After Alex Garland’s ambitious and surreal 2015 film Ex Machina, he has taken on another chilling project: adapting part of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy into the film Annihilation. Ex Machina, which garnered Garland a nomination for Best Original Screenplay and which won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects, explores what makes us human and what excludes us from existing in that space. Ex Machina featured Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: the Force Awakens) as a reclusive billionaire intent on perfecting AI, not because he believes that it will improve humanity, but because he wants to be the first person to create it. Fatalistically, he believes that “one day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons…all set for extinction.” Such writing displays the narrative complexity necessary to foster Annihilation‘s transition from text to screen. It seems like VanderMeer’s narrative is in trustworthy hands.
The film centers itself on a team of four women, played by Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Gina Rodriguez (Deepwater Horizon), Tessa Thompson (Creed), and Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight); Isaac will also appear. Portman plays the central character, a biologist, who embarks on an expedition in Area X along with a surveyor, a psychologist, and an anthropologist. Notably in the book, the characters are referred to through their occupations, not their names. They are also not the first group to explore Area X for research purposes. In fact, the biologist’s husband went on an earlier mission. However, their job comes with immense risks and a near-impossible survival rate, with countless explorers dying of cancer.
Much like Ex Machina, the text of Annihilation continually upends the character’s perceptions of their realities. The psychologist is tasked with hypnotizing her fellow expedition members so that she can change their memories. Coupled with the bizarre and terrifying physical landscape of the novel, the emotional geography is also continuously shifting. While Garland has proven that he can handle this level of intricacy, we must wait until the film itself to interpret its quality.
Fans of the Southern Reach trilogy did not have a long wait to find out how the rest of the story unfolded. After VanderMeer’s publisher noted that they didn’t want fans to become disappointed and disillusioned in the time it took for the final two books to come out, the author published his series over only a few months, releasing the books in February, May, and September of 2014. It seems like Garland will have more surprises for fans who have awaited his film. According to VanderMeer himself, the end of the film contains further unexpected thrills. Sadly audiences will not be able to witness this until Annihilation is released in 2018.