Meteor flashes across the sky strikes base of lighthouse; Special Forces husband presents himself to wife after an absence of two years; heavily armed scientific expedition walks into the light-and-time distorting perimeter of a jungle afflicted by a mysterious alien force, the twelfth such effort after the previous eleven (save for one notable survivor--the aforementioned Special Forces soldier) failed to return.
Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Alex Garland's second feature--a loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's novel that is if anything more bizarre and ruinously ambitious than his first (the wicked sexy Ex Machina).
The film talks about how the Shimmer--the scientists' term for the prismatically shifting force surrounding the unknowable (and visibly spreading) perimeter--distorts DNA in plants and animals alike creating monstrous combinations. Garland's film appropriately enough does something similar: bits of J.G. Ballard, Andrei Tarkovsky, Virginia Woolfe, John Boorman, Jeff VanderMeer, Francis Ford Coppola and (arguably) Werner Herzog merge and emerge genetically fused and confused, and if this sounds fascinatingly perverse on paper I wish it ended up just as fascinating on the big screen.
Problem is Garland chews mightily, but plant and animal tissue remain stubbornly separate; flavors clash more than combine, the clashing suggesting someone who doesn't quite know what he's doing rather than someone developing a vision from disparate ingredients. Like in the climax of Ratatouille (really Pixar's way of remaking Cooking Master Boy! on a bigger budget) one samples this complicated dish and flashes back to memories of past films--only Garland fails to arrive at a proper synthesis and one's affection for those books and films takes over, like a creeping disease.
Take Tarkovsky's Stalker, about a band of explorers crawling cautiously across an enigmatic landscape. Tarkvosky didn't need CGI though he could easily have used the matte techniques of the time; instead he sculpted light and shapes stone and leaf to suggest a landscape both alien and familiar. His careful pacing this side of soporific and spare sound design (silence silence and more silence) lend the lush fields and pebbly streams and abandoned ruins a quiet menace beyond anything in Garland's film. Tarkovsky filmed near a chemical plant and word has it that the invisibly toxic air and water of the area killed the director and his lead actor--but this little factoid holds I suspect little actual relevance; the filmmaker chose the most polluted of surroundings to evoke an environment both tainted and overgrown, the grounds choked with vines and grass yet somehow barren, prophetic in the way it evokes the lush lifelessness of Chernobyl. Tarkovsky with this film teaches a lesson: silence and stillness evoke death better than any number of glittering light effects and mutated creatures. Silence if you like is death; anything else is disturbing the peace.
Then there's J.G. Ballard. Tough nut to crack, Ballard. Steven Spielberg tried with disastrous results; David Cronenberg took on Ballard's most audacious novel Crash (about a man's growing obsession with sex and car crashes) and while the results are more successful they still feel less than satisfactory (music critic Phil Freeman once suggested using porn stars performing unsimulated sex--don't fully agree but do think there's something to that suggestion). Ben Wheatley came tantalizingly close still no cigar.*
*(If you ask me I'd say aside from Tarkovsky--Stalker feels like Ballard's The Crystal World without a single visible crystal--Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Oshii came closest with his The Sky Crawlers. An indirect adaptation capturing tone and spirit better than any mere narrative (easily the most disposable element in a Ballard novel)--and animated to boot! The filmmaker significantly of the same culture that shaped (warped?) Ballard's psyche when he was young)
Ballard? But of course. The abandoned buildings; the drained swimming pools; the slowly crystallizing landscape; the impassive scientist less interested in solving the crisis or surviving the situation than she (in Ballard's novels mainly a 'he') is in confronting the crisis' main progenitor. Why? We're not sure--we're never sure.
I submit that it's this lack of narrative drive or motivational sense that makes Ballard so difficult to translate (fact is I hesitate to call his longer works 'novels'--booklength poetry perhaps?) and this same spirit Garland badly wants to emulate, only halfway succeeding. Ballard lives or dies not on the soundness of his plotting (What plot?) or character psychology but on the serene surreality of his prose.
O Garland approximates that prose here there: a dying man's still-living monument at the bottom of a swimming pool; a topiary of faintly human figures; a creature bellowing with haunting familiarity in the night. But Garland pays for every moment of genuine strange with a severe attack of weakened knees, falling back on more familiar horrors: firefights, animal attacks, one member's growing paranoia, 'horrifying' found footage (the last gimmick feeling particularly tired).
One derives no particular pleasure in bashing this--the movie barely dented the boxoffice despite generally good notices, and Garland seems an interesting enough filmmaker that you want to see him move on--but Annihilation is good enough and ambitious enough and original enough (despite all the influences) that your expectations may have been raised high enough to be dashed. It whets the appetite so you wish it were better.
First published in Businessworld 3.23.18