"Annihilation" is a new sci-fi thriller from acclaimed writer/director Alex Garland ("Ex Machina"), based on the 2014 novel of the same name. When evaluating film adaptations of books, it can often be difficult to separate your feelings on the source material from the film's execution of events. It becomes all too easy to pick apart an adaptation because of inaccuracies to the book or casting decisions that do not reflect the reader's mental image of a given character, and so forth. Adapting books to screen, particularly a book like "Annihilation", which is focused on the main character's internal thoughts, is a difficult process and it is more useful to determine its measure of success on how closely the film captures the general idea and spirit of the source material rather than its accuracy of minutiae. On that note, the film adaptation of "Annihilation" fails both at capturing the spirit of the novel while also failing to work as a compelling thriller in its own right.
The film is told in flashbacks as Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist, is interviewed in a government facility. She is the only surviving member of a group of five scientists who were sent to investigate a large swath of land known only as "the shimmer", an area subject to strange phenomena and from which no previous expedition had returned. Lena, it is revealed, was recruited onto the team after her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), inexplicably appeared in her home a year after his own expedition team disappeared in the shimmer. Both the government and Lena are want to find out what happened to Kane's team and why he is suddenly suffering from multiple organ failure after his return from the shimmer. As Lena and the expedition team venture into the shimmer, they notice strange mutations in the flora and fauna, and begin to wonder if these mutations may be affecting them as well. After finding video footage of Kane's team mutilating a mutated crew member, Lena's expedition team begins to descend into paranoia as they advance toward their assigned destination point, a lighthouse.
The biggest problem I have with "Annihilation" is its lack of drive. There is never a sense of urgency in the story. The expedition team merely wanders from point to point, discovering clues at random intervals. Their destination is a lighthouse, but there is no urgency in the plot to get there. Even as the scientists are picked off by mutant creatures and the forces present in the shimmer, there is no sense of increased tension or rising action. We know that Lena will be the only survivor since she is recounting the story in flashbacks, which further hampers any chance at suspense. In particular, there is a scene in which the crew is attacked by a mutated bear creature. It is difficult to remain invested in the proceedings because we already know Lena will make it out alive; it is merely a question of which of the other scientists will get eaten, and the movie hardly cares enough about the supporting characters for me to care either. The other four members of the expeditions are varying degrees of bland, with a particularly underwhelming performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh. I think she was attempting reserved stoicism, but it comes across like she is half-asleep for most of her scenes.
My other issue with "Annihilation" is its lack of atmosphere. The shimmer is supposed to be uncanny and off-putting, a subtle distortion of normality. Unfortunately the production design team took that to mean "make everything look like an oil slick rainbow". The movie is an eyesore, full of garish colors and lens flares. Hardly what I would call unsettling. Even the mutated plants and animals are underwhelming. There is fluorescent-colored lichen every now and then, and some weird flowers. How spooky. The creature design is limited to "what if regular animals had more teeth than normal, or maybe a skull face?". The concept of the uncanny, that not-quite-right unease, is a difficult one to achieve in movies, but "Annihilation" does not even try to make an attempt.
I wanted to like "Annihilation". The book is full of interesting ideas and an unsettling atmosphere, but is too vague on many key plot details to really work as a whole. I had hoped that the film adaptation could improve on the novel's weaknesses and strengthen the ill-defined details, all while maintaining the creepy atmosphere of the uncanny and paranoia. While the film certainly does restructure the book (to the point where it barely resembles it), it does so in a way that does not improve upon the novel's structural issues. The flashbacks-within-flashbacks in the film are somehow even clunkier than the regular flashbacks in the novel. "Annihilation" is a film that does not work as an adaptation nor as a standalone work. I wish the movie had been better, but like many other book adaptations before it, maybe "Annihilation" just was not meant to be adapted to the screen.