s story of backpackers who discover a Pacific island paradise only to end up mad, mutilated (or worse) slyly weaponized the idea of a vacation paperback like no novel since Jaws, and Danny Boyle’s gory, graphic movie version scandalized the tweens who flocked to it in the wake of Titanic to see Leonardo DiCaprio in swimwear.

Boyle and Garland have teamed up twice since then, most successfully for 28 Days Later, which took George Romero’s analog zombie template and patched it for the digital age, pixelating the cinematography, speeding up the zombies, and doubling down on despair. The film’s still-startling cold open of Cillian Murphy trundling through London wondering where the hell everybody went is peak Garland—stark and inconsolable, bound to genre tropes yet still dislocating in its unfamiliarity. And while the deep-space thriller Sunshine (also helmed by Boyle, and also starring Murphy) is inferior, it betrays serious ambitions, with references to Tarkovsky and Kubrick suggesting the writer was now chasing the greats.

Garland got considerably closer with his 2015 directorial debut, Ex Machina, a cooly nihilistic drama that filtered the Bluebeard myth through the technophobic writings of Ray Kurzweil. Garland’s Oscar-nominated screenplay is full of high-minded ideas about consciousness and humanity. Big Questions are bound up in Alicia Vikander’s excellently affectless, FX-abetted anthropomorphized CGI who dreams of being a real girl, but the film’s strength resides in the minimalist chill of the production design and a few nightmarishly visceral set-pieces showing scarily real bodies being stripped down to the (artificial) bone. It’s not a great movie, but its sharpest images pierce way under your skin.

Garland’s new movie Annihilation is disturbing. Not the whole way through, maybe, but there’s at least one scene that qualifies as high-octane nightmare fuel. It’s the sort of thing that you won’t soon forget because you couldn’t have possibly seen it coming in the first place.

Like all of Garland’s work, Annihilation, adapted from the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, uses genre in a deceptive way, meeting our expectations with worst-case scenarios. For instance, it’s not a surprise that a group of scientists exploring an uncharted environmental disaster area would encounter something weird in the woods—we’re primed for a close encounter with something monstrous from the moment they leave base camp. What’s shocking is that the thing, when it shows up, is actually shocking. Garland and his designers dreamed up what has to be the only movie creature to simultaneously evoke the ghosts of H.R. Giger, H.P. Lovecraft, and the late Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell. It’s uncanny and horrific, and when the scene is over you can almost feel the director’s pride: mission accomplished.

If the rest of Annihilation existed at that level of hideous imagination, it would be a classic. It doesn’t, and it isn’t: It’s more like a nice try.

Since achieving surprise best-seller status in 2014, Annihilation has gained a reputation as one of those “unfilmable” novels whose fans can’t imagine a truly faithful translation (see also Dune; maybe Denis Villeneuve should have taken on Bond 25 instead). VanderMeer’s abstract eco-horror concept, diary-like narrative structure, and play with language (i.e., a key structure described as a “staircase” is always referred to as a “tower” in a bit of down-is-up, Lewis Carroll-ish poetry) doesn’t lend itself easily to a left-to-right adaptation.

Garland hasn’t copied the book, as he did with his reverential scripts for Never Let Me Go or Dredd, two very different science-fiction properties with fanbases at either end of the high-low spectrum. Last week, I saw Garland onstage in Toronto talking about using VanderMeer’s book as a jumping-off point, basing his work entirely on the experience of the first read-through—writing from memory. It’s a bold admission and it accounts for why Annihilation strays from its source material. The script retains the book’s eerie sense of place—an overgrown forest teeming with hybrid plants and animals—while overlaying some completely new narrative elements.

The most notable of these is the massive, translucent, atmospheric veil called the Shimmer, a byproduct of a meteor strike that features in the film’s first sequence. The idea is that the Shimmer’s radius is steadily extending beyond ground zero. Anybody who ventures inside its expanse is lost forever. Home turf is suddenly rendered an undiscovered country: As in The Blair Witch Project, the cliche about “lost in America” gets literalized to eerie effect. Our guide through this unstable landscape Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist with a military background that also gives her a personal connection to the Shimmer. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac, returning after his amusing Sexy Dr. Frankenstein act in Ex Machina), was a soldier on a previous expedition, and although he becomes the first person to make it out alive, it’s only just barely; he’s a dead-eyed zombie with nothing to say about where he’s been.

