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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)
Annihilation directed by Alex Garland (2018)
I have been meaning to watch the movie Annihilation ever since it came out, and unfortunately missed my opportunity to see it in theaters. I recently saw it was based on a book, and it immediately bumped it up to the top of my list!
I almost don’t even know where to begin with this book and movie! I guess I’ll start with the author. VanderMeer is an American author known for creating the writing style called “New Weird”. Annihilation is the first in the Southern Reach trilogy, all of which were released the same year just months apart! This is the first of his books I have read, but I plan on reading the rest of the Southern Reach books as well as some of his others. Finch sounds especially interesting and weird-a crime book that takes place in a city where half of the population are mushroom people.
In a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” someone asked about how he is inspired to write these unique stories and he said, “I’m kind of a method writer–I’ll use any and all of that (not drugs) to get into the right mental space to write from a character’s point of view. So, for example, during writing Authority I went through a period of insomnia and also a period of being a little paranoid. I channeled both things into the character of Control rather than trying to deal with those things. I actually, in an almost actor-ly way accentuated both. I didn’t try to get more sleep–I just used it. You can find there’s more of the world around you that gets pulled into your fiction that way. And there’s a kind of almost evil laugh in the back of a writer’s head, I think, when they encounter setbacks or negative things that your fiction brain realized can be fodder for narrative. You almost exist in two states at once: the one in which it just is horrible you can’t sleep and the other that’s chortling to itself, ‘You’re going to get two good scenes out of this.’ But every writer’s different. I don’t believe writers have to suffer per se to write good fiction, for example.”
I usually begin these with a synopsis, but the book and movie have a very different storyline. They have the same basic premise though, so I’ll start with that.
Synopsis (kind of)
Area X is a mysterious section of land that was taken over by some kind of life form. The Southern Reach Command studies it, and send expedition groups into it, but no one ever returns.
Until the 11th expedition. They all suddenly return straight to their homes. They are not themselves though, and they are all eventually brought back to the Southern Reach command. Each person from that expedition eventually gets cancer and dies.
One of these men, is married to a biologist, and after the death of her husband she volunteers to be part of the next expedition. While in Area X, she sees how nature is taking over in some shocking, weird and sometimes beautiful ways.
Thoughts on the book
This book grabbed me right away. Within 24 hours of starting it, I had finished it. It is written from the perspective of the biologist who is writing in her journal. None of the characters are given names, just called by their title-what they are there to do. There is the biologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist, and the psychologist. Time in Area X differs from time in the normal world, and it seems as though she covers just a few days of her time there, but who knows, maybe in our world it was longer.
Intertwined with her exploring Area X, are flashbacks to her childhood, her marriage, and the training they received before heading out. (Training that was all based on a lie). This is sci-fi, but I really loved the parts where she talked about her relationship with her husband and as the book goes on, she learns more about him and by the end she is closer to him and has an understanding of him she never did before.
When her husband returns home, he is no longer himself. He and the rest of those that return, have a glazed over quality and when asked what they saw, they just say it was beautiful.
While in Area X, the Biologist comes across his journal and while reading it, realizes he directed what he wrote to her. As she reads what he actually experienced, and learns more of who he was, she says, “Slowly, painfully, I realized what I had been reading from the very first words of his journal. My husband had had an inner life that went beyond his gregarious exterior, and if I had known enough to let him inside my guard, I might have understood this fact. Except I hadn’t, of course. I had let tidal pools and fungi that could devour plastic inside my guard, but not him. Of all the aspects of the journal, this ate at me the most. He had created his share of our problems—by pushing me too hard, by wanting too much, by trying to see something in me that didn’t exist. But I could have met him partway and retained my sovereignty. And now it was too late.”
Later in the trilogy we learn more about how Area X began, but in this book, little to no answers are given. Part of me was frustrated, because I wanted to know what had caused this! But this isn’t written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. We find out only what the Biologist finds out. The more I let this story sit with me, the more I liked the lack of knowledge we are given. This lack of information also gives you more incentive to read the other two books where some of these questions are answered. On receiving more answers in the subsequent book, Vandermeer said, “ I do think readers get the answers they want in Acceptance, but you also have to recognize that the series is about grappling with the unknown—that there are limits to our understanding.”
This is directed by Alex Garland, who became well known when he wrote and directed the sci-fi movie Ex Machina (which is incredible, and I highly recommend). He had read Annihilation, then later wrote the script. Rather than rereading the book and using it more as a reference, he decided to base the script off of what lingered, dreamlike, in his brain from the book. I heard another reviewer say that they thought of the movie as one of the many expeditions that went into Area X, not necessarily the same expedition from the movie, which I thought was a cool way to think of it.
