The Last Sci-Fi Blog: Why 'Annihilation' is the Perfect Way For Alex Garland to Follow Up 'Ex Machina'

The Last Sci-Fi Blog: Why 'Annihilation' is the Perfect Way For Alex Garland to Follow Up 'Ex Machina'

Jul 21, 2015

When Alex Garland revealed that his next film would be an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's novel Annihilation, the first thing I did was order a copy. After all, if this book was worthy of rousing the interest of the man who directed Ex Machina, then it was surely something worth reading. Having now finished the book in a single marathon session (it's a hard one to put down), I see what Garland saw in the material.

As written, Annihilation is not a movie...but it is a powerful spark that ignites a fire deep within the imagination. This eerie story is science fiction at its most unsettling and horror at its most ambitious. The book itself isn't particularly cinematic, but the possibilities of twisting it, contorting it, and massaging its ideas into a cinematic shape are endless.

Four unnamed scientists, a biologist, a linguist, an anthropologist, and a psychologist, are tasked with exploring "Area X," a strange space where the laws of nature have decided to, well, not play by the rules. They are the twelfth expedition organized by the "Southern Reach," the group tasked with exploring Area X and cataloging its mysteries. Previous expeditions have killed themselves off. The eleventh expedition all made it back home, only to die months later.

Written from the POV of the biologist, the novel is deliberately vague, leaving huge questions unanswered while refusing to elucidate even the basic nature of this bizarre world. Some of this is because the biologist is telling her story to an audience who should already be familiar with the broad strokes (i.e., not us), but there is other, more mysterious issues afoot. Nothing is as it seems. Things go wrong. And things get very uncomfortable. You don't notice just how much dread VanderMeer has slipped under your skin until the final chapter. Annihilation packs more chills into its brisk 195 pages than most books twice its length.

The plot may sound like an adventure story, but Annihilation is a more subtle experience. There are no big set pieces and much of the horror is implied and the biggest ideas are the work of deduction and reasoning rather than actual revelations. This is an intense, personal story where the bulk of the action takes place inside the mind of a scientist who has brought her own baggage, her own damaged psyche, into a deadly situation where answers come at the cost of sanity. This will actually be Garland's biggest challenge in adapting this for the screen -- making the ongoing internal conflict external will require a deft hand.

In an interview with Movies.com's own Peter Hall, Garland has already promised that his adaptation of Annihilation will be totally crazy, which is the only sane way to take on material this strange. In another interview, he made it clear that his screenplay would make some radical changes to the story, a decision that will make sense to anyone who has actually read the book. As engaging as VanderMeer's prose is on the page, there's not a lot of movie there. There's just a tone, an atmosphere of suffocating dread, and a collection of uneasy, vague ideas that I won't discuss because they deserve to be discovered on their own. In other words, Annihilation the novel is putty awaiting a reshaping from a gifted writer/director.

Movie fans have spent the past few years mourning the death of Guillermo del Toro's adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, but Alex Garland's Annihilation may be the film that swoops in and scratches that itch. VanderMeer's story is Lovecraftian to its bones and like Lovecraft's iconic novella, it's all about an expedition that goes too far and learns a little too much. This is a smaller story than del Toro's proposed film, but Annihilation is the closest a 21st century writer has come to capturing the overwhelming dread of Lovecraft. In Annihilation, the horror comes not from monsters, but from the sense that all of mankind's collective knowledge simply isn't enough to understand or combat the unknown. Science, both VanderMeer and Lovecraft seemingly conclude, is our greatest asset and our greatest weakness.

This is an idea also explored in Ex Machina, a film whose chilly atmosphere and smart, subtle character writing prove that Garland is the right man for this job. Put Annihilation on your radar right now.

Categories: News, In Development, Sci-Fi
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