“The man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”
This is the opening line of Stephen King's magnum opus, The Dark Tower - a sprawling fantasy series that took decades for the author to finish and ended up spanning nine stories (ten if you count The Eyes of the Dragon). King took pieces of pop culture, plus folklore he was inspired by - from Arthurian legend, to Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series, to numerous horror and crime influences - and mashed them all together into a singular instance of magnificent refraction. It's the author's defining work because King becomes the prism through which all this disparate pulp DNA is filtered through, resulting in one of the ultimate pieces of epic storytelling. At its center is the titular monolith: a keystone holding many universes together, whose interior possibly contains the secret behind all existence.
"The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats."
So begins Jeff VanderMeer's "Southern Reach” Trilogy, as its initial novel Annihilation details an all-female expedition to reach this tower, a lighthouse that’s been hit by a meteor. However, fans of VanderMeer’s novel will recognize right off the bat that writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) has taken the text and re-molded it into a beast of his own creation. Just as King had purified his own fascinations into his ultimate sprawling masterwork, Garland has plucked multiple strains from the cinematic gene pool and spliced them together to create a peak piece of big studio science fiction. Using the largest canvas possible, the sophomore director has painted a masterpiece of cerebral sci-fi that's both gorgeous and terrifying, familiar yet totally alien once we reach the final reel. In short, it's a singular act of ambitious big budget moviemaking that's as challenging as it is thrilling.
Unlike the novel, there’s more narrative groundwork laid before the bulk of the story kicks off - an emotional deepening of characters' backstories. Meanwhile, several locations are missing, and an entirely altered climax caps Annihilation. Even in the most basic sense, Garland makes the movie his own, as the women - who number five instead of four on screen - are given names, instead of being defined simply by the vocations they're chosen in life. The Biologist is Lena (a stellar Natalie Portman), who's also a former soldier (marking her as this story's "gunslinger"). The Psychologist is Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The Surveyor is Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson). The Anthropologist is omitted completely, replaced with bold paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and sensitive explorer Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). Even the dynamic between the women has changed, as they're much funnier - bringing a sense of cold gallows humor that VanderMeer's text could've possibly benefitted from.
Those who're coming to Garland's film familiar with VanderMeer's novel will also note that the ambiguous interiority of his narrative has been externalized and streamlined, nearly hammered flat via the adaptation process. Told via a series of flashbacks after Lena survives her ordeal, she relays the tale of the search party's exploration of the Shimmer: a force field surrounding the lighthouse crash site that slowly begins to expand, its ever-increasing radius threatening to engulf cities, states, and so on. Lena's husband - a black ops specialist named Kane (Oscar Isaac) - disappeared over a year ago after his squad entered the glimmering realm, never to be heard from again. After Kane emerges - his body rapidly deteriorating from whatever strange radiation he'd just been exposed to - Lena is taken into Area X: a top secret scientific station that's dispatched multiple missions inside the Shimmer. Following the failure of many men, it's the women's turn, and Lena joins up with them, while keeping her connection to the previous military voyagers a secret for fear of creating emotional discord.
Before we move any further into the movie's basic narrative mechanics, it should be stated that Garland - with the aid of Ex Machina cinematographer Rob Hardy - has crafted an utterly stunning work of visual cinema. Annihilation is segmented into chapters, each named after a new location and photographed with an eye for both distinction and unity. Lena's home is fastidiously arranged for cold comfort, shafts of sunlight filtering in through the windows and illuminating intense instances of the grieving spouse's loneliness. The interior of Area X is sterile and unforgiving, each room symmetrical and inescapable. The exterior of the Shimmer’s realm is an impossibly green rainforest, Hardy’s camera drifting over blades of tall grass and in-between trees, catching the sun at just the right angle to create blinding lens flares. The days are majestically sunny, and when the sun dips, the sky becomes a palette of purples and oranges. By the time we reach the tower - where this otherworldly force seems to be radiating from – we’re gliding along the surrounding beach, stopping to admire crystal trees that have inexplicably sprouted from the sand. Every frame is gorgeous and textured, immersive while simultaneously alienating.
Equally impressive is Annihilation’s creature design, as the pulsing core of the Shimmer’s wonder is its ability to create new life forms, pulling elements from every organism in the environment and then fusing them into novel beautifully malevolent species. An alligator is deformed into a brutish super beast, rows of teeth resembling the mouth of a shark. A hulking bear wears part of its skull on the outside, the source of its haunting, distorted shriek utterly blood-chilling. Silvery deer grow constantly mutating flowers from their horns. These anomalies are incredibly detailed, but also never feel lifelike. That’s because Garland’s Shimmer is a perplexing anti-reality: a glittery oasis where genetic reconfiguration is in a constant rotation, never slowing down for our human hosts to fully comprehend its overwhelming power as they tour it with a mixture of awe and dread.
Scoring this haunting safari is a strange mixture of folk guitar, followed by deep bass electronic rumbles, courtesy of Ben Salisbury and Portishead's Geoff Darrow. At first, the strumming is disarmingly soothing, adding this odd nuevo hippie veneer to the proceedings that clashes with the near future sci-fi surface. But once we're in the heart of the Shimmer, the organic guitar gives way to manufactured blips, bloops, and indescribable, intestine-shaking synth twists that become characters unto themselves. Like Ex Machina - which Salisbury and Darrow also lent their sonic touches to - Garland is using the music as an extension of the picture’s themes, relying on the OST to elevate certain moments with brash confidence.
Beyond all else, what truly sets Annihilation apart from just about every studio sci-fi movie made within the last thirty or so years is its climax, which forgoes the traditional action beats the movie is working toward in favor of a psychedelic dissolution of the human body, reforming characters' molecules and using them to act out a literal dance of life and death. Convention is tossed out the window, replaced with an eye-popping treatise on the very nature of conception itself. Suddenly, the icky creature feature that wasn't afraid to literally tear one player's face off in a fit of splattery rage is now stepping into a pure cinema realm, Annihilation's own dark tower allowing its machine gun-toting biologist to meet a newly invented nemesis that's still studying the basic movements of its unwitting parents. Where the rest of Garland's movie is soundly made pulp, the final twenty-or-so minutes are a transcendent filmic experience, bravely disregarding any audience expectation (not to mention the text its adapting) in favor of operating on its own wavelength.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. James Cameron’s Aliens. David Cronenberg’s The Fly. These are just a few of the influences astute audience members will pick up on as they watch Garland’s film swirl and transfigure before their eyes. It’s a spectacularly intoxicating cocktail, assured in both its own stimuli, as well as the viewer’s ability to keep up with its constant transmutations. Just as King’s famous fantasy series could suddenly change at the drop of the dime, Annihilation isn’t afraid to allow for multiple digressions and pit stops for both visceral action and gut-churning body horror, its inspirations acting as sign posts along the way. In short, it’s equally pulpy and heady, cutting to black on a note that’s delightfully vague. Should Garland somehow manage to continue venturing into the Southern Reach - though the studio’s lack of confidence in his brilliant final product doesn’t bode well for further adventures - here’s hoping the writer/director continues to use VanderMeer’s text as a jumping off point for his own creative whims, using his artistic intellect as a sieve, through which even bigger picture sci-fi is strained.