Writer Jeff Vandermeer is quoted as saying this about the movie, “I appreciate Garland’s aptness for the visionary and gritty. It is truly an intense and epic film that will leave filmgoers feeling drained by the end, while at the same time readers of the novels have to think of the movie as an alt-Area X, alt-Southern Reach experience. I can’t deny I mourn some of those changes on a very deep level. Also, it is very difficult to experience a film when you’ve visited the set. I have very fond memories of meeting, for example, Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez, and then seeing them active on Twitter about the movie. So that all forms an overlay as well, which I hadn’t expected.”
Garland is the perfect person to turn Area X into a movie, and he captured that weird, dreamlike, otherworldly, creepy yet beautiful world of Annihilation.
Natalie Portman is in the lead role of Lena (the Biologist). She is of course spectacular and is a great pick for this role.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Dr. Ventress (the Psychologist). She really shows the toll working for Southern Command has taken on her as she interviews year after year, people to go into the Shimmer. She has a pretty disquieting presence and really adds to the atmosphere.
Oscar Isaacs is Lena’s husband Kane. He has a fair amount of screen time, between the flashbacks and the video footage that is shown of him. He is also amazing, and it’s eerie seeing him as he basically looses his mind in the Shimmer.
Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Nonotny play the other three that are on the expedition and all give a stellar performance as each goes crazy, or comes to terms with what has happened in their life. Each of their deaths also reflect what they had struggled with in life, which is so beautiful, in like an artistic way. They aren’t just characters that exist only to be killed, they way a lot of horror movie characters are. When you watch it, notice what they had all struggled with in life, the things that caused them to be willing to go into the Shimmer, then compare with that with how each ends up dying.
Entering Area X
As said in the synopsis, everyone from expedition 11 comes back, not just her husband. She also was aware that he was going to Area X. It had been around for 30 years at that point and was common knowledge for the most part. She didn’t want him to go, because it was dangerous, but there was also part of her that was jealous. Her work was uninteresting, yet tiring, and she envied that he was going to do something so unknown and exciting.
In the movie, he is still in the military and makes it seem like he is doing another military deployment.
In the book, the Psychologist hypnotizes them as they prepare to cross the border. Apparently crossing the border is too much for someone to handle, like much of what happens in Area X. The movie shows them going through the border, but then they wake up when they are like four days in. It doesn’t say this is due to hypnosis, as it is in the book, it makes it seem like it is just a result of being in “the Shimmer”. The book has them forget the border, but the Biologist does remember the days of hiking as they approach base camp.
The movie gives names and backstories to the members of this expedition. In the book though, as said above, nothing personal is told of anyone else. We don’t know anyone’s name, their looks are never described, and we don’t know anything about their past. Although we do know the Surveyor is former military. Unlike the movie, the Biologist was not former military. When the Psychologist dies, the Biologist goes through her things and sees what she assumes must have been her name. She then says, “I had not seen a name or heard a name spoken aloud for months, and seeing one now bothered me deeply. It seemed wrong, as if it did not belong to Area X. A name was a dangerous luxury here. Sacrifice didn’t need names. People who served a function didn’t need to be named. In all ways, the name was a further unwanted confusion to me, a dark space that kept growing and growing in my mind.”
When she then approaches base camp, the Surveyor can see she is no longer human (we’ll get to that later) and shoots her. The Biologist ducks down and they have a brief conversation, as she tries to convince the Surveyor to stop shooting. The Surveyor asks what her name is, and the Biologist says, “what difference does it make? It doesn’t make a difference!” Even as a way to potentially save her own life by telling her name, and humanizing herself, she doesn’t want to say the name she had used out in the world.
The movie allows us to learn about the women and their reasons for volunteering for Area X. The woman named Sheppard dies early on, but we still get a feel for the kind of person she is. This is similar to the death of the Anthropologist in the book. Both Sheppard and the Anthropologist “come back” in a way, and have to be fought off.
We learn more about the other three, and even though all but the main character die, we see how they transform through the course of the movie. Similar to the book, we learn more about the Surveyor and the Psychologist before they die.
In the book, we find out that whatever has taken over Area X, came from the sea and attacked the lighthouse. While in there, the Biologist finds a picture of the lighthouse keeper at the time. She also finds piles upon piles of journals from previous expeditions. Many more, than could have been written by just 12 trips. How many expeditions have there truly been? She realizes that the training they received was useless and the trainers knew it.
