“The tower, which was not supposed to be there,” is not even a full opening sentence, and yet the first nine words of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation told the reader at least nine things within a second. There are obviously things you can get away with more easily in a book than in a film, but that anonymous AirDrop into the mysterious Area X, whose uncanny nature becomes the focal point for a trilogy of novels, is something Hollywood could learn from. It also sets up a trilogy in which perception, and the inevitable breakdown of something like a shared reality — as emblematized by that very tower (or staircase, if you like) plays a central role.
The tower is in fact not there in Alex Garland’s adaptation of VanderMeer’s novel, both literally and in a more spiritual sense. At first this feels like a lost opportunity; how cinematically fun would it be to play with the book’s warped perspective, its narcotic disorientation? But Garland has used Area X as a jumping-off point for something like a companion to VanderMeer’s work, or a deeply personal-feeling interpretation. Whereas the book comes off as more of a portrait of an ecology in psychedelic decline, Garland’s film is about a personality undergoing the same kind of breakdown. Maybe that distinction feels traditional in the sense that Hollywood movies are financed because of movie stars, not radical biomes. But by its end Annihilation is anything but mainstream.
The film opens with a fiery, asteroid-like body striking a lighthouse somewhere on the Gulf Coast, leaving not destruction and calamity in its wake, only a prismatic, oily aura. (Right then and there, Annihilation announces itself as less of an explosion movie and more of an unexplainably unsettling oily aura movie.) We then meet Lena (Natalie Portman), a biology professor miserably unaware of anything having to with lighthouses or heavenly bodies, who is grieving her missing-in-action military husband. Then, after six months with no word, he appears in their bedroom in the form of a dead-eyed Oscar Isaac. Lena grills him about where he’s been, but he’s a disoriented shell of a person; all that’s missing is a lime green jacket. Then all his organs start failing. On the way to the hospital, a squad of black cars and helicopters intercepts the ambulance, Lena is sedated, and when she wakes up, she’s in a cell with Jennifer Jason Leigh.
This all sounds like a very different kind of movie than Annihilation ends up being — all black ops and missing spouses and Homeland-esque intrigue. The lengthy setup and stakes-laying is at once impressively slow and contemplatively paced and also completely lacking in any faith that we could invest our interest in a woman without some drama involving her husband. It’s portentous without seeming to know what it’s portending. Pretty soon Lena is on an expedition — the same expedition, she has learned, that her husband was on — into “the shimmer,” a slowly expanding, seemingly unsurveyable zone expanding through the swampland of Florida. She’s accompanied by Leigh’s Dr. Ventress, a psychologist whose job overseeing all prior expeditions seems to have left her shattered, to put it mildly; also Anya, a medic (Gina Rodriguez); Josie, a physicist (Tessa Thompson); and Cass, an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny). They dive into the shimmering barrier which gives the zone its name, and immediately things start to get weird.
What makes a good drug movie? Can it be about nothing, or does it need to be about so much that you need to be on a controlled substance in order to think you’re accessing all its layers of meaning? Does it just need to make you feel like you’re on drugs? In another era, Annihilation would feel destined to be a dorm room classic, to reside in a realm of trippy shit alongside Jodorowsky and Gilliam. Now movies are pliable enough that it may live on as a handful of GIFs and clips of its malevolently lush visuals as a get-high-and-check-this-out spectacle. That aspect of the film is clearly in a fight with all the “why did you come here” Syd Field motivational padding between its troubling setpieces, and it’s a very studio-suit move to assume that the only way to give “meaning” to a film is to have people talk about it. (It’s also a studio-suit move to cast Portman and Leigh in films that were written, however non-centrally to the plot, as Asian and Native women respectively.) Garland is telling the story through visuals, and through a cell biology thread most producers would not have faith in an audience to follow.
But to mistake Garland’s succession of haunted-house-like spectacles as Acid: The Place would be missing out on so much emotional work that he’s doing. (Although, the squeamish should be warned those spectacles range from mildly disturbing to gory and disgusting to absolutely terrifying.) The annihilation of the film’s title is the self-directed kind, and it’s working on a molecular level, even when the Hollywood narrative trappings of the film let it down. The film is drastically different from VanderMeer’s book, but it’s also about something that can’t be uttered, and, accordingly, Garland goes silent for the film’s stunning finale. Something at the intersection of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey and modern dance, it left me breathless with its unforgiving depiction of the relentless weight of depression; the impulse to self-destruct. The film has one eye on the “final girl” structure of horror films throughout its expedition, and the ending takes that phrase, turns it inside out and shatters it into a thousand refracted points of light. Like all things this cosmic, it will certainly be snickered about as “trippy shit.” But I suspect a sizable portion of the audience will see themselves there.