I chuckled when I first heard that Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation was going to be adapted into a movie. The book seemed to me to be all but unadaptable. I figured its story of an ill-fated expedition into a region of mysterious phenomena known only as Area X might be tempting to screenwriters. But so much of the text of VanderMeer’s novel and its two sequels is interior, less about what happened than about his protagonist’s bizarre reactions to what happened, her interpretations of it, and her attempts to understand it.
And indeed, writer-director Alex Garland’s approach in adapting the material turns out not to include any real attempt to duplicate the contents of the page for the screen. Rather, the film plays as though Garland read the book in a fever, then attempted to film the dreams he had that night. The book’s basic premise is retained—an unexplained area of bizarre phenomena, here called “The Shimmer” rather than “Area X,” a bureau called the Southern Reach tasked with investigating the region, and an expedition of women who press through the mysterious wilderness toward the coastal lighthouse around which the strange phenomena seem to revolve. Garland preserves, too, the book’s overall tone of dislocation and dread. Everything else, basically, is different.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. VanderMeer’s novel centered on interiority and human attempts to interpret the ineffable; but a film must make all this psychological drama external. Garland does that in the first instance by transforming the story into a monster movie of sorts. The film’s explorers—led by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh—encounter creatures that lurk in the darkness and pluck their comrades from within the shadows. Garland’s methods here are familiar to anyone who’s seen a horror movie, but they’re no less effective for their familiarity. Garland is a filmmaker with an ability to pluck unease from the air, and the early scenes of the women’s encounters in the Shimmer are genuinely scary, at times even terrifying.
It’s as the film approaches its third act that things start getting truly bizarre, and that Garland attempts to show us things we’ve never seen before. He’s not content just to scare us, to make us shift in our seats with unease—what Garland wants is what VanderMeer’s novel did: to blow our minds. The final sequences will remind you of mindbending sci-fi films from the past, from 2001 to The Fountain and Under the Skin, or even Garland’s own Sunshine (Garland wrote the screenplay, with Danny Boyle directing). I won’t say anything about these final scenes of Annihilation—except that they feature some truly arresting imagery…and perhaps that they reveal a fatal flaw in the film: a lack of ideas. What’s on the screen is thought-provoking, gorgeous, challenging, befuddling—but it’s hard to escape the suspicion, as the film hurtles toward its conclusion, that there’s just not much of a there there.
If Garland does have something on his mind with this film, it seems to be something about evolution. The film’s opening shots feature video of a cell dividing, accompanied by a lecture from Portman about the single-celled origins of all life on earth. (She’s a biology professor at Johns Hopkins.) As portrayed in the film, evolution is a process involving both destruction and creation, ugliness and beauty, death and life. The life force that pushes our own species into new forms and configurations, the film suggests, is just as likely to appear to us to be a hostile colonizer as a benevolent creator.
Whether such ideas have genuine depth and thematic heft or whether they’re a mere pretext for Garland to muck around in the delicious phantasmagoria of the Shimmer, is something that a second viewing, and perhaps a third, must reveal. That I’m excited about the prospect of these future viewings is perhaps the best sign of all for a film like this one—an indication that its puzzles are, at the very least, worth returning to.