While leaving the lighthouse, outside she sees the Psychologist, who had abandoned her and the Surveyor while the two of them were in the tower. She is able to talk to the Psychologist before the dies, and I really liked this scene. The attitude of the Psychologist during her last moments I found really interesting and even entertaining. She keeps mentioning how the Biologist is “changing” but the Biologist resists this each time it’s said.
In the movie, she does have a final conversation with the Psychologist while in the lighthouse, but it’s very different. In the movie, they are all being infected with Area X (or the Shimmer as they call it in the movie) in one way or another, and flames and colors come out of the Psychologists mouth before the dies/disappears/becomes this other thing. In the book, the Biologist at one point says how her brightness is so strong, she imagines that if she breathed out her mouth, she imagines wisps of light coming out-kind of similar to what happens to Ventress in the movie.
In the book, she confronts this other living thing while in the tower. In the movie they don’t have the tower, so it all takes place in the lighthouse. This whole scene was so cool and stunning. Even though it was not the same as the book, it had that same other worldly, time stopping vibe. The music in this movie is also amazing and really helps create that weird atmosphere. I will get to it soon, in the book the Crawler was once human, here we have Ventress who sort of becomes this weird, abstract thing. I was listening to Ink to Film’s coverage of this and they share the opinion that maybe since she had cancer, is why she was “chosen” as the one to become this thing. Makes sense to me! (By the way, Ink to Film podcast is fantastic! I avoid listening to other peoples takes on book and movies for the most part, but with movies as complex as this, is was really helpful to listen to their insightful take on the movie.)
The book begins with them discovering a tower that is in the ground. Some call it a tunnel, but the Biologist thinks of it as a tower, going down into the ground with a spiral staircase. This wasn’t on the maps provided by previous expeditions, so it is extra mysterious. Some of them go down into it, and see words written on the wall, made of weird, living fungi. She leans in close to get a better look, and gold spores spray out into her face and get in her nose. The others don’t see this, because she had been standing so close, and she doesn’t want to tell them she has been infected with something until she can see if there are any side effects.
The tower and the words being written are the main focus of Area X. There is the lighthouse, which she spends a day in, and much is learned. But the mystery and suspense are really in the tower. The words don’t totally make sense, and according to Vandermeer, aren’t meant to make sense. It’s being written by the Crawler, the life form taking over that section on the world, trying mimic human ideas, as well as their bodies. The words are a mutated version of the human ideas, the same way the humans become mutated versions of themselves, and the clones are mutated versions of humans.
By the end of the book, she is the only one left, and has a “brightness” within her, caused by the spores. The brightness is literal, and she glows, but it also heightens her senses. The only way to slow it down from overtaking her, is by getting injured.
Eventually, she makes her way down the tunnel/tower, which seems to be a living thing. The walls are fleshy and there is a heartbeat, early on she says it seemed they were going into the gullet of a beast. She feels she can’t leave Area X without knowing what is writing the words on the wall and what it all means. She finally does come upon the Crawler (that’s what she had been calling this mysterious thing). When she tries to see what it even is, she says, “As I adjusted to the light, the Crawler kept changing at a lightening pace, as if to mock my ability to comprehend it. It was a figure within a series of layers in the shape of an archway. It was a great slug like monster ringed by satellites of even odder creatures. It was a glistening star. My eyes kept glancing off of it as if an optic nerve was not enough.”
She then has the sensation she is drowning which lasts for what feels like forever. Earlier in the book she says that she has a fear of drowning, which leads us to assume that when faced with the Crawler you feel whatever it is you fear. The Crawler eventually lets her go, and she gets away by going further down the tower. She isn’t sure why is didn’t kill her the way it had killed a fellow member of her expedition.
When she inevitably goes back up to leave the tower, when crossing paths with it a second time, it does nothing to her, having already gotten the information it needed from her. It just continues to write. She takes one look back at it and says,
“Staring back at me amid that profusion of selves generated by the Crawler, I saw, barely visible, the face of a man, hooded in shadow and orbited by indescribable things I could think of only as his jailers. The man’s expression displayed such a complex and naked extremity of emotion that it transfixed me. I saw on those features the endurance of an unending pain and sorrow, yes, but shining through as well a kind of grim satisfaction and ecstasy. I had never seen such an expression before, but I recognized that face. I had seen it in a photograph. A sharp, eagle’s eye gleamed out from a heavy face, the left eye lost to his squint. A thick beard hid all but a hint of a firm chin under it. Trapped within the Crawler, the last lighthouse keeper stared out at me, so it seemed, not just across a vast, unbridgeable gulf but also out across the years. For, though thinner—his eyes receded in their orbits, his jawline more pronounced—the lighthouse keeper had not aged a day since that photograph was taken more than thirty years ago. This mans who now existed in a place none of us could comprehend. Did he know what he had become, or had he gone mad long ago? Could he even really see me?”
