I must start this review by saying that I read (and quite enjoyed) Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation prior to watching the film. The novel is incredibly vague—a Biologist acts as narrator through her incomplete journal entries and attempts to describe things beyond human explanation. The main protagonists are addressed only by their disciplines – we never even learn their names, and there is virtually no dialogue. So yes, I was skeptical as to how a film adaptation would work, but I knew that if anyone could pull it off it would be Alex Garland. (Spoiler alert: he did).
Annihilation tells the story of soldier-turned-biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman) whose husband (Oscar Isaac) disappears in a secret mission not even she knows anything about. When he mysteriously returns after months, she realizes he is nothing but the empty shell of who he was, and she seeks out to do anything she can to save his life. He is taken away to be examined and healed at an unknown facility, where it’s revealed by a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that he had been investigating a rapidly-expanding place called ‘Area X’ that’s claimed the lives of everyone who has entered – until now.
This is only the first out of three novels that make up the Southern Reach Trilogy, but Garland made it pretty clear from the beginning that Annihilation would be a standalone film. It was mostly adapted from the first novel, but key plot points and details from the other two had to be incorporated in order for the story to go beyond what the Biologist was able to record. To even call this an adaptation feels like a stretch though, as it is very, very loosely based on VanderMeer’s novel.
In fact, I would dare say it’s almost an entirely different version of the same story, presented in a way that might not be what fans of the series are expecting. Some of the more obvious changes were things that needed to be incorporated in order for the story to translate well into the screen. Unlike the novel, the film’s characters had just the right amount of chemistry to keep audiences interested, but not enough for it to feel unrealistic. And while I wouldn’t necessarily call this an ensemble movie, it would not have been as compelling if not for the cast’s dynamic.
The fact that the main cast is made up almost entirely of women is particularly engaging, mostly because in no way does it feel forced. Make no mistake – this is not your typical Hollywood attempt at a modern feminist movie, with the thinly-veiled misogyny and unnecessary use of leather clothing. No, this movie almost feels revolutionary, considering that their gender is never really addressed, but it’s also impossible to ignore. There is something truly incredible about watching women do the same things men have been doing in science-fiction for decades, in a way that doesn’t come across as disingenuous.
I will say that Portman carries this film with the kind of raw emotion and bewilderment that audiences can relate to when it comes to a film this out of the ordinary. This might be, in my humble opinion, one of her most captivating performances since Black Swan. She and Isaac had more chemistry than I expected, and while he commanded attention during his scenes, she still managed to outperform him every time they were together. To me, the film’s obvious standout is Gina Rodriguez – her character is unlike anything we had seen her in before, and she delivers her lines in a refreshingly realistic tone for a movie this impossible.
And while the characters had strong foundations, there really wasn’t enough time to flesh them out any further. I understand why there was no room for character development – there’s a lot going on, but the lack of depth was obvious and it took from what Garland was trying to achieve. Tessa Thompson’s character for example, had a lot of potential and yet audiences learn almost nothing about her other than the fact that she volunteered for the mission to Area X. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character might have been the weakest out of the four main leads – until the third act at least, when her character leads us into the film’s climax.
Speaking of which, the third act really makes this movie what it is. Not only are the visuals unreal, but it feels almost psychedelic. Don’t try to make sense of what you’re seeing and just allow yourself to take it all in. I will say, if you go into this expecting answers and concrete resolutions, then I’m afraid you will be disappointed. The ending will without a doubt create divisiveness, and it leaves a lot to be interpreted, but that is exactly what makes it so great.
It really is a shame that audiences outside the U.S., U.K. and Canada won’t get a theatrical release. This is one of those films that’s clearly meant to be watched on the big screen, but it is so stunning that it should still evoke the same emotions no matter where or how you watch. Perfectly scored, the music compliments both the visuals and the story without overpowering, and the main theme is haunting enough to make you feel the right amount of uneasiness.
Lastly, I have to say how nice it is to feel like I have a place in science fiction. As a woman of color – a brown Latina to be exact – it was almost disheartening to realize this was the first film of its kind to star not one, but three Latinx actors in a way that didn’t feel tokenizing. And while I do think this was a missed opportunity to have a cast without any white leads, I want to believe Alex Garland when he says the casting of white actors (Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh) in roles written for Asian and Indigenous characters was nothing more than an honest oversight due to the novel’s ambiguous nature.
Key word here is want though, as I’m still not entirely convinced. He claims to have adapted the characters from the first novel, and their ethnicities were not technically brought up until the second one. But since he did incorporate elements from the second and third novels, I find it hard to believe he was completely in the dark about it. So while that sounds like an excuse to me, I’m also trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Overall, I give it a 8.5 out of 10. Even though it was scarier than the trailers led on, and it had some character development issues, it’s a film so unexpectedly unique that it deserves to be seen by everyone at least once.
Watch the trailer for Annihilation here.