SCREENPLAY REVIEW – ANNIHILATION
This is a very old review (from 2015) of Alex Garland’s Version 10 screenplay I came across on the site below. (SPOILERS BELOW)
Extracted from website link below:
Screenplay Review – Annihilation
Genre: Sci-fi Thriller
Premise: A young biologist is recruited on a mission into a mysterious energy field that threatens to destroy the planet.
About: Writer Alex Garland has blessed us with some of the best sci-fi of the last 10 years. He wrote Ex Machina, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd, and even adapted mega-project, Halo, before the 67 lawyers and producers representing the 13 companies involved in the film blew the thing up. In short, if you have a sci-fi project, Alex Garland is one of the first guys you call. This time, just like he did on Ex Machina, he’s writing AND directing. Annihilation was adapted from the novel of the same name. It is being referred to as the first book in the “Southern Reach” trilogy, which means nothing to me at the moment, but will hopefully make sense at the end of the review. It will star Natalie Portman.
Writer: Alex Garland – Jeff VanderMeer
Details: 126 pages (version “10” according to the title page, whatever that means)
Longtime screenwriter Alex Garland stormed onto the directing scene early this year, writing and directing one of the best indie films of 2015, Ex Machina. How did he parlay his writing into such a deftly directed first film? By, um, not giving a shit about directing apparently! Garland’s gone on record as saying he doesn’t like directing nor does he care about it. To him, it’s all about the writing. Spoken like a true screenwriter.
With that said, you have to wonder why someone who isn’t into directing has agreed to direct another movie so quickly, and a big one at that. My guess is that the salary bump from writer to director is enough to make even the most reluctant writer reevaluate. And hey, spending three months in close-quarters with five beautiful woman doesn’t sound like such a bad gig.
Biologist Lena Kerans, who specializes in cancer research, is struggling through the most difficult time of her life. Her soldier husband went missing in battle over a year ago, and Lena hasn’t been able to move on.
Then, one day, inexplicably, her husband (Kane) returns home. Kane has no memory of how he got here and no memory of where he’s been. When Lena rushes him to the hospital, a government motorcade intercepts them, and the next thing Lena knows, she’s waking up in a military base.
Eventually, she meets Dr. Ventress, who informs Lena that they’re off the coast of Florida where a large growing anomaly is taking over the area. Within a few years, it will extend down into Mexico. Within a decade, it will usurp the entire planet. Great, Lena says. Now where the fuck is my husband?
Ventress explains that her husband is being kept on life support, and with the anomaly approaching, they’ll have to desert the base soon. If that happens, they will have to leave Kane, as he’s in too fragile a state to be transferred.
It just so happens that Ventress is going on one last mission with a group of three woman into the anomaly to see if they can figure it out. We gradually learn that Kane was on one of the former missions inside the anomaly and that he’s one of only two men who made it out alive.
Naturally, since her husband’s life is on the line, Lena demands to be a part of the mission. And she makes a good case for herself. She’s a biologist, and this growing anomaly is basically a cancer. Maybe she can help.
Ventress agrees, and the team of five women head inside. Once in, they notice that everything is both the same yet different. The animals (gators!) are twice as big. The plants are twice as exotic. And time doesn’t seem to exist wherever they’re at. But when they come across video of Kane’s old team, they begin to realize just how dangerous this anomaly is, and that just like everyone else who’s ventured into this bubble, they’re probably not making it out alive.
“Annihilation” asks a pretty interesting question. What if the earth got cancer? What if a mutation started to spread and expand to the point where the earth itself died? That’s a great sci-fi question. But it also teeters on the edge of “3 A.M.” idea territory. You can almost smell the pot wafting through the outline’s pores.
Indeed, I can hear the echoes of someone nicknamed “Lugnuts” ingesting an epic bong hit and wondering aloud, “And what if, like, all the animals were, like, TWICE AS BIG,” to which he receives a smattering of delayed approvals, peppered with the occasional pot-cough-slash-laugh. Surely, a pizza will be ordered soon, charged to whichever member of the group is getting his entire tuition paid for by daddy.
Okay, that may be a cheap shot. But Annihilation does suffer from a case of the over-idea. It’s the price you pay when you go from something contained and clear, like Ex Machina, to something sprawling and ambitious, like this. You gain scope and complexity. But you’re forced to juggle more balls. Which means a better chance of those balls falling.
But I’m not here to judge (okay, maybe a little). I’m here to observe. And one of the first things I observed was the concept of “mystery replacement.” When you write a script like Annihilation, where the first act is centered around a mystery (a growing field that people go into and never come out of), you’ve set yourself up for a front-loaded movie. That is, once you show the audience what’s inside the bubble, they’ve got nothing left to look forward to besides the next bong hit.