Throughout the book, she talks about seeing animals appear very human-like, and this last part with the Crawler confirms this. Whatever it was that took over Area X isn’t killing people but transforming them. Although in some cases it does kill them too.
In both, when her husband comes home, he is not himself. He is too “normal”, but so normal it’s unsettling and not at all the way he was before. She calls Southern Reach, and they take him to their facilities.
In the movie, he starts having an attack and she calls the ambulance. Then the ambulance is overtaken from a mysterious group and he is taken away. She is then brought to Southern Command where they tell her all about Area X. In the movie, it had been around for three years, but in the book, it had existed over 30 years.
The movie shows them as having been very close, but she ends up having an affair which it seems he has found out about.
In the book their marriage had problems for different reasons. The Biologist was very much an introvert and had a hard time opening up to people. Her husband nicknamed her Ghost Bird, because she didn’t socialize and when out with a group, she would linger on the outskirts and keep to herself. Before he leaves, he tells her that if he doesn’t come back, will she go in after him. She just says, of course you’ll be back. She now regrets not having answered him, and regrets that even now, the truth is she hadn’t gone in Area X for him.
The movie shows that her husband committed suicide, while his doppelganger went into the world. In the book, through his journals we learn that he saw his doppelganger going into the tower but was scared and didn’t know what to do. In the end, he gets a boat and decides to sail out to sea, to try to reach an island in the distance. Whether he makes it there, dies, or becomes one of the mutated humans/animals is unknown.
It also seems intentional that the husbands name is Kane in the movie. Cane in the Bible committed the first murder of his brother Able while living on this newly created land. He tarnished the land by killing Able and burying him. Kane’s doppelganger, in a way, kills the real Kane, and then goes and begins to infect and tarnish the land which has been kept clean from whatever is in Area X. I googled to see if anyone else had thoughts regarding his name but didn’t come across anything that verified my idea of this symbolism.
In the book, the Psychologist hypnotizes them more than they were led to believe. After the Biologist is infected with the spores, she is no longer susceptible to the hypnosis, and realizes how often it was being used on them. When the Biologist approaches the Psychologist before she dies, she is saying, “Annihilation! Annihilation!” The Biologist later learns that the word is supposed to induce suicide in whoever is under the hypnosis. They were all, unknowingly, programmed with a self-destruct button.
Self-destruction is a big theme in the movie. Lena self-destructs a happy marriage, the other members of the group self-destruct with drugs, hurting oneself physically, or loosing who you are when you go through a personal trauma. In the end, Lena faces her alien mirror image and puts a grenade in its hand. She is doing this to cause it to self-destruct and destroy the “Shimmer”. Whether or not this actually causes the Shimmer to be destroyed, or causes it to encompass the world, or at least expand its region, is unknown.
The last scene shows Lena and Kane, Kane acknowledging that it isn’t the real him, and Lena not saying whether or not it’s really her. I think that it is her physically, but she has started to alter from being inside Area X, and even though in a way she is the same person who went in, she is no longer the same and is becoming the mutated form of herself.
The tattoo that now appears on her arm is not only an image that mirrors itself, but also a snake eating itself, going along with the self-destruction theme. The title in regard to the movie, can reference either the annihilation of our world, as the shimmer takes over our cells and our world. Or to the destruction we create in our own lives.
The book ends with the Biologist leaving her journal, which we have been reading, atop the pile of all the other journals. She then sets out on the ocean, the same as her husband had.
How did Area X come to be?
The movie shows that a meteor hits this coastal area and infects the land and continues to grow and expand. Like a tumor or a cancer that gets bigger and bigger, replicating the “good” cells and creating cancerous cells in the same likeness which then ruin or mutate the “good” ones.
The Biologist kept resisting the idea that she had changed when the Psychologist kept mentioning it. In the end of the book she says, “The terrible thing, the thought I cannot dislodge after all I have seen, is that I can no longer say with conviction that this [what is happening in Area X] is a bad thing. Not when looking at the pristine nature of Area X and then the world beyond, which we have altered so much. Before she died, the psychologist said I had changed, and I think she meant I had changed sides. It isn’t true—I don’t even know if there are sides, or what that might mean—but it could be true. I see now that I could be persuaded. A religious or superstitious person, someone who believed in angels or in demons, might see it differently. Almost anyone else might see it differently. But I am not those people. I am just the biologist; I don’t require any of this to have a deeper meaning. I am aware that all of this speculation is incomplete, inexact, inaccurate, useless. If I don’t have real answers, it is because we still don’t know what questions to ask. Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish.”
