What Alex Garland’s Annihilation Was Really About

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Lots of spoilers here, so readers beware.

I discovered Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy in 2014, and quickly devoured the books Annihilation and Authority.  The final novel, Acceptance, took a bit longer to digest–ironically, perhaps–but the whole series was a huge breath of fresh air.  VanderMeer was reaching back into the deep well of science fiction, horror, spy literature, and so forth to create something audaciously new–especially focused on a revival of the “weird fiction” and horrible fantasia of H.P. Lovecraft.  For whatever reason, these novels clicked right into place with me.

As any fan of a great book or series knows, the prospect of a film adaptation is fraught with dangers and anxieties.  Cloud Atlas, another beloved ToM favorite, experienced a well-intentioned but painful rendition at the hands of the Wachowski sisters in 2012.  It was an unfilmable novel and should have stayed that way.  VanderMeer’s tour de force Annihilation easily falls in the same category, with its ambiguous first-person perspective and impressionistic description of a strange, florid landscape of mutating plants and animals, with scenes beyond comprehension or reason described in the text of the book.  It seemed like a fool’s errand to even try to visualize and narrativize the story for the big screen.

Yet the man for the mission was Alex Garland, the director behind the unexpected breakout hit Ex Machina–a groundbreaking, original meditation on the problem of artificial intelligence and the question of what it means to be human, and indisputably one of the finest films of 2014.  If anyone could meet the challenge of adapting Annihilation, it was Garland.  He had the courage and flinty self-assurance to force the studio suits to let him make a crazy, experimental, confusing film with a big budget for mainstream audiences.

That’s exactly what he did.  The studio wanted him to change the plot and conclusion of the film adaptation, but with an able assist from producer Scott Rudin, Garland was able to keep his vision intact–despite very negative responses from test audiences.  Having seen Annihilation, it is far from surprising that the focus groups hated it.  This film is not an easy pill to swallow, especially for anyone wanting a date night with an escapist fantasy and an easily understandable story.

I was very reluctant to see the film, because I worried that it would fall short of expectations and corrupt my memory of the original book.  As it turns out, the film Annihilation was so different from the source material in its plot, characterization, and perspective that I almost see it as a separate and distinct story.  The basic outlines of concept and narrative are there, but the delivery is so starkly different from the book–perhaps necessarily so for a visual story–that it stands as a work in its own right.

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I had mixed feelings after watching Annihilation, but I’ve seen it twice more since the first viewing and find something elusively, compulsively captivating about it, despite the film’s palpable weaknesses.  It reaches for an emotional depth and gravity that it does not quite achieve with characters who are underdeveloped or otherwise unrelatable or unmoving.  But it still captures a fair measure of the weirdness and uneasiness of the book series, and that is a testament to the skill and vision of Garland.

Many viewers have walked away from the film puzzled or even frustrated by its aggressive ambiguity, and its unwillingness to answer questions about the extremely strange events that occur on screen.  Sometimes ambiguity is just a narrative crutch, an easy gesture to imply that something is more complex or subtle than it actually is.  I do not think this is the case with Annihilation.

I have read the book, so my perspective might be shaped by that fact, but here is my take on the meaning of the film.  Annihilation is a riff on the idea of panspermia—that life did not originate on Earth, but was seeded here somehow my microbes (or whatever) that arrived on a meteor or other space object from somewhere else.  (It’s a bit of a silly theory because it just displaces the origins of life to another, unknown point, sort of like saying there was a Big Bang – and a Big Bang before the Big Bang, and a Big Bang before that.)  But anyway—what Annihilation proposes is that, if life (as we know it) came from somewhere else on a meteor a few billion years ago, why couldn’t it happen again?

Except that this form of life might be radically different from the one we arose from.  Why should we assume it would be the same anyway?  (The film spells out in the first few frames what the book suggests only obliquely—that Area X or the Shimmer came from an interstellar object hitting the Earth.)  One of the brilliant things about the book and the film alike is that they presuppose that another form of life in the universe might be so different from us that it’s almost impossible to comprehend. (Some commentators have noted the similarity between Annihilation and Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 Arrival, a film that I adored–both present a complicated and believable portrayal of what it would be like for humans to encounter a different form of life with its own unique way of living and communicating.)

To make things as simple as possible, the film concerns Lena (Natalie Portman), an Army veteran and medicine professor whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is in some shadowy branch of America’s special services.  He goes on an unspecified mission and does not come back for a year, presumed to be dead in the intervening time.  When he comes back he acts strangely and quickly becomes very ill; Lena soon learns that he had been sent into a mysterious location known as Area X, somewhere in the swamps of Florida, that the government had been covering up as an “environmental disaster” but was really some strange phenomenon that authorities could not understand, a whole territory surrounded by a “shimmer” that nothing enters ever escapes.

