There’s something to be said about the honesty that goes into Alex Garland’s Annihilation, a film that loosely adapts the novel by Jeff Vandermeer into something much less concrete and much more magnificent. When reading through the book for the first time (an exercise I partook in after I’d seen the film, for which I’m quite grateful) I could see a lot of the reasons readers were pissed when the film came out. The adaptation steps away from its source material, instead using the skeleton and specific encounters to create a story about the thing that human beings have always been the best at – self-destruction. I first viewed the film with friends, sitting in a theatre with glasses for the first time and suffering from a horrendous headache. This experience served as a nice parallel to the film, as my cells self-destruct the way my decisions have the capacity to do, and it seared the experience into my brain.
I talked it over quite a bit with another friend of mine, one that was a fan of the novel and of the film that Vandermeer and Garland aped for this one. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker is one of the most uncanny films of its kind, surrounded by destruction even during the production of the film (the amount of cancerous cells that developed in the team that made the film due to exposure to radiation for extended periods of time is insane), but the basic skeleton is the same as Annihilation. This caused my friend some frustration as it had not only taken from two things he liked but served as lesser for him.
I, however, have come to view it as a masterpiece that Garland may never outdo.
We begin with an interrogation. It’s not one that involves torture or threats, but more a group (led by steady hand Benedict Wong) desperate for understanding and trying to glean information from the only individual that can provide it. Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist from Johns Hopkins, went into “the shimmer” to find out what happened to her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). He’s returned from his expedition and is indeed the only one thus far to ever come out of this unknowable phenomenon, but his organs are failing and he seems…off. Cut to a meteor crashing into a lighthouse, out from which emanates a soap-bubble field that causes refractions in everything from radio signals to DNA. Lena joins Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotney), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and Dr. Ventress (a steely, remote, android-esque Jennifer Jason Leigh) on their journey into this new phenomenon to see what exactly crashed into the lighthouse and what exactly the consequences of the field’s expansion will be.
There’s nothing easy about this film. It makes demands of its audience for much of its runtime. Viewers will be assaulted with body horror that resembles colored smoke grenades at a rave, animals that scream with the voices of your fallen comrades to lure you away from safety, and ultimately the idea that you may be just as self-destructive as everyone else in the face of reality. Each piece of this coagulated puzzle fits together in a way that asks more questions than it answers if you aren’t paying attention (or if you get lost in the specific logistics of it all). You cannot come to this film with a logical mind and expect it to compute when Oscar Isaac cuts open a man’s tummy to hold his intestine while it wriggles and slithers like a captured eel. The remnants of this same man are later found, his lower jaw now ten feet above where he was cut and just a foot away from the rest of his skull, and all of it visually indicative that his cells grew into a new form of plant life as they shredded his meat sack to pieces.
Perhaps nothing is so demanding as the climax of the film, one that sees Natalie Portman’s character reach her final destination. Lena crosses the beach as she heads toward the lighthouse, walking through crystal trees and a graveyard where skulls and ribcages serve as headstones and coffins. She finds Dr. Ventress inside after having been separated from her, an encounter with one of them vomitting light and the other facing down a copy of themselves. Lena is forced to make a decision between continuing to annihilate herself or to shake free of the pattern. If she self-destructs she’ll merely be replaced by something that has unknowable tendencies, one like that which replaced her husband when he decided he couldn’t cease his routine and continued on that path. Lena decides to escape and remain herself, returning to Area X to embrace the thing that is not her husband to show that these patterns will honestly continue in perpetuity.
These ideas are what make Garland’s Annihilation special. Few films are able to confront humanity on that level, let alone something like this. The studio became afraid of it and requested a cut that was easier on the viewer, but producer Scott Rudin went to bat and was contracted to have final cut and saved this special little film. Thank goodness, because it’s a wonderful bit of self-deprecation on the part of a human being. It’s a favorite of mine from the last decade, and on that I urge you all to give another whirl to. That is, if you think you can handle what it has to say.