Sometimes cinematic adaptations are conversations with source material rather than direct representations.
No recent film more exemplifies this idea than Alex Garland’s bold, metaphysical and just plain weird “Annihilation,” adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s book, the first in his “Southern Reach” trilogy.
The result is a deeply challenging, big budget, female-driven sci-fi film, which begs a question — how did this get made? Films as singularly adventurous as this don’t come around often.
VanderMeer’s book is obtuse, meditative, mysterious and transfixing.It suggests and hints at possibilities that are far greater and wilder than the characters encounter in the plot, requiring the reader to make those connections, to fill in the gaps.
Garland, who adapted the screenplay, takes the premise, characters and larger ideas of VanderMeer’s book, and interprets them in his own story to bring an almost unfilmable novel to the big screen as a sci-fi epic. (It has reportedly been criticized by studio execs as being “too intellectual.”)
“Annihilation” follows a group of female scientists who set out on what is essentially a suicide mission to a top-secret location known as Area X, where a shimmering energetic border has appeared, cordoning off an amorphous portion of wilderness, changing its landscape.
There is no communication in or out, and in three years, no previous missions have returned. Having tried groups of military men, they’re trying out women scientists.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist, professor and former soldier. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), went missing in Area X for a year before he returned, changed, subdued, and falls violently ill. She joins the latest mission hoping to search for whatever might have changed him, for the traces of him he left behind.
She’s part of a group including medic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), geothermal scientist Cass (Tuva Novotny) and a taciturn psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They’re going to enter “The Shimmer,” go to the lighthouse, collect data and return (though that seems unlikely, based on the track record).
What happens in The Shimmer is where Garland diverges from VanderMeer’s tale. Time and space tilts once they enter. It is stunningly beautiful, a vibrant, dripping rainforest swamp overflowing with bright flowers and fungi. Hazy light pierces, signaling always the presence of the lighthouse.
But it seems to alter time, too. They lose whole days of memory, and the wildlife is increasingly intoxicating, dangerous and threatening. Great beasts leap out of the dark, their roars carrying a distinct human tone.
The group finds remnants of the previous missions and harrowing video tapes. Always the question remains: Did something kill them, or did they go crazy and kill each other?
This is a basic question that returns again and again, and it lays the foundation for the themes of existential paranoia that Garland dives into during the last act of “Annihilation.”
The title refers to total destruction, but what’s happening isn’t destruction but transformation, mutation. Does a sense of self survive a mutation? Does your soul?
Garland splays these big ideas brazenly, grounding them in Portman’s performance as grieving widow, curious scientist and fierce warrior.
She must confront the memory of her husband again and again as she traces his journey through steps that have fragmented, rooted and rot. She digs and delves inside to find an answer, and discovers the only way through is within.
Film Fest Highlights
Here are some favorites of the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival’s directors. All films will show between March 22 and 25. For more details, see sebdocs.org.
“Almost Heaven”: An observational film that follows a 17-year-old Chinese girl training to become a mortician in one of China’s largest funeral homes, 72 minutes. 11:45 a.m. March 24 at the Rialto.
“Among Wolves”: An intimate portrait of a biker club in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 87 minutes. 2:15 p.m. March 25 at the Rialto.
“Bee Nation”: Follows the challenges and triumphs of six students competing in Canada’s inaugural First Nations spelling bee, 81 minutes. 7 p.m. March 23 at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.
“The Cinema Travelers”: Honored at Cannes, traces India’s traveling films as they reach distant villages in what may be their last days due to today’s ubiquity of technology, 96 minutes. 5 p.m. March 24 at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.
“City of Joy”: Traces a group of girls who suffered unspeakable abuse as they reclaim their lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 74 minutes. 7:30 p.m. March 23 at the Rialto.
“Donkeyote”: Follows a rural Spanish man who comes to the U.S to walk the historic Trail of Tears — with his pet donkey. “It’s charming and sweet,” said festival director Desiree Andrews, “a really good example of a film you’ll see at this festival and nowhere else,” 86 minutes. 7:15 p.m. March 23 at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.
“Knife Skills”: Witnesses the launch of an upscale restaurant in Cleveland, staffed by ex-cons. Nominated for an Academy Award for documentary short subject, 40 minutes. 12:15 p.m. March 24 and 1:15 p.m. March 25 both at the Rialto.
“Letters from Baghdad”: Tells the story of Gertrude Bell who some say was as influential as Lawrence of Arabia and shaped Iraq’s destiny after World War I, 95 minutes. 7:30 p.m. March 24 at the Rialto.
“Negative Space”: Oscar-nominated short about a son and his frequent-flier father who teaches the boy how to pack light and tight. At his father’s funeral the protagonist sees his father “laid out in this big carton” and thinks: “Look at all that wasted space.” 6 minutes, 6:15 p.m. March 23, 6:30 p.m. March 24 and 1:15 p.m.March 25, all at the Rialto.
“Rebels on Pointe”: The closing film, is a cinéma vérité documentary featuring Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the all-male ballet company with a cult following, 90 minutes. 4 p.m. March 25 at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.