Something strange is happening in science fiction. Mutating flowers. People with eels for intestines. Crocodile-shark hybrids, part-plant deer, and moaning skull-faced boar-bears. (Oh my.) Such are the flora and fauna of what's now being called, rather neatly, the New Weird, the genre's version of the grotesque—though it's only "new" in the sense that it's finally rupturing, like miraculous sidewalk weeds, up through the literary cracks. That's thanks, in very large part, to a very small book called Annihilation.
When it came out in 2014, the first in a three-part series, many people professed to love it. Perhaps a few of them genuinely did. It was never, however, a book to love; in 195 pages, Jeff VanderMeer transcribed a complete nightmare, a vibrantly shaded eco-horror tone study in pure dread. Yet, it sang. Its freakish popularity secured for the author, along with the cultural role of Head Weirdo, the inevitable Hollywood movie option.
Four years later, Natalie Portman stars in writer-director Alex Garland's new adaptation. The question now is whether Garland, who with Ex Machina made the best sci-fi movie of 2014, can do for cinema what VanderMeer did for literature: sanction the strange. The answer, it's equal parts thrilling and terrifying to say, is yes. Garland's Annihilation is as monstrous as it is masterful, perfectly corrupt as an adaptation and a surrealist trip even more soul-shaking than the source material.
The story, in the broadest strokes, remains the same: A group of female scientists ventures into a haunted wilderness off the Florida coast. Haunted how, or by what, nobody can say—not even the scientists at the Southern Reach, the government agency tasked with studying Area X (while assuring the public that, yes yes, it's just a quarantined contamination zone). All they know, really, is that it's expanding, fast. Well, that and also: All ye who enter there should abandon hope, because there's no way you're coming home.
In the book, VanderMeer only identifies the women by their professions: the biologist, the psychologist, and so on. "Names belong to where we had come from," he writes, "not to who we were while embedded in Area X." Garland, by contrast, christens everyone and everything. The main protagonist goes from nameless Asian biologist to Lena (Portman), a Johns Hopkins professor with an expertise in mutating cells. For fans of the disorienting original, that precision may hurt, and it should—unless you accept that this is only one version of VanderMeer's open-ended fantasy. One vision. And vision might be the best way to put it.
In the two features he's directed, Garland has shown himself to be obsessed with seeing, and with seeing through. Remember the glass wall in Ex Machina separating the AI Ava from her human minders? The director makes a similar visual play in Annihilation’s first scene—Lena being interrogated in a glassed-off room—and carries the motif through the film. From then on, our vision is rarely unencumbered by a filter: a cloudy window, a rush of water, the ever-present glare of the sun over the marshland.
At one point, a character screams, twice: "It's a trick of the light!" What is? The horrible scene they just witnessed? The whole of Area X? The film itself? You find yourself constantly straining, squinting for clarity.
These smaller scotomas are there not just to frustrate, though. They exist in thematic subservience to the biggest one of all: the transparent border surrounding Area X itself. It's known in the movie as the Shimmer, rippling in purples and greens like some massive, unpoppable, soapy bubble. When the women first cross over, it barely registers their presence.
Leading the expedition is Dr. Ventress, a psychologist played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose note-perfect performance blurs into and out of the fuzziness of the scenery with scary fluidity. To varying degrees, and in quiet balance, the four actors under her—including Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and a wistfully effective Tuva Novotny—go for the same effect. Only Portman's Lena feels entirely solid.
That's by design, it seems. Once her husband Cane (Oscar Isaac) returns from Area X, his mind enfeebled and his body shot through with decay, she reasons that she has no choice but to confront the region herself. If Garland's script falters, it's in belaboring Lena's motivations. As the movie, along with the women, presses into more and more grotesque and symbolic territory, flashbacks to Lena and Cane's troubled marriage threaten to wake us up from this comprehensive dream.
Not that it's a dream you necessarily want to be having, and some viewers won't be willing to stay under for the film's two-hour spell. For those who are, beware: By the second half, it's clear Garland has transformed VanderMeer's allegorical eco-horror into a far more visceral bio-horror. Area X infects these women like a disease. It corrupts them body and soul, and it's terrifying.
The question this raises is whether Area X is evil. That should be for you to decide. What's worth noting here is that Area X is not natural—and neither is Garland's movie. VanderMeer gave us a metaphor; Garland now offers us an explanation, with implications so overwhelming and terrible that it just might freeze you where you sit.
Unless you tell yourself, as the credits finally roll: It was all just a trick of the light. Just a stupid trick of the light.
WIRED at the Movies
-Jason Parham on Black Panther, "an unmistakable triumph."
-Brian Raftery on The Last Jedi, "the gazillion-dollared, 152-minute equivalent to setting fire to all of your childhood Star Wars toys in the backyard, and getting high off the fumes that follow."
-Angela Watercutter on Justice League, "a Franken-Movie full of decent ideas that might all make sense together if they weren’t flying past you faster than your social-media timelines on debate night."
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