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Annihilation Review: Natalie Portman Mind-Bender Asks All The Right Questions

Life finds a way.

Is self-destruction a biological impulse, or a psychological one? Does it depend on the person or the circumstances? How far would you go to find out whether that impulse lives in you?

To Inspire questions like that is one hallmark of great science fiction, and Alex Garland's Annihilation, a loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's 2014 book of the same name, definitely has that going for it. But unlike Garland's directorial debut, the celebrated Ex Machina, Annihilation is a little rough around its shimmering edges.

The movie, like the book, follows a biologist (Natalie Portman) who embarks with several other scientists on an expedition into a mysterious zone (Area X in the book, The Shimmer in the movie). The zone is surrounded by a strange barrier that lets people enter, but rarely allows them to leave. Inside, communications are blocked, and elements of the natural world--plants, animals, and beyond--take unnatural shapes. The book implies these phenomena may be alien in origin; the movie states it outright in the opening minutes, when a meteor from outer space strikes the base of a modest coastal lighthouse and The Shimmer starts to spread. It's not unlike the spaceship scene that opens The Thing, and it's equally unnecessary.

That's just one of the many, many ways that Annihilation strays from its source material, particularly if you consider the other two books in The Southern Reach Trilogy, Authority and Acceptance, both also published in 2014. Garland has admitted he wrote the movie's script before books 2 and 3 were out, and he's yet to read them. Unsurprisingly, Annihilation as an adaptation has more in common with something like Blade Runner--Ridley Scott famously never even finished the Philip K. Dick Book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?--than one more faithful to the original.

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None of that is to say it's bad, but be warned: If you read the book, watching the movie will give you whiplash. And if you didn't, it might anyway.

Annihilation's structure often seems more like a dream than like a series of realistic, logical events. In the framing device of Natalie Portman's character Lena being interrogated by Benedict Wong, she might as well be recounting a nightmare she can only recall in bits and pieces. Inside The Shimmer, the scientists (also including Jennifer Jason Leigh's Dr. Ventress, Tessa Thompson's Josie Radek, Gina Rodriguez's Anya Thorensen, and Tuva Novotny's Cass Sheppard) lose multiple days with no memories, suffer attacks by strange hybrid creatures like an alligator with the mouth of a shark, and slowly but surely become infected themselves with whatever's behind it all.

Unfortunately, that dreamlike structure is more hindered than helped by a visual aesthetic that can best be described as hokey. The Shimmer's border looks like a giant soap bubble, rainbow refractions swirling and drifting in the light. Inside, the landscape is dominated by a distracting soft focus and high color saturation that was probably meant to make The Shimmer's lush world feel alien, but instead makes it look like a made-for-TV movie. The twanging acoustic guitar soundtrack feels totally out of place, lending a folksy vibe that undermines scenes that should sound alien.

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The score does occasionally shift darker to match up with the movie's actual vibe, especially during more intense scenes of revelation or dread. There's some truly startling body horror mixed in, and although what's on the screen is often more explicitly shocking than what was on the page, it all fits with the book's original themes. The scientists are faced with greater horrors the further in they get, from fungus-infected corpses that would look at home in a The Last of Us movie to unnatural changes in their own bodies, and much of the movie's thematic meat comes from how they as individuals cope with their discoveries and trauma.

At the center remains the biologist, Lena, whose husband (Oscar Isaac's Kane) resurfaces at the movie's start after going missing on an expedition into The Shimmer 12 months earlier. She signs up for the next expedition to find out what happened to him, determine why he's dying now, and maybe even find a way to save him. The adaptation suffers most from these major changes to the biologist as a character. It's understandable that, in a movie where there's not much familiar for the audience to hold onto, they'd feel the need to make the protagonist more relatable. But in simplifying the biologist's motivations, the movie loses part of what makes the book so special.

Another major element the movie suffers for excluding is a subplot involving hypnotic suggestion. Based on a couple of key scenes, it's safe to guess it was in the movie at one point and got cut, and its omission leaves at least one loose end. Finally, the biggest differences are in the ending, which takes on a decidedly 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe. As a complete, self-contained story, though, the film works well, and it's easy to understand why the climax had to change.

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Most importantly, Annihilation brings up all the right questions. Its gruesome, unsettling body horror becomes all the more disquieting because it's layered on top of a core of hard science, and the discussions among the five scientists--who all come from disparate disciplines--as they try to comprehend their experiences are some of the best parts. What is instinct, and what is learned? What is built into us, and what do we choose? What causes intelligent beings to knowingly self-destruct? If there's other intelligent life in the universe, would we even comprehend it? Would its senses, thoughts, wants, or needs be recognizable to us as such? And at a significant enough scale, what is the difference between change and destruction? How do you define "annihilation"?

If you're looking for a traditional story arc or familiar sci-fi beats from Annihilation, look elsewhere. Garland's second turn in the director's chair is a weird, Lovecraftian blend of cosmic and body horror with sci-fi themes and a hokey aesthetic that doesn't always work. It's also an incredibly detailed, thoughtful film that will warrant multiple viewings--and, hopefully, an expedition into the absolutely phenomenal source material--for those who find themselves sufficiently intrigued.

The GoodThe Bad
Translates the spirit of the book to something that works as a filmSimplification of biologist character makes her less unique
Filled with dread and body horrorOut of place folksy music
Small clues throughout movie leave details open to interpretationSoft focus, high saturation, lens flare softcore porno effect
Self-contained story with satisfying ending

Suffers from some plots cut or changed from book

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