It’s nearly impossible to discuss this movie without referring to the source material, the first book in Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation. I’ll try to look at the movie as a movie first and leave comparisons to the book (and their related spoilers) for the later half of the review.
Just the Film
Director Alex Garland, who wrote the screenplay for 28 Days Later and made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, didn’t adapt so much as draw inspiration from the 2014 novel.
In the film, protagonist Lena (Natalie Portman) discovers her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) in her home after he’d been missing for over a year. After he collapses on the table, bleeding out from the mouth, military forces from the Southern Reach whisk both off to the secretive military base known as Area X. Once there, she’s subjected to intensive psychological profiling by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) before deciding to venture on a one-way trip into the shimmering border of Area X.
From here on out, the audience is dragged on a psychadelic (and psychological) journey through a reconstructed Wonderland filled with terrifying creatures, suspense, and deep exploration of what it means to be human.
The script was well written, taking inspiration from the book (including the oh-so-familiar ending quote the book and film both draw their title from) but does take significant turns from the novel. I will applaud the director for his focus on the relationships between the three characters (and the relationship Lena had with Kane) and for his refusal to dip into pure shock-horror territory with the fertile ground the novel gave him to do so. This really is a thinking person’s sci-fi movie.
Natalie Portman owns the lead role as Lena, and the supporting performances surrounding her are strong as well. The only complaint I have is the seemingly unneccessary subplot involving
an affair with a colleague at the school Lena works at
How Does it Stack Up?
All right, here we go. Spoiler territory.
The character Portman portrays is radically different than the novel’s protagonist in just about every way possible. The book portrays a strong woman out to find answers and deeply entranced by intellectual curiosity, whereas the movie’s protagonist is driven by the need to be reunited with her lover and discover his fate. Both characters are complex intellectually and emotionally, but I find myself missing the biologist’s drive for discovery from the book. Portman’s character seemed determined, but more to find out about Kane than to discover the answer. That, and one of the supporting characters (the geologist) was the one who made the link about the DNA changes in the film, rather than the protagonist, as it was in the book.
This requires a bit more knowledge of the series as a whole. The psychologist IS showcased as having been a part of the Reach for most of her life, and is driven by curiosity at what hasn’t returned as much as the way Area X taunts her. However, the subplot involving the Tower (which was relocated to the Lighthouse in the film) was taken out entirely, and the subplot about hypnosis and betrayal from the opening of the book was glossed over entirely. She acts and speaks similarly to the psychologist in the book, but all trace of her leadership of the Reach was erased from the film. She also isn’t quite portrayed as the villain in the film as she was in the book, more the party leader. All in all, I think she lost a lot of her depth in translation.
Area X in the book concerns itself with trying to look as similar to the wild versions of its surroundings as possible, and in the film, the alien consciousness behind Area X has a sort of pathology where it rewrites and rewires creatures with multiple rows of teeth, antlers, horns, etc. Very different approaches for concealing itself as well. In the book, the DNA changes are only briefly visible under the microscopes, as if Area X is mocking human attempts to understand it. In the film, it looks more like mindless mimicry than malevolent change. Also, the subplot about humans being transformed into animals was mostly dropped in favor of humans being replicated and destroyed from the inside out, bursting into a sort of fungal form. Strange stuff.
This is one of the biggest places where the film diverts from the novel. The Tower is located inside the Lighthouse, and the pile of journals was removed and replaced with video recordings of her husband’s expedition. When she confronts the creature at the end, the creature isn’t the crawler and the lines of text on the walls also don’t exist–it’s the psychologist that bursts into light and is consumed, and the original biologist is the one who survives, intact, with her memories to return to the Reach. It’s hinted at that the duplicate Kane is indeed a duplicate and that Lena has been changed, but not the way the book portrayed both of those things. The ending is explosive and beautiful, but quite different. Whether it carries the same weight and implications as the novel’s ending is up to you.
All in all, it’s well worth seeing as a sci-fi film. Beautifully directed, gorgeous special effects, thought provoking themes. It isn’t the book, but then again, I don’t think it’s trying to be. Like I said at the beginning, it’s more “inspired by” than adaptation, and as much as I love the source material, I think that’s okay.