Annihilation: Sci-Fi Thriller Starring Natalie Portman Has Scary Monsters, But Maybe Not the Kind You Expect

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With apologies to Natalie Portman, the star of Alex Garland’s upcoming Paramount movie, Annihilation, has to be the primal forces of nature itself.

The film is an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Nebula Award-winning book, Annihilation,  which is about a strange coastal locale known as Area X, enclosed by a guarded barrier and investigated by a vague government agency called The Southern Reach. The book opens as a biologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor enter this unknown, altered environment.

Their expedition is not the first, but it’s the first made up of only women, for reasons that are never fully explained unless you count that the women were “chosen by a complex set of variables.” In the book, the women do not know each other’s names. Nor do they carry anything more technologically advanced than notebooks and pens, because previous expeditions with cameras and computers (and names) met with disaster.

Trailers for the movie, which was released theaters this past weekend, include quick glimpses of a fang-toothed monster, but the book is less definite. Before they cross the border into Area X, the women are hypnotized ‘to make sure we remain calm,’ says the biologist, the book’s narrator (played by Natalie Portman in the movie). How reliable is a hypnotized narrator, anyway?

Area X’s unsettling nature chills to the bone. ‘Long ago, towns had existed here, and we encountered eerie signs of habitation,’ writes the biologist in her diary. ‘Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk.’

Adding to the mystery of Area X are the reports of previous expeditions. The first found a pristine wilderness. Other expeditions were decimated. Some didn’t return at all. The biologist’s husband, a member of one of the last teams, came back seriously ill. The biologist may have ulterior motives for following in her husband’s footsteps.

In interviews, VanderMeer has said that Annihilation, the book, was inspired by a dream. “I was walking down a spiraling staircase in a tunnel, and words were written on the wall, made from living material,” said the author in a recent The Watch podcast. Enamored of the wildlife and wilderness of North Florida, VanderMeer said he aimed for the horrifying feeling of being lost in a thunderstorm in the woods.

‘Area X is a distillation of the raw power and sublimity of nature,’ says Katherine Bishop, an assistant professor of literature at Miyazaki International College in Japan. She’s spoken on Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation is Book 1) at conferences, including the Science Fiction Research Association, for which she serves as Web director.

‘Area X is nature reminding humans that we are not outside of it, nor is it outside of us, that humans and nature do and must coexist,’ says Bishop, who is co-editing a collection of essays titled Speculative Vegetation: Plants in Science Fiction.

In Annihilation, “there are moments that unsettle the seemingly normal connection between what things and people are called, and what and who they are, in a way that the film may have difficulty matching,” says Bishop.

“It’s difficult to leave a viewer suspended in uncertainty in a visual medium, the way one can hold a reader. The impossibility of fully knowing Area X does such important work in the novel: it pushes ideas of nature and wilderness and ecology against our constructions of them in a way that makes what we think we know—and how we know it—feel uncanny.”

Director Alex Garland had great success creating otherworldliness in his earlier “Ex Machina,” in which Alicia Vikander plays a robot with surprising human qualities. In “The Watch” podcast, VanderMeer says the director gave “Annihilation” a mind-blowing ending that promises to be the topic of many water cooler conversations to come. Visually amazing, VanderMeer says, the film is even “more surreal than the book, which is kind of hilarious.”


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Joanna Poncavage had a 30-year career as an editor and writer for Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine and The (Allentown, Pennsylvania) Morning Call newspaper. Author of several gardening books, she’s now a freelance journalist.

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