Annihilation dir. Alex Garland
Review by Paul Wright
Adapting a book to another medium is tricky thing to pull off. The general audience consensus when it comes to filming a good books is: “The book was better.” Or some other iteration of that. People said for years that Lord of the Rings Trilogy was “unfilmable” and those movie ended up becoming Oscar winning classics. Harry Potter is another impressive book to film series. But as good as those movies are, at their best amazing and at their worst still very good, they often gloss over important, subtle, nuanced character moments that make the novels the pieces of legitimately excellent literature that they are. Then there’s HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones, which pulled the Fantasy genre into the mainstream even more than the Lord of the Rings films. I’m also of the opinion that the Game of Thrones TV series is the almost unheard of case where the adaptation is better than the already excellent source material. Then there are the out right failures like The Dark Tower. It’s a difficult balancing act for any filmmaker. Which is why I was so curious to see how Annihilation, the first book in a trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, would be adapted to the big screen.
After an unknown object fell out of the sky and crashed at remote lighthouse, a series of events begins that could eventually threaten the entire planet. A bizarre event causes a large portion of an national park and a seaside community to be covered in an alien looking energy bubble, dubbed “The Shimmer”. Everything inside “The Shimmer”, referred to as Area X, is being subjected to bizarre and unexplainable changes, including anyone caught inside “The Shimmer” as it spread never coming out again. A government organization called “The Southern Reach” has been charged with overseeing and dealing with this unique problem. Since the initial impact, the phenomena has defied understanding at The Southern Reach. Any attempts to study the phenomena at a distance with electronic equipment simply won’t work. Attempts to send teams in to investigate have ended in failure when no one ever returns. Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist with a military background and one of those missing teams included her husband, Kane (Oscar Issacs). That is until after being thought dead for over a year, he inexplicably shows up at their home with absolutely no answers to where he’s been and what happened to him. He quickly grows extremely ill, which is the impetus for Natalie Portman to go into Area X to try to understand what happened to her husband. Area X is slowly growing outward, which is not good. So when a new team is being sent in, her background and motivation make her a welcome addition to the mission.
Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (as all 3 books are collectively referred to) by Jeff Vandermeer is one of the best science fiction stories I had ever read. It’s incredibly unique and thought provoking without providing clear, easy answers to what exactly is happening (in a good way). When a film adaptation in the works was announced, a director had been announced as attached to the project as well, Alex Garland. Had it been another director, I would have been worried that this was a difficult story to turn into a film. But Alex Garland directed Ex Machina, an absolutely fantastic sci-fi film. He also wrote 28 Days Later and Dredd, among other things. It seemed like a match made in heaven, an excellent sci-fi director adapting an excellent sci-fi book. Unfortunately, Annihilation doesn’t nearly reach the heights of it’s source material or Garland’s last film, Ex Machina.
It’s by no means a terrible film. There are some cool and interesting scenes and I enjoyed seeing this world and these characters being brought to life. I think the problem was that some stories just don’t work as well outside of their original medium. The movie is pretty loyal to the book. It doesn’t wildly deviate from the original story. So, I wasn’t sure at first why the movie didn’t really work.
For example, in the book the team of characters that go on the expedition into Area X have an almost anonymous quality to them. They’re cyphers that we learn more about throughout the book and the rest of the trilogy. But that doesn’t really work on film because now you have a group of characters that are difficult to care about and therefore there’s less of a sense of urgency for their survival. You’re just not as invested in them. The actors are all fine, Natalie Portman is ok in the lead role. Jennifer Jason Lee and Tessa Thompson are both perfectly serviceable in their roles. The movie also lacks the surreal sense of dread that constantly permeates the story in the book.
To be fair there is one pretty creepy and interesting scene that’s probably the best sequence in the film. I won’t spoil it here but it’s the closest the movie comes to capturing the spirit of the book.
If you’re a fan of the books and have the time and money to do so, you could do a lot worse than to see this film. The movie does have enough meat on it to be interesting for someone who has read the series. I’d say at the very least, check it out on Blu-ray or digital when it does come out, just to fulfill any curiosity you may have as a fan of the book. To anyone else I can’t say I would recommend this movie. It’s not particularly memorable or interesting, which is a real shame. It’s always good to see great science fiction pop up in films, unfortunately this is not one of them. I definitely recommend reading the trilogy of books if you haven’t because they are quite excellent. Annihilation is ultimately a fascinating failure from a filmmaker that has incredible potential. Despite this hiccup, I still think Alex Garland is definitely a director to keep an eye on.
Annihilation is in theatres now
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