She also tries to understand what it is that has taken over this part of the world and figure out more about what happened with the lighthouse keeper. This passage sort of goes into how Area X came to be, and how all these expeditions keep causing Area X to grow,
I wanted—I needed—to know that I had indeed seen him, not some apparition conjured up by the Crawler, and I clutched at anything that would help me believe that. What convinced me the most wasn’t the photograph—it was the sample the anthropologist had taken from the edge of the Crawler, the sample that had proven to be human brain tissue. So, with that as my anchor, I began to form a narrative for the lighthouse keeper, as best I could, even as I stood and once again made my way back to the base camp. It was difficult because I knew nothing at all about his life, had none of those indicators that might have allowed me to imagine him. I had just a photograph and that terrible glimpse of him inside the Tower. All I could think was that this was a man who had had a normal life once, perhaps, but not one of those familiar rituals that defined normal had had any permanence—or helped him. He had been caught up in a storm that hadn’t yet abated. Perhaps he had even seen it coming from the top of the lighthouse, the Event arriving like a kind of wave. And what had manifested? What do I believe manifested? Think of it as a thorn, perhaps, a long, thick thorn so large it is buried deep in the side of the world. Injecting itself into the world. Emanating from this giant thorn is an endless, perhaps automatic, need to assimilate and to mimic. Assimilator and assimilated interact through the catalyst of a script of words, which powers the engine of transformation. Perhaps it is a creature living in perfect symbiosis with a host of other creatures. Perhaps it is “merely” a machine. But in either instance, if it has intelligence, that intelligence is far different from our own. It creates out of our ecosystem a new world, whose processes and aims are utterly alien—one that works through supreme acts of mirroring, and by remaining hidden in so many other ways, all without surrendering the foundations of its otherness as it becomes what it encounters. I do not know how this thorn got here or from how far away it came, but by luck or fate or design at some point it found the lighthouse keeper and did not let him go. How long he had as it remade him, repurposed him, is a mystery. There was no one to observe, to bear witness—until thirty years later a biologist catches a glimpse of him and speculates on what he might have become. Catalyst. Spark. Engine. The grit that made the pearl? Or merely an unwilling passenger? And after his fate was determined … imagine the expeditions—twelve or fifty or a hundred, it doesn’t matter—that keep coming into contact with that entity or entities, that keep becoming fodder and becoming remade. These expeditions that come here at a hidden entry point along a mysterious border, an entry point that (perhaps) is mirrored within the deepest depths of the Tower. Imagine these expeditions, and then recognize that they all still exist in Area X in some form, even the ones that came back, especially the ones that came back: layered over one another, communicating in whatever way is left to them. Imagine that this communication sometimes lends a sense of the uncanny to the landscape because of the narcissism of our human gaze, but that it is just part of the natural world here. I may never know what triggered the creation of the doppelgängers, but it may not matter.”
This kind of goes along with the movie where Lena is asked what “it” wanted. Lena replies, “I don’t think it wanted anything.” It doesn’t have the human motivations, it just is.
Book or Movie?
This one is truly a toss up. Largely due to the fact that Garland didn’t try to follow the source entirely and instead made it his own, while still keeping to the vibe of the book. I would highly recommend both! Though it’s not the kind of book or movie I would recommend to just anyone. They are both truly sci-fi, in all the glory of their weird cerebralness. Which is why sci-fi is one of my favorite genres (dramas being my other favorite, but I know “drama’ is kind of a broad description). Both are creepy and eerie, but the movie was a bit more horror like than I had expected. I shouldn’t have been surprised though because there were some fairly gruesome/disturbing scenes in the book. The book also talks about how there is a moaning that happens every night. That would have been a cool addition to the movie, because it definitely contributed to the creepiness of Area X at night.
Even after reading this, you should still go back and check out both the book and movie. There is so much that takes place in both, that I didn’t even cover!
I can’t wait to read more by Jeff Vandermeer-I bought the Southern Reach trilogy online, so at some point I’ll take a week off of this podcast so I can read those. I also really want to reach Finch, but it is out of print and is hard to find a copy online that is below $100! It will go into reprint again January 2022, so I guess I could just wait.
I’m also excited for Alex Garland to come out with another movie. I watched his TV show Devs last year and loved it. You never know what to expect with his stories and they also sit with you for days after.