Sometimes cinematic adaptations are conversations with source material rather than direct representations. No recent film more exemplifies this idea than Alex Garland’s bold, metaphysical and just plain weird “Annihilation,” adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s book, the first in his “Southern Reach” trilogy.
The result is a deeply challenging, big-budget, female-driven sci-fi film, which begs a question: How did this get made? Films as singularly adventurous as this don’t come around often.
VanderMeer’s book is obtuse, meditative, mysterious and transfixing. It suggests and hints at possibilities that are far greater and wilder than the characters encounter in the plot, requiring the reader to make those connections, to fill in the gaps. Garland, who adapted the screenplay, takes the premise, characters and larger ideas of VanderMeer’s book, and interprets them in his own story to bring an almost unfilmable novel to the big screen as a sci-fi epic.
“Annihilation” follows a group of female scientists who set out on what is essentially a suicide mission to a top-secret location known as Area X, where a shimmering energetic border has appeared, cordoning off an amorphous portion of wilderness, changing its landscape. There is no communication in or out, and in three years, no missions have returned. Having tried groups of military men, they’re now trying out women scientists.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist, professor and former soldier. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), went missing in Area X for a year before he returned, changed, subdued, and falls violently ill. She joins the latest mission hoping to search for whatever might have changed him, for the traces of him he left behind. She’s part of a group including medic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), geothermal scientist Cass (Tuva Novotny) and a taciturn psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They’re going to enter “The Shimmer,” go to the lighthouse, collect data and return (though that seems unlikely, based on the track record).
What happens in The Shimmer is where Garland diverges from VanderMeer’s tale. Time and space tilt once they enter. It is stunningly beautiful, a vibrant, dripping rainforest swamp overflowing with bright flowers and fungi. Hazy light pierces, signaling always the presence of the lighthouse. But it seems to alter time, too. They lose whole days of memory, and the wildlife is increasingly intoxicating, dangerous and threatening. Great beasts leap out of the dark, their roars carrying a distinct human tone. The group finds remnants of old missions and harrowing videotapes. Always the question remains: Did something kill them, or did they go crazy and kill each other?
This is a basic question that returns again and again, and it lays the foundation for the themes of existential paranoia that Garland dives into during the last act of “Annihilation.” The title refers to total destruction, but what’s happening isn’t destruction but transformation, mutation. Does a sense of self survive a mutation? Does your soul?
Garland splays these big ideas brazenly, grounding them in Portman’s performance as grieving widow, curious scientist and fierce warrior. She must confront the memory of her husband again and again as she traces his journey through steps that have fragmented, rooted and rot. She digs and delves inside to find an answer, and discovers the only way through is within. That larger message is what Garland eventually unearths, giving a distinctly spiritual slant to this science- fiction story.