Adapting a novel into a film, particularly one cast and set up to be a blockbuster success, is a difficult enough exercise as is. Adapting a novel like Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, a minimalist and cerebral sci-fi thriller about the terrifying possibilities of biological mutation, seemed near impossible considering how much of the book’s power was in the main character’s interior monologue. But writer and director Alex Garland (Ex Machina, 28 Days Later) doesn’t even attempt to accurately adapt the novel in his new movie. Instead, Annihilation takes the bare bones of its source material and creates its own somewhat bloated house of horrors.
The movie begins with a clearly fragile Lena (Natalie Portman), a soldier-turned-biologist currently mourning the presumed death of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), lost on a mystery mission. One day he appears, wordlessly, in the doorway of their bedroom, seemingly alive but emotionless. Not long after, his organs begin to fail and Kane is rushed to the hospital—but the trip is cut short by a militaristic squad of helicopters and cars, and suddenly someone is sedating Lena at the scene.
She wakes up at the Southern Reach, a research facility just outside of “the Shimmer,” a rainbow, oil-slick border that demarcates the real world from whatever the fuck is going on inside of the area which was contaminated by an asteroid-like object from space. It’s this area, a sullen psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) explains to Lena, that her husband ventured into on his mystery mission.
“We’ve sent in drones and teams of people, but nothing comes back,” Ventress explains, played with a stand-out creepiness and cruelty by Leigh, who can often be found smirking even in the presence of terror. Lena decides to be on the next team and in she goes with Ventress and three other scientists from the facility: the film’s comic relief Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a soft-spoken Josie (Tessa Thompson), and “Sheppard” (Tuva Novotny). The five travel towards the area’s lighthouse, which was first hit with the otherworldly contamination, to collect samples of the wildlife and figure out why previous expeditions went missing.
Garland’s last movie, Ex Machina, was sleek and visually stunning, so by contrast the landscape beyond the Shimmer looks surprisingly cheap at first. Moving spores described in the film as tumor-like, in all colors of the rainbow, cling to buildings and trees like old party decorations. When the expedition stumbles upon an old, rundown house—where the women fight an alligator whose teeth are quietly deemed biologically impossible—it feels like we’re stumbling onto a closed off set at a Disney theme park. Human-shaped bushes of flowers are pretty set pieces until we’re told by our smart leads that they’re literally more human than we might think they are. And then they still just look like pretty set pieces.
The success of a movie like Annihilation hinges on its ability to effectively build and distinguish a terrifying new world. While it is filled with a wide variety of scares, from gory found-footage of an old expedition to a memorable scene in which the cast has to face down with a bear (but is it a bear?) who possesses the perpetually-screaming voice of a dying expedition member, none of it feels cohesive. And when the movie’s mythology is laid bare and viewers are told that “the Shimmer” refracts all cells, leaving everything inside it to mutate into one another, you’d think that would be a climatic moment, but it barely registers as a dramatic discovery. Instead, a defeated character decides to rub flowers into her open wounds and in a quick, almost laughable sequence, runs away into the trees to become a future topiary bush.
That Annihilation zigs and zags all over the place makes Garland’s film feel like it’s trapped between being a jump-scare monster movie (the arguably more studio-friendly kind) and something more subtle and psychologically thrilling, never fully committing to one or the other. Its one anchor is its cast which, despite being tasked with somewhat hokey and overly expository dialogue—“He’s dying,” Lena whispers upon first realizing her husband Kane is sick; “Yes,” Dr. Ventress replies—delivers vulnerable performances that buck the tradition of “badass,” unfeeling woman sci-fi leads.
It’s when the film’s final girl reaches the lighthouse that Annihilation becomes truly bizarre, descending into a sequence so freaky and visually beautiful that you wish the entire movie possessed the same power. If there is one thing to take away from Garland’s story, it’s that there’s always something lurking beneath the benign surfaces of what’s beyond the Shimmer. In this case, it seems like there’s a better movie hiding in Annihilation, somewhere.