Film and TV

Best Thing About the Not-Bad Annihilation? It Doesn’t Spoil the Book

in Alex Garland's Annihilation, Natalie Portman stars as a biologist among a team of scientists who keeps herself together the longest because she’s got a personal mystery to solve.
in Alex Garland's Annihilation, Natalie Portman stars as a biologist among a team of scientists who keeps herself together the longest because she’s got a personal mystery to solve. Courtesy of Paramount
Of course, the book is better. Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is a lit-pulp marvel that expands the possibilities of what is possible within its genre, a heady, sweaty dip into not just enviro-cosmic horror but the inexplicable. The book, the first entry in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, immerses readers in bio-impossibilities, in a landscape that pulses and mutates, in a mind bewildered by what it’s regarding, in a narrator we’re not sure we can trust. She’s a biologist dispatched with a team of scientists into “Area X,” a swampy patch of Florida that has been seized by something they call “the Shimmer.” That’s an undulating scrim of light behind which flora and fauna has made baffling evolutionary leaps. No team that has been sent in has made it out.

The book tells us what the biologist sees and does and thinks and wonders. And that’s it: We get no proper nouns identifying her or her team. We get no explanations about the source of all the characters witness or suffer. So fecund, fearsome, beautiful and persuasive is VanderMeer’s imagination that the weirdness they encounter demands no clear explication — though the second and third books offer it, in some measure. (Those volumes are less sequels than re-examinations of Annihilation from new perspectives, something like how the later sections of The Sound and the Fury explicate Benjy Compson’s.) Instead, his Annihilation offers something all too rare in stories of humans caught in alien environments: The environment and its mysteries are the sum of the work, and we’re spared the inevitable disappointment of explanation. The book thrills and terrifies because it never couches its horrors in backstory or pseudo-science.

VanderMeer’s Annihilation might be unfilmable. The visions it stirred in my mind will, of course, look nothing like the ones it stirs in yours, and both beat most of what the creators of Paramount’s adaptation of the novel can conjure. I’m happy to report, then, that those creators don’t even try to get onscreen the peerless sequences set on a staircase in a tower or tunnel that forever ascends/descends into — well, seriously, read it and find out. That material demands a master filmmaker, an unlimited budget and a studio unafraid of the thought of audiences caught for full minutes in horrified ambiguity.

Instead, Alex Garland, the writer and director, has stripped down and smoothed out VanderMeer’s story, making this Annihilation more conventional and focusing it on the things that studio movies today are good at. We see, in flashbacks both charming and piercing, the backstory of the biologist (played by Natalie Portman). We see the team of scientists, all women (among them Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson), winningly bond before their mission. We see CGI beasts and get treated to/assaulted by a couple of jump scares. We behold two strong instances of found-footage horror on equipment left by the previous expeditions into what is called “Area X.” We watch the cast members pick their way through nature gone wrong, through woods and seas kabooming with a bioversity so flamboyant that you might wish you were given more time to gape at it — to soak in it. One detail to relish: how that “Shimmer” is replicated throughout Area X, an unsettling prismatic quavering on the surface of water or in the pink of a sunset.

So, this is no botch job. It’s often inspired in its cutting and composition, and Garland (Ex Machina) has crafted sequences of strange splendor, including a too-short cosmic light show. He’s fascinated by lens flares and whiteouts, by radiant light in the center of the screen, by the real world gone just slightly wrong. Some of his strongest scenes come early, before we pass through the Shimmer. Study the way, in a simple two shot of lovers talking at a table, he centers the frame on a second frame, a glass of water through which we see refracted the lovers’ fingers. It’s shorthand and close-up at once, a potent summation of the characters’ feelings.

He’s good at faces, too. He’s got a first-rate emoter in Portman, who exhibits here a skill she never fully mustered for George Lucas: She seems to believe all the special effects around her. She plays a determined trouper, here, the team member who keeps herself together the longest because she’s got a personal mystery to solve. Her pained and awed face, at the climax, taking in a vision of the unthinkably strange, is every bit as arresting as the vision itself.

The quality of Portman’s performance, of course, doesn’t justify the decision to cast a white actress as a character written in the novels as Asian American. The filmmakers have pled ignorance about this matter, noting that the biologist’s race isn’t mentioned until the second book in the series, but that seems disingenuous. Nobody read book two? And this isn’t some minor detail VanderMeer simply forgot to get to in Annihilation. His decision to note that later, in Authority, presses readers to question their own assumptions about who they imagined she was in book one. Here’s a case where the film could actually alter the effect of the book. Portman’s face on the cover of new editions of Annihilation might, for new readers, lift this detail in Authority from a surprise demanding recontextualization to a jolting revelation.

Hollywood’s not much for ambiguity, though. So this Annihilation is as thick with on-the-fly explanations of what’s going on — of the rules of the fantasy — as the recent Jumanji. There’s a wonderfully bewildering moment early on, when the women awake in their tents after first passing through the Shimmer and realize, once they’ve dug through their food, that they’ve actually been inside Area X for days already. But no one can remember having eaten. Weirder still: Nobody remembers even setting up camp. Too bad the filmmakers can’t keep up this disorientation, this sense of the creeping uncanny. For the next 40 minutes or so, the squad behaves mostly like the squads in all the other movies you’ve ever seen. They face down and machine gun monsters, at one point borrowing the keep still routine from Jurassic Park. They keep secrets, deliver expository monologues, and when things get rough, assail each other. One heel-turns for a reel; another has to say the title out loud, with much build-up and a dramatic flourish.

The result is a compromised film, one caught awkwardly between its source material’s daring and its producer’s fears that someone, somewhere might not get it. “Be weirder!” I occasionally grunted at the screen. At the same time, studio horror films starring Oscar winners are rarely this weird. Taken on its own terms, this Annihilation does offer rewards. Cheers to the day-glo fungus on the trees, the blasted-white coral look of the inside of the lighthouse and the under-the-skin ick of the first of those found-footage scares. And also to the performers, who get more interesting the longer their characters’ minds are exposed to the warped reality of Area X.

And to the excellent last 20 minutes or so, which depart from the book, fruitfully — rather than make a hash of VanderMeer, Garland offers something wholly new and eerily satisfying, a climax and denouement that honor the book’s themes but also the studio’s demand for action and even an antagonist. His Annihilation plays like it’s about VanderMeer’s rather than any kind of substitute for it. In that sense, it’s a somewhat inspired adaptation: It will wig out many of the people who turn up to see it, but it spoils nothing of the source material.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl