Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel “Annihilation,” the first book of his “Southern Reach” trilogy, was a smash hit, making readers obsess over its tale of an unexplained phenomenon suddenly manifesting in a rural area on the Atlantic coast.
Eventually expanding to cover the entire region, a wall of shifting light marks its border.
The affected area is termed “Area X” by the clandestine Southern Reach agency tasked with researching it, and, soon enough, terror ensures.
The only thing that outweighs a fan’s excitement at hearing that one of their favorite novels will be turned into a movie is the fear of how bad it could turn out. As a huge fan of VanderMeer’s novels, I hoped for the best but prepared for mediocrity when I heard “Annihilation” would be getting a movie treatment.
If you’ve read it, you know why.
Though only three books, the novels that make up the “Southern Reach” trilogy are absolutely sprawling with character development, unreliable narrators, shifting realities and insidious horrors.
Would the atmosphere and penetrating sense of disorientation that Area X imposed on both the novel’s characters and its readers be preserved?
Thankfully, the first scene perfectly replicates VanderMeer’s style of selectively revealing information to the audience. Lena, a biologist who was sent by Southern Reach on a mission into Area X and played brilliantly by Natalie Portman, sits alone on one side of a sterile-looking room. Three men in biohazard suits stand opposite her. On the other side of secure glass barriers, dozens of their colleagues observe the conversation.
They want information from her on the journey into Area X that she’s just returned from, but she is either unable or unwilling to provide answers.
A once-cooperative team is now riven by distrust and tension, and no obvious villains appear for the audience to direct their suspicion at.
Writer and director Alex Garland preserves VanderMeer’s narrative style by giving the audience just enough information to stay intently curious without letting them fully comprehend what’s happening.
This is accomplished not only by withholding information but through astoundingly communicative visual storytelling.
Some of the visuals on display are pure artistic shock and awe.
As disturbing as some of it may be, I found myself unable to look away from a corpse exploding into sprawling arrangements of colorful lichen, fungus and flowers.
Scenes of more immediate gore abound, but they are not overdone or sadistic in their focus. As the story of Lena’s mission unfolds, Area X is reveled to be, first and foremost, a place of violence and hostility to all forms of life humans are familiar with. “Annihilation” has received wide praise for its visuals, and, while overall the digital effects are cutting edge, a few fall short.
The ever-present ethereal glow of Area X sometimes slides into campy YouTube greenscreen territory, and a few of the digitally added objects seem to slide around a bit, as if they’re not exactly fixed to the landscape.
Really, though, the visual style of “Annihilation” bounces between grand alien vistas and dark, claustrophobic areas of danger, never relying on any single CGI gimmick.
The film’s relatively short length does catch up with “Annihilation” in the end. The film version’s climax, while visually jaw-dropping and narratively creative, ends up feeling hollow compared to the novel’s climax.
The book had the time and space to create an intense sense of dread and anticipation that Garland’s version simply doesn’t meet. It also has smaller payoffs along the way in the form of world-building details that a two-hour movie could never encompass.
These criticisms aside, Garland’s adaptation has done an incredible job of replicating the suspenseful tone and brutal imagery of VanderMeer’s work. Garland’s film version is one of the most technically and artistically successful adaptations of recent memory. It is a supremely enjoyable sci-fi horror story in its own right.