Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018) 1½ out of 4 stars.
In retrospect, I should not have read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation – the first volume of his “Southern Reach” trilogy – just before watching director Alex Garland’s cinematic adaptation of it. I loved the book, and though I have no problem with filmmakers departing significantly from source texts (as long as their new ideas interest me), I would, perhaps, have been more open to such radical differences had more time passed since my admiring ingestion of the original material. Maybe. As it is, the movie version of Annihilation, though not without its (rare) pleasures, left me cold, struggling to manage my disappointment in the almost complete abandonment of VanderMeer’s fascinating elliptical narrative and metaphysical meditations. True, Garland brings in his own obsessions – in many ways, this is but a reworking of the same concepts he explored in his directorial debut, Ex Machina – but they feel tired and rote, like a compilation of so many previous science fiction and horror films of the past. “Annihilation”? Try “Aggregation.”
Natalie Portman (A Tale of Love and Darkness) plays Lena, a biologist (at Johns Hopkins, we are told, time and again) whose husband (a soldier of some sort) – played by Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) – returns from a mysterious mission with his internal organs in a state of near-failure. When a team of government agents hijacks their ambulance on its way to the hospital, Lena finds herself transported to the “Southern Reach,” an outpost on the border of an expanding toxic zone, infested with a “shimmer” – a roiling, multi-colored, preternaturally thick mist, of extraterrestrial origin – that has claimed the lives of all who have ventured into it … except for Lena’s husband, Kane (who is at death’s door, anyway). Determined to find out what happened to Kane, Lena joins an expedition of four other women (previous parties have been mostly men, so this time the government is trying something new) – all with different expertise – to travel to the epicenter of “Area X,” as the zone is called, and discover the source of what could be the greatest ecological disaster ever to hit the earth. It’s a suicide mission, though we know she survives, since the movie cuts back and forth between the mission and her post-mission interrogation by men in hazmat suits.
Jennifer Jason Leigh (Good Time), Tuva Novotny (A War), Gina Rodriguez (The CW’s Jane the Virgin) and Tessa Thompson (Dear White People) make up the rest of the team, and together they make a formidable bunch – and it is wonderful to see such a tough bunch of women on screen – yet they are still no match for the madness within Area X. What they find defies all understanding, with the cells of all lifeforms mutating and mimicking other organisms. Indeed, soon their own bodies begin to transform. As Thompson’s Josie – a physicist – notes, the shimmer is a prism that refracts DNA from everything within its sphere of influence, combining genetic strands in unnatural mixes, from vegetation that grows in human shapes to bear-like creatures that scream in a human voice. To the mission members, it’s awe-inspiring and terrifying. To the audience, it feels like a recycling of movies like Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Stalker and John Carpenter’s The Thing, to name but four that come to mind. Yes, some of it holds one’s interest, but it mostly feels too clever by half and not very original, as if Garland is unaware of his own influences.
Though Garland has been accused of whitewashing the ethnicity of the movie’s main character (though that ethnicity is only revealed in the second book) – here played by Portman – I’ll give him a pass on this one, as he is clearly not at all interested in much of VanderMeer’s ideas beyond the initial premise (both book and film share the notion of a strange zone and an all-female team, but that’s about it), and the overall ensemble is fairly diverse. I do not, however, forgive him the missed opportunity to create a work of unique vision, given the strong cast and his own, previously demonstrated, talent. I had some issues with Ex Machina, but at least there his interest in the exploration of what makes us human was expressed with singular innovation. From the reprocessed story to the uninspired visual palette (both the shimmer and the final manifestation of the alien look like generic fractal art), Garland’s Annihilation never fails to disappoint.