Garland has never been an especially warm filmmaker: The trick of Ex Machina, with its viciously booby-trapped script, is that emotions are dangerous for humans and androids alike. The arguable artistic advance of Annihilation is that it uses Lena and Kane’s relationship to draw us into a drama of emotions rather than ideas. Before Kane’s deployment, Lena is frustrated that her husband won’t tell her where he’s going or why; his silence speaks to something more than classified information. Long after the plot has kicked in and Lena has volunteered to go into the Shimmer— to try and find out what has left her husband so brutally diminished— Garland returns at regular intervals to flashbacks of the not-so-happy couple, asking us to draw a line between the possible fracture in their relationship and the uncanny events in the forest.

I wasn’t sure while I was watching the film that these two spaces—the everyday domestic and the fairy-tale pastoral—lined up as neatly as Garland intended. Conceptually, the movie is a puzzle, demanding that the viewer notice visual and verbal rhymes across the story and pick up on clues and interpretive keys scattered throughout the frame (there are so many shots of Kane’s shoulder tattoo that it’s impossible not to hone in on it and wonder about its symbolic significance). It’s nice when a movie asks us to be alert and then rewards our concentration.

At the same time, the scale that Garland is working on also demands action sequences. Annihilation is a bigger-budget venture than Ex Machina and never lets us forget it. The trailers and posters prominently feature images of Portman holding a massive machine gun, grimacing Ellen Ripley style. James Cameron can do this sort of thing in his sleep, but Garland doesn’t seem to have his heart in it. He doesn’t do action—he’s more interested in shock, awe, and disgust. By contrast, when Lena’s team retrieves camcorder footage of Kane and his deployment in a collective fugue state cutting each other open and playing with the exposed innards, Garland’s back in his bleak element: intimate horror privileged over widescreen spectacle.

The psychology of groups, specifically, the way that it disintegrates collectively in high-stress situations, is one of Garland’s pet themes, explored in The Beach, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine. (None of his movies end without somebody losing their mind.) The scene of Kane’s group going all Jacob’s Ladder also works to point out the difference between the alpha-dog mentality of the soldiers and the more nuanced attitudes of Lena’s squad, which, as in the book, is entirely comprised of female characters.

Garland doesn’t do as much with this detail as he could, but the casting is excellent. Jennifer Jason Leigh is eerily on point as team leader Dr. Ventress, whose dispassionate attitude can’t mask her curiosity; Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, and the always-strong Tessa Thompson fill out the ensemble ably.

It’s too bad that Annihilation loses the book’s trippiest idea—that the team members have been placed in trance by Dr. Ventress in order to find the courage to breach Area X and can thus be controlled by a simple turn of phrase—as it would have supported the tone of hallucinatory ambiguity that Garland drives towards in the home stretch. But he is not a particularly hallucinatory filmmaker. He’s too left-brained to really mesmerize an audience. Ex Machina’s gleaming, antiseptic tidiness serves its conceit almost perfectly, whereas Annihilation’s late-stage shift into free-floating abstraction is its weakest move. The color-coded cinematography and ear-splitting sound design are impressive on a technical level, and yet the vision they serve is fundamentally derivative—unfortunately, never more so than when the movie is supposed to be taking us somewhere we’ve never been before.

At one point, Lena realizes that the Shimmer is a kind of three-dimensional prism that refracts elements from the local environment; it doesn’t destroy what’s inside it so much as it recombines it. Everything old is new again. I doubt that Garland intended this as a metaphor for his own post-modern process, but considering how much he’s borrowing here, the description of the Shimmer’s workings almost functions as self-critique. There’s a clever visual allusion to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in an enigmatic close-up of a glass of water, and the Shimmer serves a similar function as the earlier film’s mysterious Zone. Annihilation is well-made and absorbing, and yet still not quite its own thing in the end. What’s finally disturbing about Garland’s movie is not what it suggests about the frailty of our relationships or the malleability of our DNA or our capacity for self-destruction, but the difficulty of producing something truly original.