Spoilers Follow. Spoilers for the movie “Annihilation”.
(The following review might also go down easier if you’ve read the book.)
The novel was a bit less literal about the whole “Annihilation” part.
I’ve always been amazed that Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy became a massive best-seller. Truth is, I’m kind of amazed it even made it past the small presses.
Don’t take this as a criticism of the novels. Take it, rather, as an indictment of the North American reading public. Vandermeer is, after all, one of the pioneers of New Weird: literary, cryptic, unapologetically off-kilter. Have you read Southern Reach? Would you have expected it to climb to the top of a pile that holds up Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Dan Fucking Brown as role models?
The fact that it did fills me with wonder (Awesome! The genre made it without having to dumb down!), and hope (hey, if Southern Reach can own the bestseller lists, maybe I can too), and resentment (WTF? Annihilation is a household word and people say my stuff is too inaccessible for the mainstream market?). Then again, sneer as I might at readers of The da Vinci Code, at least those people are reading books. Most of us don’t even do that much.
Most of us go to the movies, though. So maybe the real test is whether a movie based on the book, a movie that respects the spirit of the book, can make it when thrown into the ring with Marvel and Pixar and LucasFilm and 20th-Century F— ah, let’s just keep it simple: with Disney.
As I write this, it doesn’t look good for “Annihilation” (the movie— henceforth distinguished from Annihilation, the novel). Box Office Mojo reports that it debuted at #4 (losing out to Peter Rabbit at #3)— which makes it a bomb, financially, but no worse than you could expect from a movie that test audiences found “too intellectual” and “too complicated”. That part actually gave me hope; that hope grew when director Alex Garland and producer Scott Rudin stood firm and told Paramount to fuck right off, when the studio wanted to make the film more “accessible”.
Paramount retaliated by cancelling plans for overseas theatrical distribution (except for China) and dumping those rights onto Netflix. I didn’t care; all signs pointed to a good film, a smart film, and the fact that it was too confusing for your average Transformers fan only proved the point. A lot of people hated “2001” when it came out; “The Thing” nearly killed John Carpenter’s career. And unlike “The Thing” on first release, the critics love “Annihilation”: 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, 79% on Metacritic. One of the few exceptions was science fiction’s own Annalee Newitz , who thought it sucked.
I believe I may fall somewhere in between.
Garland’s movie perfectly evokes the weird, skin-crawling dream-fever I experienced while reading the book. You can feel the air pressing down like invisible treacle. You sense the things watching you from just out-of-frame, you wonder at the skewed strangeness of the things right before your eyes. The acting is top-notch, and the science— well, you don’t go into a movie about an expanding paradimensional soap-bubble-o’doom expecting a list of technical citations. But the movie is science-savvy enough to know when it’s breaking the rules— at least, the rules we talking apes have discovered up to this point— and I’m fine with that.
Actually, kudos to the physicist for even knowing what Hox genes are.
Case in point: strange natural scarecrows springing up in lawns and meadows, shrubbery spontaneously assuming humanoid shape. The physicist (not being a biologist) speculates that you’ll find human Hox genes in that foliage, because Hox genes are what tell the tissue how to arrange itself during development. It’s both reasonable (that is what Hox genes do) and wrong. (The plants are not growing, Ent-like, into solid humanoid shapes, as they would even in the unlikely event that the humanoid recipe had somehow been ported between Kingdoms. They’re just the usual tangle of vines and twigs and branches— simply confined, bonsai-like, to a human-shaped jar. There’s some tertiary metaprocess involved here). The biologist immediately responds: “literally not possible”— leaving us not with a scientific boner, but with a scientific mystery that happens to go unsolved (along with pretty much everything else in this movie, admittedly). The idea of genetic refraction— presented not just as mechanism but as metaphor, as literal visual ambiance— kind of appeals to me.
Newitz seems to have missed this deliberate bit of ass-covering when she decries “Annihilation”‘s “painfully bad representations of how DNA works”. Or maybe she got it, but just didn’t buy it. Either way, I think she’s being too harsh. Obviously there’s more than DNA at work here; obviously we’re dealing with alien forces beyond our comprehension. Kubrick didn’t provide technical specs on how the monolith worked, either— and for all the folks who had trouble with “2001” when it first came out, I don’t remember anyone complaining about that fact.
Which makes this a good spot to talk about the ending, which Vandermeer himself has compared to the end of “2001”. I am not convinced. No matter how opaque Kubrick’s ending might have seemed at first glance, there’s no question that it resolved the plot: a specific thing happened to finish the story, whether it was obvious or not. Kubrick did, after all, have hard-SF maestro Arthur C. Clarke riding shotgun, to keep him from venturing too deeply into the woo. They knew what they were doing, even if audiences didn’t.
Not so sure that’s the case here.
The ending Garland stapled onto the movie is utterly unrelated to anything in the novel. He really had no choice about that. The novel doesn’t even have an ending— at least, not one that leaves us any wiser about all the mysteries laid out in the preceding pages. The book doesn’t so much end as go on hiatus, which is something you can forgive in the first act of a trilogy.
Garland obviously had to stick something before the credits. I’m not entirely sure he knew what it was, though. You’ve got a scaled-down version of the interior of the derelict alien ship from Alien. You’ve got twinkly Human/energy metamorphosis a la “Star Trek: The Motionless Picture”. You’ve got that humanoid oil slick from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”‘s execrable “Evil Skin” episode. And you’ve got some kind of mirror-mode marionette that inexplicably mimics every move our lone survivor makes, while in the process becoming her “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” doppelganger— which isn’t really in keeping with anything we’ve seen in Area X up until now (the Shimmer refracts things, it doesn’t reflect them— this whole pod-person element just comes out of nowhere).
Garland’s a smart guy; I really liked “Ex Machina” (although maybe a bit less than most). He seems to be pretty scrupulous about thinking things through— or at least he learned to be, sometime after making “Sunshine”. But I can’t shake the feeling than in this case, he just grabbed a bunch of random stuff and mooshed it together, hoping against hope that we’d read profundity into chaos.
I have to wonder how much that ending changed the middle, how many vital elements of the novel were jettisoned solely because the movie had to converge on some arbitrary endpoint thumbtacked to Garland’s corkboard. Is that why we lost the inverted tower spiraling down into the earth, the weird mutated Crawler scratching its endless prose into those walls? Is that why we never found how just how massively corrupt the Southern Reach was, why the lies and deceptions and all those unacknowledged previous expeditions never made it into the script? Is that why the very name of the story was changed so utterly in meaning, even if every letter was left in place?
Again: Alex Garland is a smart guy. At this stage in his career, he might not even be capable of making a bad movie, and “Annihilation” is not one. “Annihilation” is, at the very least, a good movie; it is an undeniably beautiful movie. It is even a brave movie, a movie made in defiance of lazy viewers and nervous distributors. I think the ending keeps it from being a brilliant movie, but I can’t be sure after one viewing (I’ll have to catch it again on Netflix).
I can be sure of one thing, though:
“Annihilation” is not Annihilation.
Am I sick, or is this kind of beautiful?