I read a review of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation that called the novel “ineffable.” That for me is the perfect word to frame that text, not because it’s necessarily a perfect novel, but because it is so sure in its storytelling: it’s a book that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to be. It’s also a horrifically difficult book to turn into a movie.
The book and director Alex Garland’s movie both revolve around the members of an expedition into a super-secret, unexplained phenomenon slowly devouring a stretch of shoreline in an undisclosed area of the United States. Here, though, the similarities with the book fizzle out. Where the novel gave us mystery upon mystery and repeatedly refuses readers answers, the movie gives much more definite answers. Granted, that’s not a high bar: in the novel, the characters are not named, the whole of the narrative is contained within Area X, and the most basic personal details are introduced halfway through the book as illuminating twists.
Lena (Natalie Portman), a parallel to the book’s nameless Biologist, follows the mysterious hints and clues about what is afflicting her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). Accompanying her into the dream-scape of “The Shimmer” is a team of fascinating, diverse, and sympathetic women: Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Their expedition is the vehicle that takes the viewer into a brilliantly re-imagined world full of bold wonders and entrancing nightmares. You won’t be blinking much watching this movie.
In the first forty minutes of the movie, though, I was flummoxed: why were they giving these characters names? Why did they contextualize the lives of the expedition members? Where was the smooth, analytic, and determinedly Zen voice of the protagonist?
But the movie makes its deviations so clear and jarring by the time the expedition sets off across the border of “The Shimmer” that there’s no use clinging to the novel anymore. The characters of the novel are not the characters of the movie. Area X in the book is not the same definition of Area X in the movie. The Shimmer has been standing for only three years. Area X of the novel has been standing for over thirty. All the text clues of the novel are replaced with entirely dissimilar video clues left over from the previous expedition. The various subtle dangers of the novel are not the various subtle/not-subtle dangers of the movie. I could go on. In short, it isn’t the book on screen. It’s a beautiful, flexible, and expansive adaptation in the most basic sense of adaptation: it adapts drastically for a new medium, abandoning what doesn’t work, and brimming with imaginative new narrative twists that absolutely do.
It also gives more satisfying hints at the answer to the mystery, without necessarily giving away the mystery altogether: the narrative opens with the reproduction of cancer cells expanded on a screen; before long we overhear discussions about immortal cells, and in one scene Lena is actually reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Clues abound, but thankfully, so does wonder and mystery.
Which brings me to the accusation of white-washing that’s haunted the movie since its casting. It isn’t until the second book of The Southern Reach Trilogy that VanderMeer starts giving the cast of Annihilation physical descriptions. Or, at least two of the women, The Biologist and the Psychologist, who are both mixed race (Asian and Native American, respectively). Because white actresses were hired to play these two characters, the cry of whitewashing went across the internet.
While many movies of recent years absolutely do deserve to set off that alarm, I don’t feel that Annihilation is one of them. It changes the race of various characters, true. But the headcount of major white male roles in the movie is—count ’em—zero. Portman, Novotny, and Leigh’s characters are the only white actors in the movie. Which is ironic, since in the book they are the only specified nonwhite characters (assuming Sheppard is another Biologist-parallel). But it’s worth noting that the movie is doing its damnedest to deviate from the book as pointedly as possible on many fronts. I won’t pretend that’s not an awkward choice, but I hardly think that the movie functions on the same level as, say, Tilda Swinton in Dr. Strange.
One area where the movie does fail is in not supporting the same kind of assured feminism as the book. In the book, the fact that the mission is entirely composed of women isn’t dwelt upon. In the movie, it’s defended. The women are regularly debilitated by grief and panic; Lena wants to save her husband, going into The Shimmer because, “I owe him.” The other members of the expedition are all revealed to be bereaved or mentally burdened in some way, through loss or other tragedy. They’re set up in contrast to the previous, all-male, tough-as-nails military expeditions: they, in comparison, are not hardened. They are motivated by men in their lives. I felt a similar sense of disappointment as I did in Interstellar, when Anne Hathaway’s character was revealed to be motivated by romantic love—which Nolan’s macho exploration narrative did not draw in a flattering light.
Annihilation is an adventure. It isn’t the adventure that so many readers adored in the VanderMeer novel. But the movie does capture the slippery tone of fascinated wonderment that I for one doubted Garland could bring to the screen. It is exactly what it sets out to be: a confident and inventive adaptation that brings something new even to the book’s biggest fans.