Director Alex Garland’s last film, Ex Machina, is one of the best science fiction films of the last 25 years, so Annihilation has been greatly anticipated by me for quite awhile. This is in spite of the fact that it is an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel that I did not care for at all. I found the book’s style of writing in which events leap in and out of the characters inner monologue and the reader has to do a lot of heavy lifting to keep up with a weirdly presented already odd plot to be off-putting. Unfortunately, with a few minor changes to make the end a little more coherent (a little), Garland’s Annihilation is a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel.
Annihilation centers on a growing area of unparalleled biological change following a meteor strike to a swampy area in the southern U.S. The area, termed by the military as Area X, is surrounded by a shimmery border that is slowly but surely expanding outward. Every team sent into Area X hasn’t returned. Since all of those teams were male, a female team is sent into the mysterious reach to find out what’s happening inside, what’s causing it, and how to stop it before it swallows everything.
Annihilation is equal parts horror and science fiction (much as Ex Machina was). Unlike Ex Machina, the pacing is pretty glacial in the first act, and while the second act of exploration within Area X is great, the ending will lose a lot of people, and without spoilers, I can tell you it’s a lot more coherent a close than the one the novel offered. The main difference between the quality of the films, is that the characters in Ex Machina were deep, focused, and all of them-even the most depraved-were on some level sympathetic and relatable. The only character with much of a back story is Portman’s and she’s hardly sympathetic. The rest of the team, which is a stellar group of actresses in Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny, barely receive any kind of fleshing out.
Like all Garland films since his career began, Annihilation looks spectacular. Area X is a place where all biology is constantly in a state of flux, which makes it an alien land built from the bones of familiar building blocks. Crystal trees, animal hybrids, and impossible mutations await the team inside. Annihilation works best as a horror film, because the science fiction is what goes off the rails as the movie progresses. The horror is specifically “body horror”: the terror that something is changing our very make-up; that we are becoming physically and psychologically altered against our will. It’s a very primal fear, and in the second act Garland uses it to great effect.
Annihilation is by no means whatsoever a bad film. The acting is all top-notch, and the film looks spectacular. VanderMeer’s novel was a hit, so if you loved it, chances are you’ll love the adaptation. I found unfortunately that the film felt detached from its protagonists and carried the flaws I found in the source material on to the screen, so it offered no surprises for me or shocks, just a well-made adaptation of a book I didn’t particularly care for. That would be enough for a lot of directors, but after seeing what Garland could do in Ex Machina, I was hoping for more.