Annihilation: embrace the change

A woman stands silhouetted against trees of light

One day, it was a remote stretch of American coastline, wild and beautiful. The next, it began to change. Now Area X is threatening more densely inhabited areas, and the secretive government organisation known as the Southern Reach wish to send in a twelfth expedition to try and understand it. But only one person from the first eleven expeditions ever returned…

Annihilation was a challenging read, but one I found myself thinking about long after I put it down. I’m finding I have much the same response to Alex Garland’s brave attempt to capture it on film.

Inevitably, Annihilation has gone through some changes. The characters have been named, for a start – a small but distinctive shift from the job-based nomenclature of the novel – and there is one more of them. They make determined efforts to establish relationships, talking about their past and offering insights into why they’ve signed up for what is presumed to be a suicide mission.

Lina (Natalie Portman), a biologist who once served in the Army, has come because Area X took her husband (Oscar Isaac). Still serving, he was assigned to the the eleventh expedition; unlike everyone else to have ever gone in, he came out – a year after disappearing, he reappeared with no idea how he got there, only to collapse as his body began to fall apart. Still grieving his presumed death, Lina wants to believe she can save him if she can understand what happened to him in Area X.

The set-up walks the line of emotional drama – Portman excellent as usual at capturing the nuances of guilt and grief – and thriller, as the Southern Reach swoop in to take the couple to their base and put them into isolation. But once on the edge of the ‘shimmer’, the film embraces the weirdness of its source material.

That Annihilation appears to have lost the confidence of its studio and has lost its cinema release in the UK is a crying shame; this is a film that screams out to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. It’s meant to be overwhelming, and I don’t see how a small screen Netflix experience can deliver the full impact. The forests of Area X are lush with life, and the very air shimmers (hence the name) with iridescence. The mutations creep up fast, until the screen is regularly full of unsettling and exquisitely beautiful images (such as the deer with flowers for antlers seen in the trailer).

It’s not all easy watching, though. Area X is deeply disturbing. The team have no memory of their first few days in the shimmer; by the time they find the Southern Reach’s old headquarters – clearly also the basecamp for the eleventh expedition – they are on edge and under threat. They soon find evidence that their predecessors either encountered something that defies explanation, or went mad and committed horrific acts of violence (or both. Let’s say both). Full warning: there are two intensely graphic if bloodless scenes of people being cut open, which left me quite shaken.

It’s subversive in another way. In giving us the military squad on film, we get a glimpse of a more familiar Hollywood SF tale of an elite military squad being sent to confront a mysterious alien menace. Early on, one of the women jokes that this expedition might survive because they’re not men. As it turns out, gender is beside the point, but the playbacks from the last expedition really ram home how unusual a choice this is.

And these are capable women. Lina goes from scientist to fighter in a heartbeat, her instincts honed from her time in the military. I loved the close-ups of Portman’s emotionless face as she fires. There’s no fear, no softness or traditionally-coded female responses. She’s competent and utterly determined; while it works hard to show her in different situations with the flashbacks to earlier times, the film never undermines her, and I never questioned her relentless push to get to the lighthouse (the epicentre of the macabre mutations).

But as the team venture deeper into Area X in search of the lighthouse, the wildlife gets stranger and their grip on reality gets flimsier. Having read the book, I think Garland has done a tremendous job here. I would have considered the book unfilmable: Garland has changed a lot, but the outcome feels like its related to its source material, and – crucially – works on its own merits.

That said, this won’t be for everyone (or even for many). The visuals are frequently surreal; the plot progression no less so. It’s far from straightforward – the climax is practically arthouse, all blinding light, transformations and Portman half-dancing, half-fighting a mirror self – and it’s ultimately quite ambiguous (if perhaps slightly less so than I would have liked). While none of the characters are particularly sympathetic, there’s an emotional resonance to the experience that I found devastating. It’s one of those films you sit through the credits because you’re not ready to engage with the world yet.

I thought when I left the cinema that I was glad that I’d seen it, but that I never wanted to see it again (because those two scenes. Well). A week later, I’m still thinking about it. And I really want to see it again.