By Noel Vera
METEOR flashes across the sky, strikes base of lighthouse; Special Forces husband presents himself to his 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 12th such effort after the previous 11 (save for one notable survivor — the aforementioned Special Forces soldier) failed to return.
Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Alex Garland’s second feature Annihilation — basically a loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s debut novel, even more ambitious and ruinously bizarre than his first.
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 in bizarre combinations, 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 his own 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 movies — only Garland fails to arrive at a proper synthesis and one’s affection for those books and movies takes over, like a creeping affliction.
Take Tarkovsky’s Stalker, about a band of frightened explorers crawling across an enigmatic landscape. Tarkvosky didn’t need CGI, though he could easily have used the matte techniques of the time; he sculpted light and shapes, stone and leaf to suggest a landscape both familiar and alien. His careful pacing this side of soporific and cautiously spare sound design (silence, silence and more silence) lend the lush fields and pebbly streams and abandoned ruins an eerie 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 believe, little actual relevance; the filmmaker chose the bleakest, most polluted surroundings to evoke an overgrown yet thoroughly polluted environment, choked full of vines and grass yet suggesting lifelessness. 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 adapting him to disastrous results; David Cronenberg attempted Ballard’s most audacious novel Crash (about a man’s growing obsession with the link between sex and car crashes) and while the results are more successful, they, in my book, are still less than satisfactory (music critic Phil Freeman once suggested using porn stars performing unsimulated sex). Ben Wheatley is the latest hotshot filmmaker ambitious enough to take on the writer and while he also comes tantalizingly close still no cigar.*
Ballard? But of course. The abandoned buildings; the drained swimming pools; the slowly crystallizing landscape; the inexplicably 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.
It’s this strange lack of momentum, of narrative drive that makes Ballard so difficult to translate (fact is I doubt if we should call his works “novels” — booklong poetry perhaps?) and I submit that it’s this same spirit Garland badly wants to emulate, and only halfheartedly succeeds. Ballard lives or dies not on the soundness of his plotting (What plot?) or persuasiveness of his characters’ psychology but on the serene surreality of his prose.
Oh, Garland approximates that prose here, there: a dying man’s still-living monument at the bottom of a swimming pool; a topiary of frozen, faintly human figures; a creature bellowing with haunting familiarity in the night. But for every moment of genuine strangeness Garland suffers a severe case of weakened knees and falls back on more familiar horrors: firefights, animal attacks, a party member’s growing paranoia, found footage (the last gimmick feeling particularly worn).
One derives no particular pleasure in bashing this movie — the film barely made a dent in the box office despite generally good notices, and Garland (especially with his Ex Machina) seems interesting enough a filmmaker that you want to see him move on to other projects — but Annihilation is good enough and ambitious enough and original enough (despite all the influences) that your expectations may have been raised. It whets the appetite so you wish it were better.
* If you ask me, I’d say Mamoru Oshii was the most successful 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 a boy.