Amidst the online furore around the release of Annihilation, there’s a worry the film itself could well get lost in the haze, which would be unfortunate. Alex Garland once again, with this adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, proves himself a growing allegorical auteur.
Garland first found fame of course as the scribe behind Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, a stripped back, British take on the zombie genre popularised originally by George A. Romero. Garland has always been interested in dystopian surroundings, whether in a post-apocalyptic future where a deadly virus has ran amok, a corporation-fuelled, oily near future crime saga (in Dredd, which star Karl Urban just this week claimed Garland ghost-directed), or his previous, much-celebrated picture Ex Machina, which tackled the thorny subject of artificial intelligence and sexuality, helping to make stars of Oscar Isaac, Domnhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander in the process. These are films using an often disturbing future-lens to reflect anxieties of our time. He’d be very at home in the company of Black Mirror.
Annihilation, however, is a different beast. It is Garland’s second adaptation directly of a source novel, after taking apart graphic novels and comic-book characters (in the aforementioned Judge Dredd). Not only that, but an adaptation of a powerfully strange, atmospheric and original work from VanderMeer, who is fast becoming a singular master of sci-fi horror; his novel Annihilation feels like the strangest mix of Stephen King & Michael Crichton, with a little bit of J.G. Ballard and H.P. Lovecraft thrown in. Brief, direct but in places bewilderingly strange and frequently terrifying in its story of a team of female scientists—all of them unnamed experts in different fields, from biology to engineering–who are sent into a stretch of land called ‘Area X’, some kind of unknown consumption of an area known as the Southern Reach which threatens to, appropriately, annihilate everything before it.
The book is unerringly unusual in quite how VanderMeer presents what ostensibly is a fairly well-trodden science-fiction idea: weird phenomenon threatening humanity, team sent in to investigate, strange events ensue. Don’t for a second, however, think Annihilation follows any of those established rules as a story; characters remain unnamed, memories are fractured, viewpoints distort, and in no way shape or form is the root cause of what created Area X neatly explained in a bow. The sense of atmosphere VanderMeer creates, drawing you into the warped psyche of our main character the Biologist, feels akin to wandering down a rabbit hole into madness. The Lovecraftian nature of the text, trying to wrap your head around something truly unknowable, is woven expertly into VanderMeer’s prose.
The movie has its own questions. Some of which… the fundamental questions that the film poses, it does answer. When I wrote this – I knew there was going to be a trilogy [of books] but I hadn’t read the other two books. They hadn’t been written so I saw this as a contained thing. I tend to think of stories as contained things, not necessarily requiring further stories. The novel, though, was written very consciously as the first part. It’s a short novel. Jeff very clearly had the intention that he would be unfolding the story as it went along. I had the intention of completing the story.
In truth, the two subsequent novels in the ’Southern Reach trilogy’ as the saga is known, Authority and Acceptance, lack the raw strangeness of Annihilation. They admittedly tell very different stories with different characters, expanding the world around Area X to weave a broader picture, but Garland manages to successfully make his cinematic adaptation feel like a closed book. One story. A tale which he takes thematic ideas from more than direct elements. The basic structure of the movie is the same as in VanderMeer’s book, but the journey diverges along the way until we reach a conclusion which is fundamentally different than the one the author wrote. Without giving anything away, it’s a sacrifice the story almost certainly had to make to service a visual medium.
Garland consciously ensures the beating heart of the story about Lena, our biologist (played with impressive anguished restraint by Natalie Portman), concerns her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac, popping up again in a small but crucial role), a former soldier who entered Area X a year ago and disappeared, whose return sends Lena down that aforementioned rabbit hole into this bizarre phenomenon. The book has the fate of her husband as central to the Biologist’s psychology and Garland uses that as his emotional component in a film which is all about the deconstruction of emotion and self.
Thematically, Garland takes from Annihilation the broader allegory of Area X: as human beings, we have an inherent, perhaps genetic tendency to annihilate ourselves:
Everybody appears to be self-destructive. Some people are very obviously self-destructive because they’re addicted to heroin or alcohol or they act in a psychotic way or whatever, and they offer their self-destruction to you. Other people are very comfortable in their own skin, and they’ve got a fantastic job and a fantastic life and everything seems to be bulletproof. They feel like they’ve sort of cracked something about life. But then when you get to know them, you discover odd bits of self-destruction, which then become significant bits of self-destruction. It was the universality of it, that even the people who’d cracked it all had not cracked it all. And then I started trying to think – Where does it come from? Why is it that you have a really good marriage and you dismantle it? Why do you have a really good friendship and you dismantle it? Why do you have a really good job and you dismantle it? Whatever it happens to be. And the film essentially presents that question and an answer to that question by inference. To me, that is what it’s about.
