The visual worldbuilding of Annihilation
At the beginning of the week, I caught a screening of Alex Garland’s new science fiction film, Annihilation. Based on the novel by Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation follows a team of scientists as they explore a strange ecological phenomenon knowns as Area X. I had read the novel, the first in what became The Southern Reach Trilogy, back in 2015 and immediately loved it. I also loved Alex Garland’s — also a novelist before moving to film — just released Ex Machina, a smart sci-fi thriller that explores artificial intelligence, so I was excited to see these two teaming up for a movie adaptation.
The film, however, is vastly different than the book. Where Vandermeer’s interest is in the ecology, Garland interprets the story less as an environmental thriller than as a quiet and disconcerting exploration into depression and human destruction. Annihilation, the film, is less an adaptation, as a new story within the same world as Annihilation, the book. I won’t get into spoilers, but Garland gives our protagonist (Natalie Portman) a backstory we’re never treated to in the book and takes extreme liberties in a brand new ending. But this is not to say I didn’t like it, or that the film is somehow inferior to the book. At the risk of hyperbole, as I watched the dramatic, mind-bending ending, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I left the theater in silence and couldn’t seem to stop thinking about it, days after.
It’s a heavy film, one that certainly demands repeated viewings and I’d like to reread Vandermeer’s original again. But perhaps more than anything, I was completely captivated by Garland’s visual imagination of this world Vandermeer created. It’s s incredibly lush, full of details, and a strangely-natural beauty. We only get glimpses of it in Vandermeer’s original text, but seeing it fully realized — in sight and sound — on a big screen was breathtaking. If nothing else, it’s a feat of world-building, and a world I want to return to again and again.