In Theatres: 
Feb 23, 2018
Running Time: 
115 minutes

I love Jeff VanderMeer’s otherworldly sci-fi novel Annihilation, and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina was one of my favorite films of 2015 so when I heard that he would be directing an adaptation of the book I was giddy with excitement. I was eager to see the imagery Garland would come up with as wrapping my own head around the themes and questions posed by the novel was a task in and of itself. And while he does a great job at capturing the uneasy and mysterious nature of Area X, Garland takes a fair share of liberties with the overall plot of the novel to create his own hybrid of sorts that’s set within VanderMeer’s world. While I enjoyed his vision of Annihilation, it’s most definitely not the book I read nor the film I expected to see.


Biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) joins a top secret expedition of scientists to venture into the mysterious phenomenon that the government has called “The Shimmer,” a reflective border around Area X where the normal rules of nature do not apply. Joining Lena on the expedition is physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), anthropologist Cass Shepherd (Tuva Novotny), and the leader of the group, psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) was a part of the last expedition to venture beyond the Shimmer, and after being gone for a year he mysteriously shows up at their house with no recollection of how he got there and only vague answers as to what he was doing during the time. Shortly after he returns home, his body begins to shut down from organ failure and cancer. Lena hopes that by going into the Shimmer herself she can find the answers that can save her husband.


Without a doubt Annihilation is a gorgeous film. Within Area X, all plant and animal biology has mutated and cross-bred with one another to create both beautiful and terrifying new breeds such as multiple flower species that bloom from a single stem and an albino alligator with rows of teeth like a shark. But by far the scariest and most dangerous creature the expedition encounters is a massive partially deskinned bear who after killing one of the scientists, mimics her cries for help in one of the most frightening moments of the film. It’s the one aspect of the film that actually exceeded my expectations based on the novel. Both Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy do an excellent job at translating the visuals from my imagination onto the screen.


Where the film let me down was with it’s story. Annihilation is based loosely on the first novel of the Southern Reach trilogy, and fans will be disappointed to see that it only takes the major themes of the novel rather than follow its plot. It’s not just the little things that are different like how everyone actually has names instead of just job titles. The tower/tunnel that is central to the novel is completely absent, as is the Crawler who dwells deep within. Even Lena’s motivation to explore Area X is changed. In the novel, her husband has already died from cancer so her decision to go on this so-called suicide mission isn’t driven by a last ditch effort to save him but a more personal journey of discovery.


In the film, Area X is seen as an enemy, represented by the bear that is stalking them and the meteor impact seen in the opening scene. That immediately makes it an alien threat and not the mysterious force of nature humanity can’t comprehend. Absent are the lies that the psychologist has been hiding or the implanted trigger phrases she’s hypnotized into the rest of the expedition for full control of them. This was the material from the novel I wanted to see but unfortunately never got.


Annihilation does raise many of the same thought-provoking questions about humanity that the novel established, and it’s third act is absolutely ridiculous in the best way possible. It’s no doubt a hard sell. Fans of the novel may be disappointed that the film doesn’t follow its story, but much like Area X, Annihilation reaches beyond the normal and delivers something that’s new and exciting that will definitely get people talking.

Matt Rodriguez
Review by Matt Rodriguez
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