Motion Picture Rating: R
Release Date: 2018
Director: Alex Garland
Runtime: 115 minutes
Adapted From: Annihilation
Lena is a biologist and former soldier. She is married to Kane, also a soldier, and one that’s been “missing” for a year, now, after setting out on a secret mission. Kane suddenly turns up, but he’s not who he used to be. He acts like a subdued version of Kane, doesn’t remember anything at all about his mission, and almost instantly upon his return becomes violently ill. This is how Lena finds out about Area X, the Southern Reach, and the all-female, all-scientist team who’s about to venture into the Shimmer. With her husband dying, she enters Area X with four other women, tasked with collecting as much data as possible about the area, and to reach the lighthouse.
So, this is me, taking my copy of Annihilation with me to go see the film last week. Since no one went with me, and an inanimate object cannot reject me, I brought my book along.
I know, I’m a loser.
To my surprise, the entire theater was full. One of those huge ones, too. And though it is true that it was opening weekend, I didn’t expect this film to draw in that kind of audience. (Also, side note: to my surprise x2, the girl sitting next to me was reading Harry Potter. I thought I was the only one who brought books to movies to read while waiting for the movie to start! I wish we could be best friends. I need friends like that.)
So, where to begin… Well, for those of you who don’t know what it’s about, here’s my book review, in which I describe the plot, characters, etc.
On the surface, the stories are the same, but once we delve into the film, it becomes an entirely new story, almost completely separate from the text. Usually, I hate this. Why make an adaptation and change almost everything about it? What does that accomplish? And in this case, yes, it did irritate me a bit. Especially the ending. But I’ll get there. Though I do have my issue with the film as an adaptation, I did enjoy the film as a separate, standalone entity.
I’ll begin with the casting/characters. Our main character, who in the book is nameless—like everyone else—is played by Natalie Portman.
Portman is a fantastic, accomplished actor. She’s been in many films that I have seen and quite a few that I love: Black Swan, Star Wars, V for Vendetta, Thor… She’s pretty awesome. And she didn’t disappoint in this film. She’s pretty much how I pictured the biologist from the book. Unfortunately, they gave her a completely new backstory in the film, one that I did not like. In the book, she’s an intelligent introvert who, despite falling in love with her husband and occasionally going out with him and his friends, prefers to be alone, studying or reading or finding comfort in the silence. And what’s frustrating is that, though her husband loves her, he is always trying to bring her out of her shell, cracking her open any way he can, because I think her introversion drives him nuts. The two begin to fight a lot before he leaves for Area X. Though she loves him and misses him, she isn’t destroyed over his disappearance or even his death. She doesn’t pine for him. She’s independent and strong, and she focuses more on solving the mysteries of Area X more than on her loss.
In the book, well, let’s just say she’s a completely different person. And she is, because her name is Lena, and she’s a former soldier, now-biologist who teaches at a university. She’s madly in love with Kane, and his disappearance breaks her in two.
Here’s Kane, played by Oscar Isaac, who plays Poe Dameron in the new Star Wars movies and god do I love this man…
Anyway, instead of keeping journals, like in the book, the characters are able to film things in Area X, so a lot of what we see of Kane is flashbacks and videos. Back to their relationship, though. We do find out in the middle of the film that Lena was having an affair with a colleague of hers, and before Kane leaves for Area X she believes he has found out about the affair. That whole thing really didn’t make sense. And I didn’t like it. They turned her into someone else, someone who’s life depended on her husband, even though she cheated on him and then felt super guilty about it later. I don’t know. It didn’t add up. Anyway, Kane doesn’t die after coming back, like in the book. He is sick, though, and Lena goes into Area X “because she owes him.” I think they were trying to show that the knowledge of the affair led Kane to leave for Area X, an almost suicide mission, and Lean completely blames herself for that, so she goes into Area X for him. Ugh. That’s not how it should have been, and I hate that they changed the situation so drastically.
I also found it strange that the expedition was made up of all scientists in the film, rather than an arrangement of skills found in the text.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Dr. Ventress, AKA the psychologist and leader of the team. In the book, she’s my most hated character. Not least favorite, mind you, just most hated. I hope that makes sense. Anyway, based on her character in the book, I went into the film expecting to dislike her. Turns out, she became my favorite member of the expedition team, which was super weird. Maybe it’s because she was practical, didn’t use hypnotism, and didn’t go about killing people for observation. Huh. She went into Area X because she was the one sending everyone else in and felt guilty that no one ever came back, and she had cancer, anyway, so she needed to understand.
Tuva Novotny plays Cass, the anthropologist. In the book, she dies early on, the first one to die, so we don’t get a whole lot from her. If you recall, the book opens with the women already in Area X, so there’s not much leading up to her death. The film, on the other hand, spends the first 1/4 of the movie outside of Area X with backstory, character introductions, flashbacks, etc. Which I also didn’t like. But, ya know. So we learn a lot about Cass in the film before she ultimately becomes the first killed, too. She went into Area X because her daughter died of cancer, and so did a little bit of herself.
Tessa Thompson plays Josie, a physicist, an occupation absent from the book. In the book, there was supposed to be a linguist on the expedition, but she opted out at the last minute. The biologist notes towards the beginning of the book that she didn’t mind the linguist’s absence because she thought that the least important skill needed in Area X, but shortly discovered the woman would have been extraordinarily helpful. In the film, Josie ultimately discovers what’s going on in Area X. She’s a meek, mild, timid woman, and her death is perhaps the saddest. She went into Area X because cutting herself wasn’t making her feel alive—nothing was.