That isn’t necessarily what it was about for VanderMeer, or plenty of readers engaging with the text originally, but the beauty of a tale like Annihilation lies in interpretation. Much like the source material, Garland isn’t interested in neat answers. We know the phenomenon comes from space in the opening moments, that it is in essence extra-terrestrial, but then characters equally pontificate on the presence of God while considering the building blocks of life. There is an undercurrent of spirituality in Garland’s script which is enhanced from the novel and drives several of the characters, all of whom are suffering from an element of loss, of seeing their lives destroyed. A framing device across the picture features Lena, post-mission, being debriefed, apparently the sole survivor, and when asked why only she returned, she remarks: “I was the only one who had a reason to”.
Garland neatly translates Area X into a visual context from the novel. Despite the underlying level of primal, unfathomable horror at the heart of VanderMeer’s story, Area X itself resembled an Edenic environment in the minds eye; it may have consumed the atmosphere like a virus, but it is verdant and peaceful, as if Nature itself has reconquered the landscape. Garland presents Area X as a dreamlike arena as it affects the human characters within the narrative, filled with rainbow hues in the sky, distortions of time and space, and a feeling of the biological and natural in symbiosis. The land manages to have character, which is an important factor to Lena’s journey as she closes in on the lighthouse which serves as central to her destination, literally and figuratively.
There is a haunting quality to Annihilation. A sense of detachment, akin to much of Garland’s work. He never wants you to get too close. That’s important because his picture is all about not just self-destruction, but duality. The ‘id’ plays a part. From the opening few scenes, we are educated about mitosis, about the diffusion of cells in biology which turned the first human being into the second and the third, but the spiritual aspect comes in the experience Lena and those around her undertake once they enter Area X. It becomes a rapture in some sense for all of them, consumed and diffused as they are by the environment and the nature of what lies within it. Garland wants us to question who we are, as all good science-fiction does.
A sticking point for fans may well be the ending, which is significantly different from VanderMeer’s, and from a purely personal perspective this was the most disappointing factor of the picture for me. Annihilation’s ending, in book form, stayed with me for a long time (it’s never, in fact, left), but Garland understandably makes it much more about a personal sense of realisation for Lena, and a primal battle with that duality wrought across the entire picture. It resembles, in some ways, Jonathan Glazer’s bizarre Under the Skin (if not being close to that film’s rare brilliance) and holds a central gambit at the conclusion which serves as a key discussion point which contextualises the core theme: who are we? Who do we become? Who have we always been?
Annihilation does deserve to be seen on a big screen, as many US viewers have been lucky enough to do. Garland himself has been fairly unequivocal on the subject regarding how Annihilation only warranted a Netflix release in the UK:
Disappointment really. We made the film for cinema. I’ve got no problem with the small screen at all. The best genre piece I’ve seen in a long time was The Handmaid’s Tale, so I think there’s incredible potential within that context, but if you’re doing that – you make it for that and you think of it in those terms. Look… it is what it is. The film is getting a theatrical release in the States, which I’m really pleased about. One of the big pluses of Netflix is that it goes out to a lot of people and you don’t have that strange opening weekend thing where you’re wondering if anyone is going to turn up and then if they don’t, it vanishes from cinema screens in two weeks. So it’s got pluses and minuses, but from my point of view and the collective of the people who made it – [it was made] to be seen on a big screen.
Some have pointed out that Annihilation will likely get greater viewership via a platform like Netflix than it would have done as a cinematic release, and in many respects that could well be true. One of the supposed reasons why the film was placed on streaming services is because test audiences gave the studio the impression Garland’s film would be too ‘cerebral’ to play for a mass audience and, well… they’re kind of right. Annihilation has done its job well precisely *because* it is slow-paced, measured, esoteric and ambitious, filled with theme, allegory and a well of subtext—not to mention a liberal dose of potent horror—which makes it quite a specific viewing experience, as indeed was Ex Machina, and Garland’s previous adapted screenplay of Kasuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
If Annihilation had been accessible easily for a mass audience, Alex Garland would have failed. Instead, his adaptation is on the whole successful, and probably the strongest translation we are likely to get of such an intense, deeply strange and disturbing novel, filled so heavily with internal monologuing and a prose descent into madness. Any filmmaker would have been defied trying to make a perfectly straight copy to the screen.
So while Garland’s film lacks the creeping, unnerving weirdness of the book, and won’t quite stay in your bones to the degree it should, there’s no doubt it deserves deeper analysis and discussion beyond the Netflix cliff notes it’s questionable release has made it famous for..