My memory of the excellent novel by Jeff Vandermeer is shaky, but not THAT shaky. ANNIHILATION really is a case of a major book “inspiring” a big-budget movie. The director/writer Alex Garland is no slouch with a pen, and he wrote a loose adaptation of the book, with little worry about being faithful.
The result is an impressive attempt to bring an adult sensibility about life and love to a story of a quasi-military mission into a distorted region that may be a case of first contact with an alien life form. It’s part of the wave of mainstream non-action SF, and would appeal to fans of CONTACT, INTERSTELLAR and THE ARRIVAL.
Natalie Portman is very good as the lead, but Jennifer Jason Leigh really holds the screen as a scientist leading the expedition into “The Shimmer,” a region affected by a meteor strike, resulting in mutation of plants and animals.
Like The Zone in Tarkovsky’s STALKER, The Shimmer is a place of wild vegetation. This being a Hollywood flick, there are also mutated animals a.k.a. monsters. The encounters with these are highlights. I can imagine people talking about movies they’ve seen bringing this up, and in less than ten seconds someone says, “And what about that BEAR thing? That was messed up!”
This has a small cast for a movie with such scale. That the team is made up of women is brought up and dispensed with in probably three seconds. We get snapshots of each of these people and understand who they are and why they’re interested in The Shimmer.
Where the movie goes off for me is in the reaching of the heart of The Shimmer. STALKER dealt with this issue by not penetrating the mystery, and making the reasons why the characters choose to NOT go into the room they’ve come to see the whole point–WHY would they not go in? You can only play that card so many times, though. ANNIHILATION climaxes with an encounter with the alien life inside The Shimmer, in a kind of biological version of the 2001 Star Gate sequence. Like another Tarkovsky, SOLARIS, the alien is TRULY alien; unlike something like STAR TREK, here the alien remains totally Other and incomprehensible. After discovering what happened/is happening to those who tried to explore The Shimmer before her, Portman confronts and interacts with the alien/aliens. We’re left with an “Is she or isn’t she?” ending, but it was like Garland shrugged and said, “Whatever.”
Worth seeing? Definitely. A masterpiece I’m too slow to grasp? Probably. But there’s something missing that makes ANNIHILATION feel thin, to me.