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March 22, 2019

Annihilation Movie Poster Alex Garland

Annihilation: the novel, the movie… two reviews in one.

This post contains minor spoilers. Despite similarities in theme and tone, the book and movie have very different plots. Both will be lightly discussed here.

What happens when a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist walk into a government quarantine zone? It’s not a bad joke — it’s the set up for Annihilation. 2018 saw the release of Annihilation, a film by Alex Garland and spiritual companion piece to the 2014 novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. Both present science fiction tales of the highest order revolving around scientific expeditions that go sideways.

The Novel (2014)

Area X is an isolated and uninhabited area thought to be some sort of disaster site that receives frequent visitation by government-sanctioned research teams. These teams often come to grief of some sort and, when they do return to their homes, seem fundamentally changed. The biologist, our narrator, joins one of these teams after her husband returns from an earlier expedition and dies not long after.

The biologist enters Area X with her team and discovers several odd phenomena. One of which is a tower that, for some reason, her team will only refer to as a “tunnel.” Perhaps this is because the tunnels extends below ground, rather than up from it, even though it is more structurally similar to a tower than a tunnel. Frustrating. I feel for her. Anyway, as they descend into the tower, they notice words seemingly printed along the walls on the way down. Upon closer examination, the words written with living organisms, rather than ink. They change, fade, molt, go through an indecipherable life cycle… and they are oddly poetic. What is writing them?

That’s just one of many mysteries broached in VanderMeer’s novel, along with an oddly adorned lighthouse on the far end of Area X and a propensity to see unmistakable flashes of humanity in decidedly inhuman subjects. As we learn through the biologist’s interactions with her team, and from journal entries recorded on previous expeditions, many of the individuals who enter Area X seem content with the idea that their mission may well be their final act — like they are looking to “go out in grand fashion.”

Fateful bleakness aside, paranoia and a taste of dystopia join the mix. It is at least hinted at that the single-mindedness of some of the expedition members over the years has been influenced by government foul play. It is more than hinted at that hypnotic suggestion has been used to coerce team members into cooperative states of mind. In addition to the hypnosis revelation, the team functions are marked by a notable lack of teamwork. Members do not refer to one another by name, are spoon fed only the most pertinent information, and are reluctant to even share basic observations for fear of having their mental state scrutinized.

The biologist does not totally fit the mold of someone looking for one final adventure. She is characterized in the story by her fascination with the delicate balance of ecosystems — be it in remote locations she was grant-funded to study, or in her neglected childhood swimming pool. It is safe to say that what drove her to explore Area X was a combination of discovering the systemic makeup of this mysterious land, and a desire to understand the effect this place had on her husband. She is an exquisitely observed character.

Even in a brief 200-or-so pages, the story expands outward into subjects including alien life, government cover ups, and doppelgangers, but it all coheres into a unique and satisfying reading experience.

Annihilation Book Cover Jeff VanderMeer

The Film (2018)

The film (available on Amazon Prime Video as of this writing), was written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina) and stars Natalie Portman as Lena, the biologist. There are minor cosmetic differences from the novel — the expedition comprises five people instead of four, Area X is referred to as “The Shimmer” because of the bubble-like boundary around the territory, etc. — but the mood is reproduced quite clearly.

When Lena’s husband returns home from his expedition, he behaves strangely and is eventually rushed to the hospital. They are intercepted en route by government vehicles, and at this point, Lena learns about and decides to join up with the next expedition. The expedition itself is almost entirely geared toward investigating a lighthouse, and the members encounter mysteriously hybridized predators (including a cool-looking alligator with teeth arranged in shark-like rows) along the way.

Certain core elements of the novel are more or less dropped from the movie — the tower, the Crawler, the hypnosis — although, the way the film is structured, it’s not difficult to imagine that those elements are all still lingering in the subtext or just off screen. Garland has said his adaptation of the novel was an “echo,” based on what he retained from a single reading. That description feels about right. The stories share a lot of DNA even though the film makes choices about what to retain or de-emphasize.

“Annihilation” is a theme discussed by characters in the film. It crops up several times when discussing the many ways in which people tend to cause their own undoing — whether through self-sabotage, a primal death-drive or something else. In the novel, the title has a more sinister meaning that is relevant to the plot, but I’ll leave that as a surprise for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. Several expedition members display a sense of detachment from their past lives, giving them fateful auras that parallel those in the novel. Lena’s not resigned to any fate, and is on quite a personal mission. She is compelled to enter The Shimmer for personal reasons stemming from her relationship to her husband, which seems to make her a different case.

Lena and her husband had a rocky relationship and she seems to want to get back on the same page as him and reunite with him in some fashion. Hardly self-annihilating, but Lena does turn the theme on its ear by seeking to reinvent herself as something that can be close with her husband again. Annihilation and rebirth seem to go well together, existentially speaking. The expeditions in the novel and film come to different endings, which is probably the most significant divergence tonally. Where the film was adapted as a singular exercise in tone, the novel is the first in a three-book series, so this divergence is understandable, and the two still compliment each other nicely.

VanderMeer’s story is thoughtful and compelling, and it was blast to experience it in two different media. The movie is great and one of my personal favorites from 2018, but it’s hard not to associate the title with some of the elements that are only present in the novel. Recommended either way for your sci-fi consuming pleasure.

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