Annihilation (2018)

What was it? A meteorite that fell to earth? Or a visitation from outer space? Whatever it was, there appeared in our small land a miracle of miracles—the ZONE.

We sent in troops. None returned. Then we surrounded the zone with police cordons… We did right… Although I’m not sure…

The quote above is not from Annihilation:  it is from the opening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s remarkable SF film, Stalker.  And yet it sums up the essence of this film.

I”m sure Alex Garland has seen Stalker.  Tarkovsky has been the uncrowned god of Indie fimmakers and one of the most imitated directors ever — although mostly in small, independent films most of us will never see.  While Jeff VanderMeer, the author of the novel this film was based on, says that he never saw Stalker or read the original story (“Roadside Picnic“) by the Strugatsky Brothers, Alex made it very clear that his film was more of a dream about the original novel than a straightforward adaptation — and he refused to go back and re-read the novel (nor has he read its sequels) before writing his script.

Curiously, the story strongly resembles J.G. Ballard’s 1966 novel, The Crystal World, and actually borrows its character names — and its crystal trees.

A meteor crashes near a lighthouse, creating an impenetrable zone around it known as the Shimmer.  Teams of soldiers have been sent in, but none of them have ever returned.  None, that is, until a biology professor (Natalie Portman)’s missing husband appears mysteriously at her home — with no memory of who he is or how he got there — and then collapses from multiple organ failure.

The two are kidnapped and taken to a secret base, where she is told about the mysterious zone.  She volunteers to join the next expedition into it, which will be the first team of scientists to attempt to explore the mysterious region.

After waking up and discovering that they have been in the Shimmer long enough to have set up camp and eaten several days rations, they find a strange and often inexplicable realm with new mutant creatures and deadly surprises that take the lives of the five members of the team one by one.

Alex Garland first got noticed thanks to his novel, The Beach. Danny Boyle filmed it with a very young Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead and he and Alex ended up working together on the incredible 28 Days Later, and Sunshine (which is remarkably good, until the last reel when the entire film comes unglued).  Since then Alex has written scripts for Dredd and Never Let Go, and directed an intense Android drama, Ex Machina, from his own script.  It seems strange that this is not an original script, but one can understand what it was about this eerie and unsettling story that caught his interest.

The film has not been well received, largely because of the downbeat ending, with its unanswered questions.In fact, the ending is Alex Garland’s ending, and is quite different from the one in the book. I have to admit that I’d heard the complaints:  this meant that, even though I had no exact idea of what to expect, I knew Annihilation‘s ending would be dark — and somewhat ambiguous.  Perhaps this is why I did not find it an unsatisfying finale to this ominous and subtle film.  However, if you are looking for them, there are hints throughout of where the story is leading, and, as most of the film is told in flashback we know from the first that only one of the characters will make it back.

Perhaps Paramount was right when they considered this film too intellectual and too complicated for the average viewer.  However I’m not one to consider either of those bad in itself, and I find this one quite interesting, with a nice, slow, increasingly creepy buildup, some very strange mysteries, a touch of horror, a few very nasty critters and some stunning visuals.  I’m not convinced that the long shots of the lighthouse ever look particularly real, even before the Shimmer, but that may just reflect the fact that I watched it on an analog set.

If this sounds like a film you’d like to see, then by all means check it out.  It isn’t perfect, but it takes risks far too few SF films these days are willing to take anymore.  In an age where far too many people want everything explained in detail, it is nice to that there’s still room for something this defiantly different.

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