- Paramount Pictures
Upon finishing Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, I would have declared the book unadaptable for film. Heady and dense, the novel refuses to provide many details traditionally expected by the reader, going so far as to leave its characters unnamed.
However, Paramount Pictures nabbed the film rights almost immediately, and director Alex Garland was soon attached. By 2015, Annihilation had won the Nebula Award, its ensuing installments (Authority and Acceptance) were on the shelves, and the movie was well into pre-production.
A bizarre, lush little book, Annihilation follows its protagonist (a biologist played by Natalie Portman in the film) into a mysterious aberration on the natural landscape called Area X. Despite attempts to cordon off and limit the phenomenon, Area X is growing, and consumes all those who enter. Spurred to learn what happened to her husband (Oscar Isaac), she joins an all-female team to foray through the filmy veil that marks Area X’s boundary.
Annihilation is an ambitious next step for Garland, who launched his career with the screenplay for 28 Days Later, but his track record makes him a good match for Vandermeer’s foggy and verdant bio-horror. His 2015 directorial debut, Ex Machina, a brooding thriller centered on a Turing test, starred soon-to-be Star Wars costars Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson. Annihilation was actually filmed simultaneously with The Last Jedi, requiring Isaac to bounce back and forth between the two sets.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a heady sci-fi thriller without some backlash behind the scenes. In December, The Hollywood Reporter broke that producers Scott Rudin (Lady Bird) and David Ellison (Geostorm) butted heads after an early screening of Annihilation, when Ellison demanded that changes be made because the movie was — get ready for it — “too intellectual.” Rudin had control over final cut and was therefore able to prevent studio tampering, but unease arising from this conflict led Paramount to sell the international distribution rights to Netflix.
The movie has also faced accusations of whitewashing due to the fact that the second installment of the trilogy, Authority, reveals that Natalie Portman’s and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s characters are of Asian and indigenous heritage, respectively. Garland has insisted that this discrepancy is a result of his sharp focus on the first novel’s content, which lacks these edifying details. The film does at least feature people of color in prominent roles, including Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Benedict Wong, but this may be cold comfort considering the erasure of the central protagonist’s ethnicity.
Despite these pitfalls, early critical reactions to the film are positive, and whether you’re a fan of Garland and Vandermeer or simply an aficionado of thought-provoking, psychedelic science fiction, you’re sure to be in for a treat.