Natalie Portman in Annihilation

This review contains spoilers.

I haven’t read all of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, a series of sci-fi novels about a mysterious biosphere steadily taking over the earth, but the first one, Annihilation (2014), really got under my skin. Four women—a biologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist, and a surveyor—head toward a quarantined coastal area on a government mission to secure a base camp, investigate a lighthouse several miles away, and explore the surrounding wilderness. Theirs is the 12th expedition to Area X, previous ones having ended in horror: the second team committed mass suicide, the third split into factions and killed one another, and the members of the 11th all died of cancer after returning home. Shortly after the women penetrate Area X, they encounter a mysterious cylindrical tunnel into the earth, with a spiral staircase leading ever downward and, growing from its outer wall like a fungus, an apocalyptic incantation that draws the explorers ever closer to its monstrous author.

This tunnel is seriously creepy stuff, but it never enters into Alex Garland’s new screen version of Annihilation, which beautifully realizes the book’s biological nightmare but mainly dispenses with its silent psychodrama. Garland wrote two superior sci-fi movies for British director Danny Boyle (28 Days Later . . . and Sunshine) and adapted to the screen Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel Never Let Me Go before debuting as writer-director with the acclaimed artificial-intelligence thriller Ex Machina (2014). That project must have burned him out on pondering the intricacies of the human mind; along with the tunnel, he’s dropped the hypnosis subplot that winds through VanderMeer’s novel like a creeping vine of paranoia.

Without these two psychological elements, the screen version relies heavily on visual effects that conjure up the book’s sometimes magical, more often fearsome world of genetic mutation.
Losing these aspects of the story is a shame, if only because the idea of human volition figures so heavily in what VanderMeer is trying to say. The biologist, who narrates the novel, becomes entranced by the writing on the tunnel wall, an endless prophecy with the ring of scripture: Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives . . . With each successive trip to the tunnel, the biologist descends deeper into the consciousness behind the writing, which she nicknames “the Crawler.” Inevitably she begins to see in the text references to her own situation.

The biologist’s willpower, or lack thereof, also figures into the hypnosis subplot. The psychologist, an older woman who commands the team, places her three companions under hypnosis to endure the rigorous crossing into Area X. But after the biologist, leaning too close to the funguslike script, accidentally inhales a shower of spores expelled from one of the flowers, she becomes impervious to the psychologist’s powers of suggestion and learns that she and her fellows are being programmed to enact a secret agenda on behalf of the Southern Reach, the organization that administers the exploration and study of Area X. These developments turn the biologist into the most unreliable of narrators: Has she stumbled onto a government conspiracy, or has she begun to hallucinate after being infected by the weird growth in the tunnel? Even after her suspicions are confirmed, the idea that she may still be acting on the psychologist’s commands heightens the suspense.

Unfortunately a drama of perception happening inside a single character’s head is a tough prospect for a visual storyteller, which may explain why Garland gave it the ax. Though the psychologist becomes a central character in the later books of the trilogy, Garland had only the first novel to work from when he began his adaptation, and like any good screenwriter he privileges the cinematic experience over the source material. His screenplay is framed by a scene in which the biologist (the hypersensitive Natalie Portman) is questioned after the ill-fated mission by a government official in a hazmat suit; a mosaic of flashbacks lays out the biologist’s marriage to a military man (the hyper-insensitive Oscar Isaac), who came back from the previous expedition an empty husk, then the forward progress of the biologist’s expedition as her companions are successively picked off by mutant beasts. The latter developments sometimes reminded me of Jurassic Park without the one-liners, the earlier movie’s amusement-park crunch and munch replaced by a spectral sense of dread.

VanderMeer leaves much to the imagination, but Garland and production designer Mark Digby present the terrors of Area X in sharp detail. Crossing into the quarantined area, the explorers pass through a force field shimmering pink and blue like an oil slick; marching toward the forest, they pass a rainbow of flowering fungus that creeps along the trees. At an abandoned recreation center they recover video from the previous expedition, and the biologist watches in horror as her husband slices open the abdomen of a comrade and peels back the flesh to expose a gigantic worm coiling through his trunk. Shortly thereafter the women descend into an empty swimming pool and find the poor sufferer’s remains: his seated body has been blown apart, his skull and rib cage pasted up the side of the pool’s wall by a white, crusty mass of dried tissue.

As the biologist eventually concludes, the shimmering force field over Area X functions like a prism, refracting the DNA of any living thing inside it. At one point she stumbles upon a pair of slender white deer, who bound off in perfect synchronization, and outside an abandoned home the women find green, flowering shrubs in human form. These doppelgangers lead Garland back to the question of whether people have individual will or whether they only obey the dictates of their programming (in this case, biological). Given Annihilation‘s poor showing at the box office last weekend, we may never get an answer to that question onscreen. But luckily I’ve got two more books to read. I’m inclined to think of VanderMeer’s version as the true story anyway, though Garland’s version is a worthy mutation.  v