Alex Garland has been a quiet force in entertainment for almost 2 decades, more specifically in the horror and sci-fi genres. Way back in 2000, Danny Boyle made his novel, The Beach, into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio famously turned down a role in the Star Wars prequels to star in the movie and also replaced Ewan Macgregor as the lead.
Garland then went on to flip the zombie genre on it's head when he penned 28 Days Later and kept the horror theme going with the (in my opinion) underrated Sunshine in 2007. His biggest success came when he got his first chance to direct in 2014 when he made the genre defining Ex Machina.
For all intents and purposes I consider Ex Machina to be about as close to perfect as a movie comes. The tone, the themes, the acting, writing, and direction are just a few of the things that make Ex Machina great and I was more than excited to hear that Garland was staying in the sci-fi/horror genre with his next feature, Annihilation.
Garland has adapted the work of others before. He adapted Never Let Me Go from the Kazu Ishiguro novel of the same name and he wrote the screenplay of the criminally underrated Dredd remake. Still, Garland's choice to adapt someone else's work right after his greatest personal success is a bit strange, but with his track record I had full confidence.
Annihilation at its most basic is about a biologist named Lena who, along with an expedition team including a physicist, anthropologist, medic, and a psychologist, enter the mysterious "Area X", a place that little is known about and nothing seems to come back.
To give away much more information than that is to undermine one of the strengths of the movie which is the unknown. This is not just a plot point in both the movie and the novel but a major theme. I understand that there has to be a certain level of marketing to sell a movie but it is just a shame when that gets in the way of the story being told the correct way.
Speaking of the novel, I decided to get on the ole' audible and use one of my credits on the book to see what I would be getting myself into. I ended up saving the last 15 minutes until right before I walked in the theater, and while they share some similarities, the book and movie are incredibly different, for the better and worse.
The book takes the narrative of journal entries from the main character who is simply known as "the biologist". There is an Area X which functions similarly to the one in the movie and an expedition including some of the same roles but that is pretty much where the similarities end.
Garland more or less took some ideas and themes from the book and created his own story to go along with it. Deviation from the novel was key, journal entries are not the most exciting use of the visual medium even though they were a perfect way to tell the story. It's just a shame that he was not able to keep more from the original narrative.
Annihilation is a hard sci-fi movie, which has always had a difficult transition from script to screen. There are in depth almost dissertation like explanations of different studies in subjects like biology and psychology. Not to mention that much of the sci-fi and horror elements are more implied rather than explicit. Things that would drive you mad just by looking at them because they are so outside our realm of understanding are obviously much easier to convey in word form than visual.
The movie takes a more normal approach to the plot and characters but adds more in the way of visual spectacle and action than the book does. After how well done Ex Machina was in using a small cast and few locations, I was a bit disappointed to see Annihilation take a wider scope rather than honing in.
That being said Annihilation is paced spectacularly. Things move fast and other than a few cases of really disappointing exposition and repetitive character stuff, the plot is always progressing. We are always learning a little bit more, whether it be about Area X, the characters or if anything we are seeing can even be trusted.
Garland finds a way to add in some of those hard sci-fi dissertations without boring the hell out of the audience, but is outdone by a movie like Arrival in this category. Eric Heisserer was nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of the book "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chaing and I don't think Garland will garner the same praise for his adaptation.
The real draw of the movie are the visuals, "the shimmer" and the mutated animals shown off in the trailer to entice a certain audience. Unfortunately for some, these elements from the trailer play a much smaller role in the movie than they would let on.
Like the book, the movie uses the both mystery and subterfuge to draw the audience in rather than straight forward horror elements. It is not really until the end of the movie when things get rather, transcendental, do the visual flourishes really become more than just background scenery.
Without giving too much away, Annihilation is a movie that drags the viewer along a path, and then the payoff will leave you either satisfied or disappointed. I for one found the last act to be both the best and most visually stimulating of the bunch. The way everything comes together will take a few more viewings to fully understand, but I will say that Garland pulled off some pretty interesting ideas in those final few scenes and I wont be getting them out of my head for quite some time.
I think of movies like Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 along with Ex Machina as the cream of the crop when it comes to recent sci-fi flicks. All three are vastly different in many ways, but all have a few things in common. They are all masterfully made movies with strong elements of sci-fi mixed with some real life themes.
Annihilation just comes short of those sci-fi juggernauts, but it is not for lack of trying. Annihilation may have been the most ambitious to make out of the bunch and the one that really does not hold back. It is an unashamedly low concept hard sci-fi movie and that very well could turn viewers off, and while it it not as tight as Ex Machina or as watchable as Arrival you have to appreciate the effort.