Because the entire first act is predicated on the mystery of this unexplainable phenomenon, Annihilation is a prime candidate for front-loaded status. Luckily, there’s a solution to this. Every time you answer a giant mystery in your script, you replace it with either another giant mystery, or a series of smaller mysteries. VanderMeer and Garland do a good job with this. Once we’re inside the phenomenon, new questions start arriving. Giant animals. Grotesquely altered humans. What happened to Lena’s husband’s team?
I also want to commend Garland on the structure, which is one of the first things beginner screenwriters must learn before they can make the move to the more complex aspects of storytelling, like character development and theme. So instead of sending our characters into this big anomaly blob and “seeing what happens,” (a common mistake I see a lot), Garland immediately establishes a goal. Get to the lighthouse. The lighthouse is where the anomaly began, so by that logic, that’s where the answers will be.
This may sound like a minor thing, but it’s actually really important. Having a physical destination gives us form and focus. We know where the story needs to go, so we can give in to all the craziness that happens along the way. Had we shown up here and the characters said, “Uh, okay, let’s look around,” we the reader are going to get frustrated quickly. “What’s the point?” we’re going to ask. “Where is this going??”
An overarching goal is a great start. But sub-goals are what really give a script structure. In Annihilation, the characters know they can’t get to the lighthouse in one day, so they create a series of checkpoints they’ll try to make it to each day. Again, this may seem insignificant to the casual screenwriter. But what this is doing is dividing the screenplay into easy-to-follow bite-sized chunks. We know we’re trying to get to A. Let’s see if we can get there without getting killed. Next morning, we have to get to B. Okay, let’s see if we can do that. Then C, and finally D. And, of course, if you’re doing your job, each leg will be more challenging.
Think of these mini-goals as pillars. If you were to place a pillar under the left side, or beginning, of the screenplay, and then place a pillar under the right side, or ending, of the screenplay. What’s going to happen to the middle? It’s going to sag right? So you have to place a series of pillars along the middle section of the script. That’ll keep it from drooping, or worse, falling down completely.
And if structure were all this script were being judged on, I’d give it a good grade. But I also have to judge it on its ideas, which are interesting in some places but muddled in others. The “What if earth got cancer” question is fun. But I’m not sure I understood why plants and humans and animals were meshing into single forms. And why sometimes that meant weird hybrid entities, and while other times it meant dolphins as big as whales. There was an inconsistency there that became frustrating after awhile.
And something smelled fishy about this team being all-female. The explanation we get is that men could potentially be more violent inside the vortex and therefore less likely to survive. The problem with that explanation is that over 500 people have gone into this thing, and only two have gotten out. They were both men. This tells me the all-female team is more a result of that being the hot new thing in books than it is a logical decision. And hey, if you want to go all-female or all-male or even all-horse, that’s fine. But it’s your job as a writer to come up with a legtimate reason for why that’s happening. If you don’t, the suspension of disbelief is broken (note: Suspension of disbelief is broken every time an audience veers out of the movie to ask a logic question: “Wait a minute? Why are they all women? That doesn’t make sense.”)
It’s the same issue I have with the Ghostbusters thing. What’s the reason to go all-female other than that’s the trend? There isn’t a story reason behind it. And if you’re deliberately excluding men from the story, isn’t that just as bad as deliberately excluding women from a story?
But I’m getting off-track here. Must have been that five minutes I spent watching Trump debate earlier. The main point is that Annihilation starts out with an interesting idea, and keeps its story moving swiftly, but once the answers start coming, they do so in unsatisfying muddled ways. With that said, I’m curious what Garland’s first large-scale directing effort will look like. The cinematography as well as the robot concept in Ex Machina were gorgeous, which is reason to stay optimistic.
Thank you @uomo-accattivante. It is Oscar so I will see it. Hopefully his work in the second Star Wars of this third set will give him more recognition.
@losethehours You’re welcome. You need to do whatever it takes to watch this one in the theatre! The small screen won’t do it justice. Some of the visuals are breathtaking!
@uomo-accattivante Thank you for telling that to me! I appreciate it very much. I felt that Garland had done a superlative job with the claustrophobic tone of Ex Machina. He gave us an outside scene for scope then reeled it all in to just that rabbit warren area where Nathan had everything feeling like a prison cell.
I remember thinking it interesting we learn very little of Nathan’s private quarters and his more “social” area was all done up in 13-year-old boy thinks this might be sexy motif.
@losethehours Yeah, his private quarters basically consisted of a computer workstation, a wall of sticky notes, a bed, and a closet of fuckbots. How charming. ??♂️