Annihilation, a book by Jeff VanderMeer and now, also, a movie written and directed by Alex Garland, defies explanation. The neatest way to categorize it that I have found is as cosmic horror, a genre that blends science fiction and horror in an attempt to poke at our innate fear of the unknown. But as I found when I read the book last year, Annihilation is not meant as a conventional story. Its characters are broadly drawn and given few, if any, identifying characteristics; the back-and-forth of its plot is inscrutable and hard to parse; few of the mysteries that arise in the story are ever really solved, and by the end the reader is left with more questions than they had at the beginning. It is an inexplicable book, but in the best way; the author clearly knew what he wanted to portray and how to go about it. The movie, which retains some elements of the book and leaves others behind with extreme prejudice, is not quite so well-focused.
I try not to judge movie adaptations purely on whether or not they adhere to the book. As much as I may love a book and think it’s perfect as-is, the truth is that film is a different medium, and things that worked very well in a book may not translate well to the screen–and since everyone has a slightly different interpretation of words on a page, a director’s idea of a faithful adaptation can be very different from mine, and still just as good.
To be clear, Alex Garland’s Annihilation is not a faithful adaptation, and clearly wasn’t aiming to be. It takes the basic premise of the book and then heads off in a different direction with it, eventually coming to a wildly different conclusion. This is not, in and of itself, a problem, especially since the film captures the feeling of the book almost perfectly. Annihilation is an absolutely gorgeous movie, very thoughtfully shot and edited, filled to the brim with vibrant colors and lush set design that mirror the luxurious descriptions of nature in the book. And just as the book feels, at times, off-putting and weird, the sound design and score of Annihilation don’t feel right, and add a creeping sense of wrongness, even dread, as the action rises.
The problem with the movie, at least in my mind (this is a highly subjective story) is that it isn’t quite inscrutable enough. After a stunning and bewildering first two acts, the story actually resolves itself quite well, and though the film is somewhat open-ended, it has a fairly solid conclusion when all is said and done. Normally this would be a good thing, but for an adaptation of Annihilation it is not. The ending of Annihilation, the book, is hard to follow and makes little sense–but, after the previous two-thirds of the book have built to a crescendo of weird and disturbing anomalies, for the ending to be just as strange and inexplicable does make a strange sort of sense.
That isn’t to say it’s pleasant, necessarily. When I first finished the book the ending infuriated me, because after all the time and breathless anticipation I’d put into reading it, I wanted answers. But the longer I thought about it, the clearer it became that the book isn’t about answers. The book is about a strange phenomenon, so inexplicable and alien that humans cannot comprehend it without becoming part of it, becoming something else. To tell the audience why and how this is happening, whether it will end and whether the human characters could ever stop it, would defeat the purpose.
The movie almost grasps this. The first three-fourths of the film are, though different in plot and progression, very similar to the book in tone and content. But the climax of the movie, the resolution of it all, is disappointingly final. The main character appears to have destroyed the mysterious Area X, or at least stopped its slow advance into human territory. She leaves Area X and returns to the people who sent her on this journey. She reunites with a person who may not be what he seems, but is certainly a comforting presence. The movie does have an open ending, implying that more may be going just beneath the surface, but its conclusion still has an unfortunate lack of ambiguity.
A film adaptation is not obligated to lift anything in particular from the book; indeed,
some of the best films-from-books in existence are good precisely because they
picked and chose what they wanted from the source material (see: The Shining,
Jurassic Park, Jaws). But good books are good for a reason, and Annihilation in
particular is good because its intent and execution are clear and focused. The
movie doesn’t quite make it there. I don’t begrudge Alex Garland for taking the film
in its own direction; the film is, again, very beautiful and for the most part well
thought out. But I do think that in the case of the ending, of wrapping up a very
weird and disorienting tale, Garland should have taken a bit more of a cue from the
Addendum: My biggest problem with the movie, besides what I’ve already laid
out, is the casting. I have nothing against Natalie Portman and I think she performed admirably in this film, but she should not have been the first choice for this role; the Biologist in the books is described as being of East Asian descent, and the movies should have reflected this. Additionally, the Psychologist, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the movie, is Native American in the books and should also have been casted appropriately. Annihilation, with its nearly all-female cast, has been hailed as something of a victory for women in film; but with two of the biggest roles in the film having been whitewashed, this is at best a very uneven victory.