A few years ago, a friend of mine handed me a stack of books and told me I must read them. The three books were Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance - collectively known as The Southern Reach trilogy, written by Jeff VanderMeer. I read the first book and then I read it again. It was so mysterious and mesmerizing and the series quickly became one that I suggest anytime a friend is looking for something new to read. When I heard that Alex Garland (Ex Machina) would be directing a film version of Annihilation, I was ecstatic and could not wait to see how Garland would translate the bizarre story to the screen. The film stars professional bad-asses Natalie Portman (Jackie) and Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin); two of my favorite females in the industry, and the incomparable Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), who is, well, perfect.
Like the book, the film tells the story of a part of the world known as Area X, where the laws of nature have completely dissipated and no one, not even the government, can explain what is happening there. That’s where my girls Nat and Gina come in, as well as Jennifer Jason Leigh (Amityville: The Awakening), Tuva Novotny (Borg McEnroe), and Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok). The five powerhouse actresses play Lena - a biologist, Anya - a paramedic, Dr. Ventress - a psychologist, Cass - a surveyor, and Josie - a physicist, respectively. The team is sent into Area X in an attempt to find answers to the infinite questions about it, including the reason why all former missions sent to survey the area have not only failed, but proved fatal.
Looking at Annihilation as a book-to-film adaptation, it goes without saying that there are quite a few elements from the novel that didn’t make it into the film, which at first I found disappointing. However, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve separated page from screen and found great appreciation in what the film truly is: an absolute trip and a sci-fi gem. The film is chock-full of sci-fi goodies, complete with creature features and trippy visuals that are dreamlike and hypnotic, all set to an excellent score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury - bits of which sounded like it could have been written by The Last of Us’s Joel and Ellie. I was totally immersed in the film from beginning to end and would have been glad to have stayed in Area X a bit longer.
In addition to the wonderful fantasy elements throughout the film, there was also an air of grounded realism in the relationship between Lena (Natalie Portman) and her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). The two seem to have a complicated relationship that is romantic and sweet at its core, but challenging due to occupational circumstances that begin to create distance within the marriage. Portman and Isaac are like two combustible elements meeting on screen, explosive when they come together. The intertwining passion and tension are palpable throughout every scene the two share, adding an emotional weight to the story and layers to the couple’s relationship. However, these two aren’t the only performances that shine throughout Annihilation. The entire ensemble is fantastic, but I have to give a special shout out to Gina Rodriguez, who gave an incredibly fun and quite terrifying performance as Anya Thorensen. She is one kick-ass female who I am so thrilled to see working and hope that we’ll soon see more of her on the big screen.
The book by Jeff VanderMeer holds a much denser layer of mystery than the film and is psychologically unsettling in ways that are hard to define. Reading this story unfold on the page is hauntingly enigmatic, but I can understand how it would be difficult to directly transfer that essence to the screen. It only makes sense that Garland would take liberties in making changes simply so the film would screen well and entertain audiences, and in that he succeeded. The film contains some boldly horrific moments that genuinely made me squirm and to quote an actual note I wrote down during my screening of the film: “OHMYFUCKGAHHFUCKWHATTHESHIT”. Yes, I truly scribbled...that...in a dark theatre as some really messed up nightmare fuel played before me. This film is also responsible for what I consider to be one of the scariest monsters I’ve seen in years, one that will truly live on in the darkest corners of my brain as I lie in bed, desperate for sleep in the late hours of night. There’s no way a reader could experience this creature on a page, just like there’s no way an audience could experience the eerie psychological horror that only comes from the page and gets twisted up in our imaginations; therefore I can find no reason to complain about whether or not the film is an accurate representation of the book. I will continue to love the book for what it is just as I love the film for what it offers, and although Garland has stated that he has no plans for sequels, I would gladly spend another couple of films in his puzzling and dreamlike world of Annihilation.
Annihilation is now playing in theaters across the US and the film will get an international (excluding the US, Canada, and China) Netflix release on March 12.