Annihilation is out now. Get your tickets here!
SPOILERS for Annihilation to follow.
Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation has been shrouded with both intrigue and a dash of controversy since its development was announced. The film was accused of white-washing the protagonist’s Asian descent, for starters. The biologist’s race, however, wasn’t the only significant change from text to screen. Unnamed characters were personified, fates were altered, and the ending was changed completely.
This trippy sci-fi film and its equally trippy source material have distinct differences, and I’d venture to say that, aside from any intentional white-washing, Garland’s creative veers from the blueprint left by VanderMeer actually make this adaptation a triumphant improvement. This might be the only time I’ll ever say it, but, the movie is better.
As he proved most recently with his film Ex Machina, Garland knows how to ratchet up stakes and the tension subtly over time, until pieces either come together or scramble into chaos. This is exactly what he does with Annihilation. One of the most significant ways Garland achieves heightening the intrigue and emotion is simple but effective: he gives the characters names. The biologist, psychologist, anthropologist, surveyor, and linguist become Lena, Dr. Ventress, Cass Sheppard, Josie Radek, and Anya Thorensen. VanderMeer’s story is less about the intimacy of humanity and more about the breakdown of a civilization. Garland’s interpretation examines more of the self-destructive tendencies of the individual, and how they’re reflective of the human race as a whole. Giving these characters real names humanizes them, creating an emotional connection with the audience. They’re picked off one by one regardless, but they also each fall apart differently. The method and the rate of their unraveling is unique to the fatal flaws they venture into the Shimmer to confront or escape.
Garland has a reputation for disassembling humanity, examining it, and putting it back together to make a creation that’s not quite the same as it was before. Regardless of whether humankind achieved a victory over what lives and thrives in the Shimmer, it’s not going to walk away unchanged, just like we never walk away from a trauma without scars. To see this evolution, Lena and her husband Kaine cannot succumb to the same fates in the film as they did in the book, at least not in the exact same way. Who is to say how much the Lena and Kaine we’re left with at the end are reflective of the wife and husband they once were, but they didn’t face the concrete, black and white, dead or alive fates that awaited them at the end of the book.
Although the rest of the members of both Lena’s and Kaine’s expeditions fall victim to the Shimmer just like in the novel, the art of their death and destruction is different in the film. The terrors of the Shimmer are visceral and violent, much more concrete than the brightness and mysterious moaning that permeates the pages of the source material. The beasts waiting in the gorgeous growths of blooms and trees are symbolic of our own deep-seeded monsters, refracted through a lens into something else, something more.
In the book, the psychologist manipulates each member of the expedition with hypnosis, controlling their emotions, fears, and in many cases, their lives. Switching this up to foster fear only through what the characters face within themselves inside the Shimmer succeeds in emphasizing the narrative of each character’s own individual self-destruction that the psychologist is only there to bring to light rather than control.
Shepperd and Thorensen’s screams live on inside a degenerated, or perhaps evolved, bear, an act of helpless surrender. Radek and Ventress both hand themselves willingly over to the Shimmer, as women who have desired the ability to take over the reins of their own lives - Radek with her continuous attempts at self-inflicted pain, and Ventress with her cancer diagnosis. Lena, on the other hand, must face only herself and decide to take control of her own life back.
The answers Garland gives, along with the questions he leaves behind for us to ask, might not be quite as tidy or procedural as the source material, but it’s transcendently flawed in all the ways that make a success. Where VanderMeer steps back, Garland leans in. When the complex art of human emotion blends with the concrete calculations of science, the result can sometimes be a symphony. While VanderMeer provided all of the right notes, Garland stepped in and turned it into beautiful, bizarre music.