“It’s making something new.” So says biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) about the alien infestation occupying an area of coastal swampland in Annihilation. ‘Something new’ is exactly what writer-director Alex Garland has delivered, in his adaptation of the acclaimed science fiction novel by Jeff Vandermeer.
I read the novel a few years ago, shortly after it won the 2014 Nebula Award and some time before it was announced that a film was in the offing. In his strange tale about a party of unnamed scientists exploring Area X, a restricted zone that may or may not have been contaminated by an otherworldly presence, Vandermeer serves up a banquet in which every dish is full of extraordinary flavours, yet somehow you’re never quite sure about what it is you’re eating. You’re grasping, constantly, for a meaning that always eludes you, yet somehow this is never frustrating. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s the only meal I’ve ever eaten where I’ve ended full to bursting, yet hungry for more.
If you’d asked me then, I’d probably have said the novel was unfilmable. To my delight, Alex Garland has no truck with that notion. Structuring the human stories in way that’s accessible to a movie audience, he’s mapped a narrative course that provides the sense of resolution that the novel deliberately avoids, without losing any of the tantalising weirdness. Right at the end, there’s even a suggestion this film is but one facet of the growing body of work that Garland began with his cautionary tale about artificial intelligence, Ex Machina.
Portman leads magnificently, but her co-stars Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Oscar Isaac are as immersed in their roles as their characters are immersed in Area X. However, it’s with its visuals that the film shine – often quite literally. I frequently couldn’t tell where Rob Hardy’s caustic cinematography left off and Andrew Whitehurst’s visual effects took over. From the soap bubble glare of the ‘shimmer’ – a kind of barrier that conceals Area X from the outside world – to the bizarre flora and fauna beyond, Annihilation brings you the very best kind of sights: those you’ve never seen before.
Best of all, Alex Garland isn’t afraid to celebrate the strange. The film’s climax builds around a decidedly peculiar encounter with something that almost makes sense, yet which you know is just a tantalising glimpse of something ineffable. Throughout, Garland allows his camera to linger on some of the most intriguing images I’ve ever seen in cinema. Even after just one viewing, I’m convinced Annihilation belongs among the sci-fi greats. Am I overstating it? I don’t think so.
It’s a shame the film didn’t get a theatrical release outside the U.S., where it was distributed by Paramount Pictures. Everywhere else it’s on Netflix. Don’t get me wrong, Netflix is fine, and my TV screen was big enough to give me a reasonable sense of what it might be like to venture into Area X. Still, given Garland’s penchant for holding the camera back and offering long, wide views of remarkable things, I’d love to see Annihilation on the big screen.