Sweetbeeps and I decided to watch Annihilation for one of our movie nights. After, I decided I really needed to get my ass in gear and read the book (which has been sitting on my shelves since 2015.) Boy, are the two different!
I’m going to try to avoid spiraling into a deep-dive for both the movie and book, but I will be going into spoiler territory and I have a feeling this will be a fairly long post. SO. For those of you interested in a TL;DR, spoiler-free summary, here you go:
The book and the movie are wildly different. I feel like the movie took the idea of women exploring a strange area, populated by the unknown, with a lighthouse, and then ran with it in a totally different direction. The movie takes a lot of liberties but it did give me a sense of Area X and some fodder for my imagination in terms of the setting. It also added some crazy animals that I was disappointed weren’t in the book. But the book gave me more unease and I enjoyed how ambiguous things were.
If you’re a fan of the book, the movie might add some scenery to your imagination, but I think the book is stronger. If you’ve never read the book, the movie isn’t a terrible place to start, though I found it dull at times and I thought the end was a hot mess. Maybe, like me, the movie will motivate you to read the book! Just know, going in to either, that they’re not similar. I’m not mad I watched the movie, but it’s not one I’ll return to. The book however, -makes Italian kissy fingers- muah!
Ok, on to spoiler territory. I’ll start with my thoughts on the movie because that’s where this all started!
Directed by Alex Garland
The film follows Lena (Natalie Portman), an ex-military biologist, as she signs up for a mission to enter “the Shimmer”, a strange area that’s been quarantined by the government. Until Lena’s husband’s expedition, no previous expeditions had returned from The Shimmer. But her husband came home mysteriously, after being gone for about a year. He was distant, had no idea how he got home, and then became violently ill. After shadowy government operatives hijack the ambulance, Lena finds herself at their facility outside The Shimmer and eventually signs up to go in with the next team.
We get a sort of, origin-story for the Shimmer – when it showed up, how several teams have gone in, but none have come back, how comm systems can’t be used inside so they have next to no information about what’s inside. Because Lena is a biologist she can be useful when it comes to analyzing the wildlife and environment of the Shimmer, but her motivation is to find out what happened to her husband. She goes in accompanied by a psychologist and three other ladies whose roles I forget (but, based on the book, I assume a surveyor, anthropologist and linguist.)
As the team moves through the Shimmer, we see the verdant, exotic, and, at times, bizarre and horrifying flora and fauna which have taken over the infected area. There are massive crocs, a scary skull-faced bear-possum, and plant formations eerily shaped like people. The team realizes they’re forgetting things, like how long they’ve actually been traveling, and they’re becoming increasingly paranoid and distrustful of one another.
That’s basically the plot; I don’t want to give the whole thing away. I appreciated most of the effects – I’m a stickler for CGI and most often I’m not impressed – they were pretty realistic and I loved the lush atmosphere. There were some low-key creep vibes going on in the beginning that I enjoyed. Then it ramped up and there were a few scenes that were pretty gross, like that part where they cut open that guy’s stomach and the bear-possum attack.
My issues mostly stem with the end of the movie – it was messy and confusing. There are aliens, I guess, living in this area. Lena and the psychologist reach the lighthouse and inside find a butthole (lol that’s what it looked like) into some alien cave. We learn that the version of Lena’s husband which returned is not, in fact, her husband. It’s some sort of alien clone. After the psychologist turns into a giant ball of light and Lena trips out for a bit watching what looks like the inside of kaleidoscope, Lena has her own encounter with an alien. It’s some sort of silvery, humanoid thing and the interaction between the two was odd and didn’t add any tension, drama, mystery, excitement, or really, anything for me.
In the end, Lena is reunited with her husband and we’re left to maybe question whether she’s a clone or not. I didn’t mind that the end was a question, but I was disappointed in these shadowy alien creatures. The movie felt like a set-up for a series based on an alien invasion of society. Not sure if that’s where the books plan to go, but I’m not super invested, based on how the movie went. Also I dislike Natalie Portman and thought she was really bland. After reading the book I think I see what the movie was going for with her character, but they missed the mark. Sweetbeeps thought she fit the role well, but I suspect that’s just because he likes her.
Overall, this was entertaining enough and visually enjoyable (until that messy ending), but not something super memorable or powerful.
By Jeff Vandermeer
Paperback, 195 pages
2014, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
So the premise here is somewhat similar – a team of ladies goes on an expedition into Area X (a much better name than The Shimmer, IMO) as part of an ongoing attempt to explore the area beyond an invisible border which dropped some 30 years ago. There is a biologist (though she’s not ex-military), whose husband was part of a prior expedition. Her husband also returned mysteriously, had no idea how he got home or what he saw in Area X, and sickened. Only in the book, her husband dies – it seems like the majority of those who return from Area X develop some sort of cancer and die.
None of the characters throughout the books are named, adding ambiguity and a strange sense of anonymity, and the book is apparently the journal of the biologist. Readers can question whether or not she’s a reliable narrator. That’s not always a theme I enjoy, but I liked it here because I chose to take what the biologist shared to be true, or at least, that she believed it to be true, but considered that she just might not be sharing everything.
The book starts right off in the thick of the things – the biologist is in Area X with the psychologist (who is also the director of the Southern Reach, the organization overseeing and studying Area X), the surveyor and the anthropologist. There’s not a lot of description in terms of the environment and there was no bear-possum attack. Instead, the team has stumbled upon a tunnel, or underground tower as the biologist sees it, and they begin exploring.
The majority of the story takes place in or around the tower and bits and pieces of the biologist’s background are revealed throughout the book. The psychologist also plays a major (and more sinister) role and I enjoyed the reveal that she’d been hypnotizing the members of the expedition. It was unsettling and I loved it.
There is still a lot of paranoia and distrust between the team members. It gets worse the longer they’re exposed to this tower (or maybe the whole area, who knows.) A lot of freaky shit goes on within the tower. There’s strange writing on the wall – it’s Biblical-sounding in nature and written with living plant life. At one point, the biologist inhales some spores from this living text and believes she’s been imbued with something she refers to as light. I imagine this is what the movie ran with – I much preferred the vagaries of the book.
The lighthouse comes later and while there were a lot of revelations here, none involved aliens and all-consuming kaleidoscope lights, so I was happy. This lighthouse did a lot more to advance the plot and add layers to the story. Rather than being confusing and ridiculous, it was mysterious and ominous.
In the end, the biologist does figure out that what came back was not truly her husband. She leaves her journal behind with years’ worth of other journals from prior expeditions and heads off to sea to an island she believes her husband went to explore.
The book left me with a lot of questions, though not so many that I was frustrated. I was a trifle confused and there were times where I had issues visualizing. But I was left with the good kind of “what the hell just happened?” feeling when I finished and I instantly bought the other two books so I could find out more.
I recommend this for:
+ Sci-fi fans who enjoy bizarre, nebulous reads
+ Fans of the movie who were left looking for something more
+ Anyone who wants a change of pace in their sci-fi
*movie still from IMDB