As my faithful followers already know, I loved the book Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer. (You can read my review of the novel here, Annihilation.) I loved the entire Southern Reach trilogy. (You can read my review of the series here, Annihilation – Authority – Acceptance.) I was so excited to go to the movie based on the first book of the series when it was released. The screenplay adapting the book for the movie was written by Alex Garland. Sadly, the movie wasn’t released to my local cinema and I had to wait to get it from Netflix. Having watched it a couple of times, I feel that I am finally ready review the film.
The movie is not the book. That said, I like the movie. I like it separately and for different reasons than I love the book. It was because of these differences and the fact that I like both versions I decided to compare the movie and the book.
SERIOUS MOVIE SPOILERS AHEAD!!!! If you have not seen the movie and are planning to…… STOP READING RIGHT NOW!! Please finish reading after you have watched the film. Seriously, do not read beyond this point if you haven’t watched the film. Okay. You have been warned.
Directed by Alex Garland, this movie is beautifully filmed. It begs for a large screen. I can’t begin to imagine how amazing it must have been to watch it on the big screen of the movie theater. The special effects are gorgeous. There is a scene where the characters are walking up to an abandoned structure near water and there is a riot of flowers growing. Josie makes the comment, “It looks like someone is about to have a wedding.” In another scene, Lena the biologist is looking for Cassie and comes across a pair of deer that mirror each other. They do not resemble the deer we see in the woods but are quite beautiful. Towards the end of the movie, just before the lighthouse, Lena walks through a landscape of crystal looking trees that are visually stunning.
Music for the film was done by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The musical score adds to the effects and overall atmosphere of the film. I think the songs that highlighted flashbacks were also well-chosen and add depth to separation of the different places, Shimmer (more on the name to follow) versus the world we live in.
In the book Annihilation the participants of the expedition that goes into Area X were simply called by their professions: biologist, anthropologist, surveyor, and psychologist. This stripping of identity was, in my opinion, necessary to add to the strangeness of the experiences of the expedition members and the place. Of course, in a movie, where people are talking about themselves, there are flashbacks, and descriptions are more than job titles, you need to have names for the characters to communicate with each other.
The actors in the film do an excellent job of portraying their characters. Lena (the biologist) was played by Natalie Portman. Jennifer Jason Leigh led the all woman expedition as the psychologist, Dr. Ventress. Gina Rodrigruez portrayed Anya Thorensen a para-medic from Chicago. Tessa Thompson played Josie Radek, a physicist from Cambridge. Cassie “Cass” Sheppard, a geo-morphologist, was played by Tuva Novotny. Oscar Isaac played Kane, a soldier and Lena’s husband, who went into the Shimmer in the mission before hers. Benedict Wong played Lomax, the man questioning Lena.
All of the characters are battling their own demons. At one point, Cassie says to Lena, “Volunteering for this is not exactly something you do if your life is in perfect harmony.” Cassie went on to say “We are all damaged goods here.”
There are screen shots separating the film into sections. Area X. The Shimmer. The Lighthouse. Setting the stage for the viewer, preparing them for what comes next.
The books call the anomaly “Area X,” which I think gives it an ominous sound. This sets the reader up for anything to happen. In the movie, the anomaly is called “the shimmer.” The word is descriptive of the effect for the type of force field that surrounds the area. To me, this descriptive word seems to diminish the seriousness of the anomaly. It sounds like a name for a techno club in Ibiza.
Another difference between the book and movie is the amount of time that the anomaly has existed. The time span of Area X is decades and it had been very slowly expanding exponentially. The time and depth of what that means by lost resources and lives is felt by the finding of the notebooks in the lighthouse. In the movie, the Shimmer has only been around for three years but is rapidly radiating out from the lighthouse. This is illustrated by Dr. Ventress and Cassie recognizing the old military base that was the headquarters of the Southern Reach before the Shimmer overtook it and later Dr. Ventress telling the others that the town they came to was evacuated two years ago.
