The fungus seeps out of the deep hole, a twist of vibrant tendrils: blue, olive green, deep orange. Trees with crystal leaves that glisten in the sun scatter dancing refractions on the ground below. The “Shimmer,” the border of this enigmatic coastal territory, captures topographic patterns of violet and turquoise, reflecting light like a bubble about to burst. These are just a few of the visual voyages conjured up in the film “Annihilation,” based on Jeff VanderMeer’s first novel of the same name in his Southern Reach Trilogy.
The science fiction thriller, released on Feb. 23, follows an expedition of five women into “Area X,” an inexplicable stretch of land filled with mutated lifeforms and surrounded by a shimmering border that manifested after an alien life form crashed into a lonely lighthouse. Lena (Natalie Portman), a professor of cellular biology, decides to enter Area X in search of a way to understand and cure her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who fell into a coma after returning home from his own Area X mission.
Director Alex Garland took on a monster of a challenge adapting the intangible, dreamy and haunting world VanderMeer painted for us in his novel. I hadn’t fooled myself into believing the film would completely capture the full magnitude of the book. Essentially, the film took the most basic structure of the plot and twisted it around so much I could barely recognize it. One example of this is the alien event that created Area X, which happened in the film but not as explicitly in the book. While I prefer VanderMeer’s book over the film adaptation, I must give credit to Garland, director of the 2015 science fiction thriller “Ex Machina,” for delivering, similar to the book, a pristine landscape through computer-generated imagery (CGI) and a complex narrative that hurts my brain trying to decipher.
VanderMeer gives an interesting take on the clear divide between the movie and book in an interview with SyFy Wire.
“The book and the movie share DNA, but I can still be surprised by the movie myself, as a viewer, which is a nice thing. The movie definitely ties into the book, and vice versa, but I don’t think they spoil each other, so to speak. I think of it almost as another expedition into Area X in a sense,” VanderMeer states. I completely agree with his analysis of the two mediums, which I think sums up the differences nicely.
“Annihilation’s” movie trailer poorly prepared me for the long, dragging set-up scenes at the beginning of the movie. Going into the theater, I pictured moments of intense terror and unexplainable occurrences. The trailer’s prevailing music, a deep, disturbing and utterly dystopian electronic sound, was hardly present but for a few scenes in the film. The rest of the soundtrack consisted mainly of a folksy tune that, quite frankly, did not match the foreboding tone one bit.
One of the things that really compelled me about VanderMeer’s storytelling is the omission of the main characters’ names, giving the novel a sense of purposeful ambiguity. I felt that I had to connect to the women on a much more personal level, and the space left by names filled with details more intimate and more important in the context of the story. It also heightened the science fiction feel; I was traveling with the biologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor and the psychologist through the raw wilderness.
The movie’s naming of the characters almost separated me more from their expedition, and I watched as an outsider rather than actually participating. Additionally, Lena’s personal details and backstory are much more banal in the movie than in the book, which reveal a mysterious and deep character in the novel but are insignificant in the movie. This doesn’t undermine Natalie Portman’s estimable performance as the steadfast and stern Lena. Portman never breaks character, and aptly portrays the resolve of army-trained Lena during extremely tense scenes, such as during violent animal attacks.
Other notable performances include Gina Rodriguez (Anya Thorensen, a paramedic), Tessa Thompson (Josie Radek, a physicist), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dr. Ventress, a psychologist and the leader of the expedition) and Tuva Novotny (Cass Sheppard, a surveyor and geologist) as the remaining crew entering Area X. These strong female actresses give us a rare and wonderful depiction of what a female-dominated cast can achieve, not to mention I am a huge fan of Portman, the lead in “Black Swan” and “V for Vendetta,” Rodriguez, who stars in the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and Thompson, who recently starred in HBO’s “Westworld” and Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok.” The film passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.
For movie-goers, “Annihilation” is a film that will keep you on your toes and amaze you with beautiful visuals, despite the plot occasionally lagging. Sit in stunned silence as the sanity seeps off the screen with each passing scene. For true science fiction junkies, I personally encourage you to read the book, which will, without a doubt, thoroughly unnerve you and definitely piqued my interest.