We see Lena in a complicated narrative timeline that focuses on her time before Kane’s departure, her time in the Shimmer, and her experience after escaping.  She is being interrogated by a government scientist in the early parts of the film.  They want to know what she saw, what she experienced, as one of the few people to make it back from Area X.  The scientist asks about the entity she encountered—“Was it carbon-based?”—in Lena’s post-escape detention.  “I don’t know,” she says.

This question is so central to the film.  Sci-fi has unfortunately tended to assume that aliens would be humanoid, as in Star Trek where they’re just humans with pointy ears or ridges on their nose—or at least with a head, arms, and legs, like Close Encounters or any number of films.  For obvious reasons, writers and filmmakers find these kinds of aliens more relatable for audiences.

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But the Shimmer is a type of life, both an organism and an ecosystem and a species.  It’s structured and organized in a way we can’t even conceptualize, and its form of reproduction is mysterious despite being ubiquitous—mutations, contamination, duplication.  Who knows if it’s carbon or silicon-based? That’s asking the wrong question.  It’s not a monster or a villain per se, because it does not really seem to have intentionality.  It’s only carrying out what its underlying genetic (if that’s the right word) program tells it to do.  It will mutate and merge with other life around it, and in the end, create copies of itself.

There is a lot in the book (and to some extent in the movie) about the theme of doubles or duplication.  It’s an interesting theme because doubles often signify “duplicity” or an impostor—like the fake Kane who comes home, or Lena herself as a dishonest marital partner. Can you trust this person?  Is this really the person I know and love?  (These are questions people ask in many a marriage.)  Ex Machina has similar themes too, because the history of literature and films about robots often have the making the new artificial intelligence or life as a copy or double of the human creator.  (One thinks of Frankenstein and the Biblical portrayal of humankind’s creation here as well.)  I write about this in my book Democracy of Sound, about how the “bogus” or bootleg version of a thing or a person was often understood as potentially threatening in the nineteenth and twentieth century, including early examples of artificial intelligence.  The copy might not be trustworthy.

But I digress.  The use of music in Annihilation was especially noteworthy—the folky guitar that pervades the soundtrack might have seemed out of place, but I think that choice was intentional.  It signifies to many listeners something old, organic, natural—in a place that is deeply unnatural and unfamiliar. Moreover, the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song “Helplessly Hoping” was also a perfect fit for the film.  The lyrics resonate with the imagery of cell biology introduced at the beginning, during Lena’s med school lecture—“They are one person, they are two alone, they are three together, they are four [for] each other.”  The cell divides and divides—and in the end of the film, they actually are “four each other” in the sense that there are now two Kanes and two Lenas (sort of), since they both get cloned.  It may also be a nod to the dysfunction and loneliness of Kane and Lena’s marriage (“they are two alone”).

Another line in the song was unmistakably spot-on for the story: “Love isn’t lying, it’s loose in a lady who lingers, saying she is lost.”  That’s Lena.

One thing the film achieves superlatively is conveying Lena’s sense of loss in the early scenes. The entire sequence of Kane’s return is masterfully done–anyone who has grieved can understand the desperate desire to see the lost person walk through the door, in the flesh, and still exist–the impossible request all of us impose on reality.  Yet it happens in this story (sort of), and Lena is understandably shaken and shocked by it.

Annihilation has divided both viewers and critics, and it looks like it will not be the financial success that Ex Machina was.  Both films were dumped in the dead season of the Hollywood calendar, in late Winter before the big blockbusters of the late Spring and Summer get rolled out.  The studio might have intentionally given it a half-hearted campaign of promotion, suspecting that its eccentricity might not click with viewers or lead to strong word-of-mouth.  Interpretations of the film have centered particularly on the metaphor of cancer–a central character is living with terminal cancer, after all, and Area X seems to be a malignant, multiplying tumor on the face of the Earth.  Ecological concerns could be seen in both the film and the book, as the human species is arguably a virulent strain of life that is reproducing and devouring the world around it, threatening to kill its host.  Other theories focus more on the psychological and interpersonal themes of the film, including infidelity and self-destructiveness (a trait all characters involved possess).

However, the most satisfying theory from my point of view has to do with a human encounter with a different kind of life.  The tropes of guilt and broken marriages felt like narrative window-dressing to get audiences interested in the sci-fi elements of the story.  As in Arrival–a much more optimistic film–Annihilation is about how we confront the unknown.  It might be a form of life that is so different from our own that we don’t have the language or the mental toolbox to understand it, and it might destroy us.  But, in the meantime, we also might destroy ourselves–both things can be true.

In this sense, Annihilation may have its shortcomings as a story and a film, but it still stands as one of our great depictions of human encounter with alien life–up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  It is well worth seeing for anyone with the patience for something confusing and provocative, and the stomach for some unnerving violence.

For more of ToM’s film commentary, click here.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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