Film review | Annihilation

Alex Garland’s loose and challenging adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s cult novel is a jolting and refreshingly brainy slice of sci-fi horror that will linger in the memory • 4/5 

Murky waters: Tessa Thompson and Natalie Portman in Alex Garland’s Annihilation
Murky waters: Tessa Thompson and Natalie Portman in Alex Garland’s Annihilation

“What did you eat?” are the unlikely opening lines of Alex Garland’s latest foray as writer-director, following on from his debut Ex Machina (2014), which swam in similarly high-concept territory to startling effect. Uttered by the portly and hazmat-burdened character actor Benedict Wong, here playing an interrogator to Natalie Portman’s Lena as she offers up the frame story of this unsettling tale, it feels like a throwaway, even banal question for a film that places so much stock in its exquisitely designed weirdness.

But upon a second viewing – made all the more handy for us here in Europe, where the Paramount Pictures production was carted off to Netflix at the last minute – it becomes evident that the act of eating is actually a crucial thematic concern for the film, and that kind of formal economy – such careful choosing of words and where they fit in the story – is a testament to Garland’s intellectual rigour – perhaps not coincidentally, a former novelist who made his name with the 90s cult classic The Beach.

With teeth: Portman pokes a hybrid monster
With teeth: Portman pokes a hybrid monster

As in Jeff VanderMeer’s source novel, biological determinism takes precedence over hokey ideas of human agency and – especially – heroism as filtered through the Hollywood machine. So that eating is a crucial concern, as are diseases and the natural world’s uncanny ways of mutating and surviving when hemmed in by adverse or alien limitations. In what is perhaps the only weak spot in an otherwise bold and challenging film – so much so that it feels like a studio-imposed tack-on – its opening frames offer up something of an omniscient explanation of what we’re about to see. An asteroid crashes into a lighthouse, subsequently creating a large-scale mutation in the surrounding landscape that the Southern Reach – a mysterious government organisation – has failed to understand, again and again.

One of the casualties of this trial-and-error plunge into the unknown is Kane (Oscar Isaac); a military sergeant who is charged with going into the so-called “Shimmer” with a team. The last surviving member of his team, he returns to his cellular biologist wife Lena (Portman) a year later, utterly changed. So changed, in fact, that he barely seems to recognise her, or even grasp human concepts as basic as a “bedroom”. After he falls gravely ill, he is rendered comatose and forcibly removed to the Southern Reach, where he lies in a coma while Lena is left in quarantine. She soon discovers, through the Southern Reach’s taciturn psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that another mission into the Shimmer is being planned; this time staffed with an all-female crew including paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), geomorphologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and led by Ventress herself.

Reasoning that there’s very little she can do for her husband while cooped up within the walls of the Southern Reach – where the encroaching “wall” of the Shimmer is visible, and threatens to expand into the wider world – Lena volunteers for the mission herself, determined to find answers that could help restore her husband to the man she knows and loves.

Ex Machina – a feminist challenge to genre conventions wrapped around an AI thriller – proved that Garland is more than capable of handling brain-tickling concepts and placing them into a taut thriller. Annihilation expands upon this streak with an equally unsentimental grasp on its characters – Portman’s Lena is a marginally softer cookie than her counterpart in VanderMeer’s novel, but only by a small margin – and a desire to challenge the audience rather than coddle them with pre-fabricated re-enactments of genre tropes.

In this age of corporation-enabled copy-paste adaptations – I’m looking at you, Marvel Studios – and their more “relaxed” variants in longform TV series – where meandering, gradually unspooling literal adaptation is made possible by the serialised format – Garland’s film is refreshing – it’s the work of a filmmaker engaging directly with the material on his own terms. In fact, he’s described it as a “dream of the book”, which is appropriate in many ways.

VanderMeer’s tightly controlled prose achieves a hallucinatory effect by stealth. The Biologist, unnamed in the novel -- just like the rest of the team -- delivers the story in a flinty first-person narration that has the effect of making the inherent weirdness all the weirder. Reshaping this in a way that matches the many bodily and natural metamorphoses we witness as we follow the team on this strange trek, Garland finds visual and psychological equivalents that depart from the source but which cumulatively achieve a similar effect.

Mutations: the landscape is a character in this bracing, trippy film
Mutations: the landscape is a character in this bracing, trippy film

It’s a project that takes the path of least resistance, and that deserves multiple viewings in order to soak in its full implications. Open-ended and psychedelic, it is the perfect tonic to a cinematic landscape that’s becoming more and more safe and predictable at every turn.

The verdict

Bravely eschewing the opportunity to play to the gallery by rewarding neither fans of the source material nor the general audience with low-hanging thrills, Alex Garland’s idiosyncratic take on Jeff VanderMeer’s slim novel – the opening salvo of a trilogy we aren’t likely to see on screen – is a visually stunning and deliciously disturbing spectacle. Unflinching in its portrayal of defeated, disintegrated lives but colourful, revelatory and dynamic in its letting loose of a freaky natural landscape, this is a film that will unscrew your mind, but reward multiple viewings. For that reason above all, Paramount’s decision to “dump” it on Netflix for the sake of our continent might just be the most disorienting silver lining in the history of recent cinema.

Annihilation is currently streaming on Netflix