Finally, Gina Rodriguez plays Anya, easily my least favorite character in the film. She’s the medic, probably representing the surveyor from the book. The surveyor is the one who winds up trying to kill the biologist because she loses trust in her. She knows the biologist has something inside her, something from Area X, and she can’t let her live, so she ambushes her and tries to shoot her. The biologist ends up shooting her first. In the film, Anya is super annoying. She sees video evidence of something that would be impossible outside the Shimmer, but rejects it immediately out of fear. She also wants to go home after Cass is killed, splitting the group between those who wanted to go to the lighthouse (Dr. Ventress and Lena) and those who wanted to abort the mission (Anya and Josie). Lena convinces them to continue on, but Anya clearly resents Lena after this. She soon discovers what Lena was keeping from them all: that Kane is her husband. This, coupled with the knowledge that whatever is in Area X is inside her, makes her, well, essentially, “lose her shit.” She ties up the other three and almost kills them before being killed herself.
So, as you can see, the bones of the characters are the same, but the important stuff is not. Everything about them is altered. And it does make for an interesting dynamic, and interesting film, it’s just not the film I was particularly awaiting.
Story-wise, it’s the same situation: almost everything is different, and I’ve already mentioned a lot of it. The book opens with tower, as the biologist calls it, but the film ends with it. And what Lena experiences in the tower is much of what her counterpart in the book experiences, I think. I remember reading the book and thinking, Wow, how are they going to portray this in the film? Well, they figured it out somehow, and all I have to say about it is this: do not watch this movie while you’re high. Seriously. From what I’ve been told about being high, this is a no-go.
There’s a lot more action and violence in the film. In my book review, I make a comment about the book not being an action-packed adventure, but more being about character development, inner monologue, and observations. Obviously this wouldn’t translate well for a film—the modern day audience would grow bored. They need blood and gore to make a movie “interesting.” The movie definitely capitalized on the horror aspect with violent, gruesome deaths and tons of suspense.
One more thing before I get to the endings. The book is incredibly subtle, mysterious, and leaves a lot for the reader to figure out. Ultimately, it left me with more questions than answers. The film, though, kind of puts everything out there for you. You don’t need to do any digging because the answers are right in front of you. And that make sense for a movie, of course. I just missed the ambiguity of the text.
Okay, so, let’s talk about that ending.
The book ends with everyone dead except the biologist. The book is essentially her journal that she was instructed to keep while inside Area X. Her last pages are confusing, as she’s not entirely sure what’s real and not real. She just went through quite an ordeal in the tunnel with the crawler and now she’s determined to follow in the footsteps of her husband and sail for the island, which is still inside Area X. She is leaving her journal with the others at the lighthouse. I think at this point she has a new appreciation and reborn love for her husband. It ends as she sets off on her solo journey.
The film completely changes that. And I think this is my least favorite part of the film. Like in the book, Lena is the last alive. She goes into the tunnel and experiences something similar as her book counterpart, like I mentioned, but then a strange, humanoid alien thing is born out of a drop of Lena’s blood. It mimics her every move. When she touches it, it becomes her identical image. It’s a very intense scene and super weird. She winds up setting it on fire and escapes the tunnel/lighthouse, watching everything around her burn. The Shimmer is destroyed. Area X is no more. Huzzah, huzzah. She’s back at Southern Reach headquarters relaying all this information while quarantined. Kane wakes up as soon as the Shimmer is destroyed. She goes into the room with him and she asks him if he is Kane. He says he doesn’t think so, and asks if she is Lena. She doesn’t reply. The two embrace, and you can see both their irises are changing colors and shimmering, reminiscent of Area X. Then it ends.
ARRRRRG. WHAT A COP OUT. What a cliché! What a terrible way to end the film. Sure, it could either be taken as open-ended, or they’re going to make a sequel. But why? I haven’t read the sequel to Annihilation yet, but I know it wouldn’t match up with whatever film sequel they’d produce. The ending was entirely too predictable. And still, didn’t make sense. Because we saw the fake-Lena catch on fire. It clearly was not Lena in there. So I’m pretty sure the real Lena made it out, but the stuff inside her transformed her? I don’t know. It didn’t make sense. It was beautiful, though, I’ll admit. The part in the tunnel. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
As someone who read the book and enjoyed it and expected an adaptation to be similar, I am disappointed by the film entirely. All my favorite things were altered or erased entirely. I read somewhere that Garland didn’t read the book before adapting the film, so I guess it makes sense: he wanted an extremely loose adaptation, and that’s what he delivered.
But purely as a moviegoer and film lover, respecting the film as a separate entity and only loosely based on the source text, I loved it. It was visually stunning, suspenseful in all the right ways, and a chilling story to watch unravel. The acting was as great as the special effects. And though I’d rather have had the film follow the book, it was interesting to not know where the story was going at all. I had no idea what would happen next. In fact, I thought of this expedition into Area X as a separate expedition from the one in the book, kind of. Like, oh, this is the 13th expedition or something. The one after the book’s expedition. I think VanderMeer said something like that, too, actually, that he pictures the film expedition as a different expedition entirely. I definitely agree with him.