Movie Review : Annihilation (2018)
Successful entrepreneurs and Instagram influencers love to tell you that rules are meant to be broken. That they are arbitrary limitations set by somebody else, which are keeping you from reaching your true potential. But our worlds is built on rules. If you become upset with your neighbor and run him over with your car, you’ll go to jail. That if you put X amount of hours performing a service for a boss or a client, you’re entitled to money. Whether we like it or not, our existence is based on intrinsic rules. Annihilation is a movie about the collapse of rules we all take for granted: the laws of science. And it’s pretty fucking terrifying.
Annihilation is an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel I reviewed two weeks ago, but it has little to do with it. Writer and director Alex Garland said it was based on his memory of the novel and not on the novel itself. That he wanted to explore its dreamlike nature more than its characters. The premise is (almost) the same. An ex-military biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman) has lost her husband (Oscar Isaac) to a secret operation. But he comes back one day. That much is different from the novel. And his comeback will lead her to Area X, an army facility built next to a shimmering electromagnetic field that seems to keep whoever enters it.
Unlike Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a self-contained narrative with a proper conclusion and not the preamble to a trilogy, so it has a different set of rules. These are subtly introduced at first by giving names to its protagonists. VanderMeer’s novel is about the collapse of knowledge, but within 10 minutes Garland establishes that something within Lena survived Area X. This is important. Because the adaptation, unlike the novel, is not about the collapse of knowledge and rationality. It’s about evolution. It can seem less ambitious and more mainstream-friendly than its literary counterpart, but I assure you it isn’t. Quite the contrary.
The characters in Annihilation aren’t openly fighting a space predator like in an Alien movie, for example. They’re figuring out the new rules of their environment and Alex Garland is pretty great at introducing these rules. Because every movie needs rules. Those that don’t will leave their audience confused and angry. But those that borrow rules that are already known risk being boring. For example, if a character decides to investigate the sound of a window breaking inside his own house instead of bolting out immediately and calling 911, you’ll know he’s going to get murdered and you’ll space out. What makes Annihilation different and so much fun is that rules are gradually introduced as the movie goes along.
That leads us to the bear scene. I’m not going to spoil it because it’s the de facto climax of Annihilation. It’s where you understand what the new rules are and what kind of danger the characters are facing. It’s the most unsettling movie scene I’ve seen all year. And it works well because the movie works its way up there. It’s set up so that it’s plausible within its universe. By the moment you see the mutated bear walking inside the house (which is creepy in its own), it’s been made clear through exposition how what you’re witnessing is possible. And it uses basic scientific lingo we all understand in order to do that. It’s improbable, but not implausible and that is the key to invoking terror.
No disrespect to Jeff VanderMeer. I thought his novel was fine, but found Alex Garland’s freewheeling adaptation to be quite better. It shouldn’t be surprising, coming from a man who’s been a paragon of creative integrity for two decades now. Ironically enough, Annihilation breaks the rules in order to be successful. But Garland previously showed he mastered the rules while writing The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd and Ex Machina and Annihilation sets up new, horrifying rules for itself. That makes it one of the most unpredictable and engaging movies of the year and one of the shining example of how form can influence and actually improve content. I’m not surprised to say this, but Alex Garland made one of my favorite movies of 2018.