Alex Garland made a bold statement with his first direction credit. He’d been writing screenplays for fifteen years, beginning with the adaptation of his novel, “The Beach.” He’d followed that with the original screenplay for Danny Boyle’s revamp of the zombie genre, 28 Days Later, in 2002 – you could call it “The Running Dead.” He did another original screenplay for Boyle, 2007’s Sunshine, then adapted Kazou Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go and the illustrated series Dredd. But when he directed his original screenplay Ex Machina, he created a science fiction/mystery blend that stunned audiences. It was a three-person chess match where two of the characters didn’t realize that it was them who were being played. The film made Alicia Vikander an international star, while Domhnall Gleason and Oscar Isaacs went on to duel each other in Star Wars.
Now Garland is back with a much more ambitious meditation on humanity in the science fiction genre. Annihilation, an adaptation of the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, flips forward and backward in time as it tells the story of an expedition into a section of the planet that has, in effect, become an alien world. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist and teacher whose special forces husband, Kane (Oscar Isaacs), went off on a mission a year earlier and hasn’t been heard from since. Then he walks into their house, unable to explain what has happened or where he’s been. The reunion is short-lived as he soon collapses, coughing up blood. While racing to the hospital, their ambulance is cut off by the military. Lena and Kane are taken to an undisclosed lab.
There Lena meets psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who explains what has happened. A meteor hit a lighthouse in a state park area, and soon the structure was encircled by what observers termed “the Shimmer.” A park ranger went in to check on the lighthouse and never came back. Other expeditions have been sent into the Shimmer, but no one has come back, except for Kane, who’s now in a coma. As time has passed, the Shimmer has expanded. The government has kept the story quiet, but the Shimmer soon will expand to heavily populated areas and the story will be uncontainable. Ventress is leading a new expedition, made up of physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Cassie Shepherd (Tuva Novotny), and paramedic Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez). Lena decides to join the expedition to discover some way to help her husband.
The story owes a debt to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The DNA of plants and animals within the Shimmer has blended with alien DNA, changing the landscape elementally. But as they travel deeper, the team finds what they’ve brought into the Shimmer inside themselves may be the most dangerous element. As the old Pogo comic put it, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Portman is a wonderfully cerebral actress who makes thinking an engrossing action, but she also began her career with the action flick Leon – The Professional. Here she has to call on her skill in both genres. While primarily an intellectual puzzle, action erupts often without warning. On the other hand, Gina Rodriguez is mostly known for her sympathetic lead role on “Jane the Virgin,” but here she turns into a bad ass who could give Schwarzenegger a run for his money. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is guarded and withdrawn even as she leads the group, though a reason for her behavior is later revealed. After playing Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, Thompson’s Josie is perhaps the most thoughtful of the team. Tuva Novotny has mostly worked in her native Sweden, amassing over 60 credits in twenty years. She’s rarely done Hollywood films – she had a role in the Julia Roberts film Eat, Pray, Love in 2010 – so she’s a fresh face here while also being an experienced and competent actress.
As in the book, the female makeup of the team passes without comment. While principal photography was done almost two years ago, coming out now was perfect timing. The old conventions have been blown apart, the stereotypes stripped away, and now there’s a chance for truly exciting films that eschew the formulae that have existed for decades.
Garland chose a different way of adapting the book. He’d read it when it came out, but rather than returning to the source material, he’s said he adapted it “like a dream of the book,” based on his memory of the story. Since the book is written as journal entries of one of the characters, the loose adaptation not only makes sense but likely improved the story on the screen.
The film is visually arresting as the familiar is twisted into an alien tableau that’s both beautiful and grotesque. In a similar way to what happens to the characters, the movie invades your brain and makes you consider this world from a very different perspective. You’ll be thinking about it long after you exit the theater.