Sometimes it’s beautiful.
Reflections have been the subject of many fantasies whether it’s Through the Looking-Glass or Poltergeist III. The notion that a double exists in a different world conjures an unavoidable eeriness and the possibility of usurpation wherein fiction could become truth. It’s easy to therefore see the inherent duality as a good versus evil scenario with conqueror and conquered fighting for the opportunity to exist. But what happens when you make your mirror less smooth? What if the prism through which your image has been duplicated refracts rather than reflects? Suddenly you’re a Cubist painting floating in the air as millions of imperceptible pieces ready to reform. And just as you’re split apart upon this linear journey, everything on the other side is too. Black and white becomes gray.
This is a rudimentary way of explaining the conceit behind Alex Garland‘s Annihilation, a film adapted from the first part of Jeff VanderMeer‘s Southern Reach Trilogy. The director has been vocal about the fact that he began writing his script when it was still the only book of the series published and therefore was unconcerned by the author’s plans to keep going. (This also closes the door on an attempt to call out Natalie Portman‘s casting since her character’s Asian heritage is revealed in book two.) The timing therefore untethers Garland from the source to take VanderMeer’s ideas and run with them as he sees fit. You don’t therefore need to have read the book first. In fact, many who have may be angry he’s changed so much.
But that is the beauty of adaptation and inspiration. The film becomes a comment on the novel, both complementary pieces of a science fiction mythos at once related and wholly unique. We can therefore see both as isolated entities, appreciating what each did within its medium without needing to judge them together. Think Stephen King‘s The Shining and Stanley Kubrick‘s vastly different cinematic interpretation—a single property filtered through two distinctly artistic lenses that created two impactful products unbeholden to each other. Garland is a creator with his own style and vision (see Ex Machina and his scripts for Sunshine and 28 Days Later). He looks at VanderMeer’s work as a blueprint, building upon it in a way that lets his own voice take an ownership claim.
The story is set in a world much like ours. The difference is the appearance of an unexplained phenomenon catalyzed by an asteroid plummeting to Earth, cutting a hole into the side of an idyllic lighthouse on the water. This event is ground zero for an ever-expanding region coined “Area X,” one that’s seemingly enclosed behind a border of visual aberration known as “The Shimmer.” For three years the government has sent soldiers and scientists through to discover a cause and for three years no one has ever come home … until now. After twelve months of silence, biologist Lena (Portman) looks up to find her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) wandering his way up the stairs. With no recollection of where he’s been, he falls to the floor.
After thinking he was dead for months, Lena now must watch as Kane falls apart on a hospital bed under strict quarantine. Quickly brought into the loop as far as what’s happening and how little is known, she realizes that her background in cell growth and mutation could save him. If she could go into “The Shimmer” with the next expedition—an all-female group led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) alongside Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny)—she might be able to figure out a cure. And with seven years in the army under her belt, she’d be an asset with a gun too. The question of what they’ll discover remains, their chances of returning as non-existent as always.
Lena is our narrator within a bookending construct of her unlikely escape. An unknown scientist wearing a hazmat suit (Benedict Wong) interviews her to learn what happened, her tale rife with impossibilities. She speaks about losing time as easily as losing minds. There are tales of alligators with shark teeth and shrieking bears attacking with impunity. We see a widespread vein of flowered foliage running through “Area X” like a colorful cancer and trees naturally grown in the shape of humans. The environment is simultaneously a wonderland of visual treats and nightmarish hellscape threatening death every single second. Organic material becomes stone, inorganic material alive. The closer they get to the lighthouse, the crazier their surroundings prove with every clue left by previous adventurers adding to the chaos.
What they find should be experienced without spoilers. Go in as blind as you can because the journey taken with flashbacks, dream, and commentary is potent in its structure. Things happen in a very specific order so that the refractions of images can reveal broken emotions beneath. Some of these revelations can feel rushed and obvious as a result, the sequencing probably more crucial upon repeat viewings. I wish we got to know some of the supporting characters better than we do, but each does possess an endgame worthy of inclusion nonetheless. This is ultimately Lena’s mission, her participation almost fated by Kane’s unlikely return. How “The Shimmer” reacts with her memories and motivations drive her forward as survival relies upon one’s ability to embrace his/her metamorphosis.
I have some issues with the climax and what it works towards—mostly for squandering the potential of such an inventively singular film by allowing itself to be satisfied with an energetic but generic end (the argument so many wrongly make about the under-appreciated masterpiece Sunshine‘s finale works here)—but they don’t completely erase the preceding bold aesthetic or thought-provoking script. Annihilation won’t be for everyone (the studio deciding to unload international rights on Netflix after one test screening should confirm this), but those willing to give it a chance will be treated with sci-fi they can sink their teeth into a la Arrival or Under the Skin. Here’s hoping a three-hour cut exists to experience the intricacies at work even further beyond their attractiveness as plot devices.
 Tuva Novotny plays Cass Sheppard, Gina Rodriguez plays Anya Thorensen, Tessa Thompson plays Josie Radek and Natalie Portman plays Lena in Annihilation from Paramount Pictures and Skydance. © 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Left to right: Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac in ANNIHILATION, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.© 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Natalie Portman in Annihilation from Paramount Pictures and Skydance. © 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.