Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Empty Place Inside: Alex Garland’s Annihilation

Natalie Portman in Annihilation.

I enjoyed the hell out of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation, but I was skeptical it could be effectively translated to the silver screen. Big surprise, I know, but this particular story, in its abstract, expressionist horror, seemed like it would be uniquely difficult to adapt. Unless, of course, there was a great sci-fi craftsman like Alex Garland at the helm. That would change things.

And change things Garland did, making choices in writing and directing a film version of Annihilation that clarified the novel’s abstractions, crafting a story (which, at its heart, is itself about the agony of change) that is very different from its original form, partly to appeal more to a broad audience, and partly because a good deal of interpretation is required in order to bring VanderMeer’s oppressively vague prose to a more concrete visual medium. Annihilation is not going to appeal to most audiences, but then, neither did the novel. I think what Garland achieves with his adaptation far surpasses his source material, as he finds a way to take a gloomy Lovecraftian horror story and mine it for a shattering emotional payload.

Like the novel, Annihilation is the story of a group of women who are tasked with infiltrating a quarantined patch of swampland called “Area X.” Whatever is causing the “Shimmer” that pervades the area is warping reality in ways nobody can understand, and several expeditions have already failed in their attempts to enter the area and gather information including one led by a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac), who reappears after a year’s absence in the Area and falls gravely ill. This latest team is made up of a biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman), who is married to Kane, a psychologist named Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a paramedic named Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist named Josie (Tessa Thompson) and a surveyor named Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). As they progress deeper into Area X in search of its source, they experience phenomena that upend everything they know about themselves and the natural world. Annihilation’s plot feels less like a formal structure and more like a sustained build-up to the bravura finale, where Garland indulges in a thirty-minute existential sci-fi symphony that is as unnerving as it is utterly captivating. For a film about the disintegration of natural order, it makes sense that the film itself would appear to unravel, and make you feel as though you yourself your interpretations, your expectations are being disassembled, too. But Garland always has two hands on the wheel, and this climax (which I’m sure is already being compared to everything from Solaris to 2001: A Space Odyssey) is a carefully crafted expression of everything the film says on growth, change, and loss. An unnecessary framing device in which Lena recounts her experience to a hazmat-clad scientist (Benedict Wong) which reeks of hand-wringing studio execs desperate to spell everything out thanks to confused test-screening audiences thankfully does little to dull the impact of the overall experience.

Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez in Annihilation.

The many changes from book to screen, guided by Garland’s imagination, make for an interpretation of the novel that I couldn’t have anticipated. (The most notable change, which gives names to each of the specialists on the team, is a simple and elegant way to humanize the story.) It’s easy to imagine that a different filmmaker would have made a totally different film from the material something that sounds facile, but, given the thematic and stylistic depth of the novel, is really quite significant. There are many stories contained within VanderMeer’s book, and Garland presenting only one of them and his is a bleak and dazzling vision. Annihilation is presented with a soap-bubble sheen, its tranquil, often gorgeous surroundings and its smoky synth score creating a fog that feels like grief itself. Rainbows in the light, in the water, and in human skin are visual echoes of the Shimmer’s genetic refraction, the film’s gauzy production design underlining its haunting message. Emotion, like everything else within Area X, is broken down at a molecular level: the loss Lena feels at her husband’s disappearance, and then at his declining health, and then at the unity, sanity, and lives of her teammates, is only a component form of a much larger impulse. Self-destruction is at the centre of it all, the nucleus of Garland’s vision, reflected (and refracted) in each character and in every action. Lena engages in an affair that provides no satisfaction or solace. Ventress knows she will either perish outside Area X, or within it, and chooses to chase that bitter pill with the slaking of her curiosity, determined to die with the truth grasped in her hands. Anya, the group’s rock, sabotages the unity within the team that she works so hard to create. Sheppard pursues her grief into the abyss, hardly caring how her final hours are spent. Josie in one of the best and most painfully accurate representations of depression I’ve seen in a genre film carries a legacy of physical self-harm that’s tied to her need to feel alive, a dead woman walking who finds life, absolution, and peace in an unexpectedly poignant way. She is the one who really understands Area X, who can see it for what it is, and it’s telling that she thinks it’s beautiful.

The film’s horror is as much in its design as its subject matter. Area X is a threatening place not just for the assaults it makes on the integrity of body and mind, but for the mutations it creates in all forms of life, which are uniquely and strikingly grotesque. (Mark Digby is the production designer; Rob Hardy photographed.) Many of Annihilation’s manifestations from hybrid flowers to body-tearing fungal explosions to one of the most frightening predators ever put to film recall Alien in their ghastly, distinctly inhuman designs, but look less like a sexually-charged Gothic hallucination and more like a psychedelic out-of-body nightmare trip. Garland has proven himself a dab hand at sustaining tension over long periods, and breaking it with inventive and appalling bursts of violence. The instances of bloodshed in Annihilation are some of the most harrowing I’ve seen in a science-fiction film, and that’s saying something; on a level of pure craft, it’s absolutely brilliant. That it’s also so thoughtful is what transforms it from a gripping sci-fi thriller into a genuine gift.

Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills & Nash is used several times in the film, coinciding with experiences as diverse as grief, loneliness, and horror. The juxtaposition of this melancholy folk music with the thrumming, rib-shaking electronic soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow echoes the contrast between passionate human interaction and the instinctive, unfeeling natural processes we experience a perfect microcosm of the way Garland marries hope with horror in Lena’s story. Annihilation is a film for and about people who are frightened of change, who struggle endlessly with “the empty place inside,” as it acknowledges both the pain of this process and its inherent grace. As highly evolved apes who stumble towards truth, we engage in self-destruction that is both purposeful and accidental, unnatural and natural, harmful and healing, and Garland finds space for both ends of the spectrum in his adaptation (something, it’s worth noting, that I believe VanderMeer did not care to do). Garland has been incredibly brave in making a movie for modern audiences who crave “solutions” to stories and value plot detail over emotional resonance, in that he utterly ignores the (misguided) desires of that audience, and presents a challenging piece of science fiction that speaks to volumes of unresolved trauma that we all carry deep in our guts. Annihilation is sure to infuriate a lot of people both those who don’t understand it, and those who do and that something so confounding can also be so intelligent, sensitive, bold, and beautiful is a testament to how true this story is, because it’s a story about life itself, and about how the process of change is the most terrifying and gratifying thing we can experience.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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