I’m not going to lie, the book was scary in a couple of parts. Not sleep with the lights on scary, but turning on the lights before going into a dark room kind of scare. That didn’t stop me from imagining myself on an expedition to Area X with a group of people I could trust. The movie didn’t scare me. Yes, there were some very uncomfortable scenes: video tape left for those who follow, the bear through the fence, when the women were tied to chairs, and the scene in the lighthouse (more on that to follow). Maybe it was because what I imagined in my mind from the book was so much scarier than CGI could ever produce, that the movie didn’t scare me.
In the book there was a Creature that lived in the marsh grasses between the Tower and the Lighthouse. You never actually see the creature. It makes noises that are unnerving. There is one scene where the biologist is leaving the lighthouse and heading back to go to the Tower. The creature chases her along the path through the marsh grasses. The description of the chase is very well written and quite creepy. However, there is no marsh grass Creature in the movie.
Also in the book. there is a creature that the biologist calls the Crawler. The Crawler is in the Tower when expedition members come across it but you learn in the book that it makes a trip between the Tower and the Lighthouse. The biologists interactions with the crawler are unnerving and a bit terrifying to say the least. The Crawler is also not included in the movie.
The movie has a mutating alligator with teeth like a shark and a bear that seems to be decaying, absorbing bits of its prey and blending into its surroundings all at the same time. Inside the lighthouse there is the alien entity but more about that when we get to the lighthouse.
In the book, the Lighthouse is important. But the reason it is important is for the events that happened inside and around it and the history it holds as the reliquary of the notebooks. The Tower is far more important in its significance of the Creature and what the Tower produces.
Both the book and the movie have the lighthouse being the center of an alien event that caused Area X/the Shimmer. However in the movie, the Lighthouse is of much greater importance. First of all because there isn’t a Tower in the movie and it is where you discover what happened to Kane. It is also where the alien entity resides. Lena has an interaction with the entity and the entity creates a double of Lena from a drop of her blood. Lena kills this double and escapes. In her killing of her double, Lena kills the alien entity and destroys the Shimmer.
Both the movie and the book have the Psychologist using the word annihilation. In the book, the psychologist has fallen from the Lighthouse in an attempt to get away from the biologist. When the biologist finds her, she shouts the word annihilation at her. We find out later that the word annihilation was a verbal cue through hypnotism for the biologist to kill herself. In the movie, Dr. Ventress talks about the entity taking over everything and everyone. That it would fracture bodies and minds into their smallest parts until nothing remains. Dr. Ventress calls it annihilation.
At one point, during Lena’s questioning by Lomax, he asks her for her motivation for going into the Shimmer. Lena states that she owed it to her husband to find out what had happened to him. And I think part of it was her guilt over having an affair. The biologist in the book did not have an affair but was emotionally distant from her husband and felt that she had driven to going onto an expedidion in Area X. Also he wasn’t a soldier, he was a medic. Later in the movie, Lomax asks Lena why she was the only one to survive. Her response ties in to her reason for going in, in the first place. “I had to come back. I’m not sure any of them did.”
Something perplexing that was not in the book and was never explained in the movie was the appearance of the infinity symbol tattoo on those who went into the Shimmer. The only real acknowledgment of it is in a scene where Lena comments that she seems to be getting a bruise on her arm and thinks it is from the encounter with the alligator. I feel like I am missing something. Was something cut out? Was there going to be some profound statement about the tattoo at some point? If anyone knows or has a theory about it, I would be interested in hearing it.
Kane killed himself with flash grenade. When Lena returns to the headquarters of the Southern Reach and sees her “husband” again, she asks him if he is Kane. He answers, “I don’t think so.” Is the Shimmer still alive in Lena and the copy of Kane?
A couple of things I noticed in the film that I thought were interesting. First were the camera shots through glass or plastic, obscuring the images. Reminded me of the way in which the shimmer refracted light. Then there was the visual balance of the glasses of water. Towards the beginning of the film when Kane drinks out of his glass after coming back from the shimmer and towards the end when Lena drinks out of hers at the end of being questioned. One last thing, Lena and Kane’s house outside the shimmer resembles the over-grown house that Lena, Josie, Anya and Dr. Ventress stay in, in the evacuated city.
In closing, I found the film to be interesting and enjoyable. Very thought provoking and definitely worth watching. But again, I remind you, dear readers, it is not the book.