I am a big fan of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. I like the mounting sense of personal disintegration as the primary source of both horror and release. The announcement of a film version of the first book Annihilation was intriguing. It certainly was a book that would gain from a visual expression of the wild and mysterious Area X nut it wasn’t at all clear if the intentionally obtuse and unresolvable plot would work as a drama.
The film (which had a very limited cinema release in the US and then a Netflix release internationally) is a different creature than the book. Events have been changed, plot elements removed, characters adjusted and the structure of the story altered. All of which seems to have been a good idea. The film carries the same sense of paranoia and wonder as the book and the same theme of people trying to cope when confronted with the incomprehensible. However, it has been remade into its own thing – a story with its own structure and characters that shares DNA with the book but which follows its own course.
The essence of the plot is the same. A section of coastline in the southern United States has become transformed by an unknown phenomenon. A government agency has been charged with keeping this event under wraps and given the task of investigating it. The most recent attempt to explore ‘Area X’ is a team of women with military and scientific equipment. Once in Area X they experience strange events some of which may be psychological as they attempt to find a key landmark – a lighthouse which may be the centre from which all the weirdness is spreading.
Where the book drops straight into Area X with the individuals in the team known only by their profession, the film frames the story with elements taken from the later books – a flash forward in which the central character (played by Natalie Portman) is interrogated and a flashback to her motives for joining the expedition and her previous life with her soldier husband (Oscar Issac being handsomely weird).
The film doesn’t offer any more clear answers than the books did but there’s a more conventional story arc. The connections with similar territory-as-character stories such as Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film of Solaris and Tarkovosky’s later film Stalker are clearer than the book, as well as tapping into the ‘Lost Patrol’ style story of a military expedition being picked off one by one.
Visually it is wonderful. The boundary aka ‘shimmer’ is a swirling liquid refraction of light and that same theme of refracted light carries through the film. The plant life (both real and imagined) is shot lovingly making Area X look like it should -beautifully fecund but with a menacing sense of growth and strangeness. The animal life similarly shifts from wonderful to horrific but with a strong visual connection between the elements.
I don’t know if people who found the novel frustratingly obscure will like the movie any better but they might. There are fewer mind games and there is less piecing together what has happened and more of a sense of what Area X might be. The film doesn’t seem to be set up for a sequel – which is a shame in so far as Authority was a really interesting way to do a sequel without being anything like the first book except in that same sense of a mounting loss of identity.
Weird, scary, horrific and beautiful.