Annihilation Spoilers ahead
Much like Area X itself, Annihilation defies expectations and explanations. The sci-fi film from writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) stars Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a team of scientists tasked with entering an anomaly from which no one has yet returned. Each woman is a complex bundle of history, neuroses, and personality quirks that help explain why they'd sacrifice themselves for knowledge of the Great Unknown. But while the film soars at letting women take the reigns of a genre dominated by men, it also manages to whitewash half the cast and strip out much of what made the novels so damn freaky.
Of course, film adaptations never get the source material exactly right (and when they do, such as in The Watchman, it becomes obvious why a beat for beat adherence isn't always great). Garland was very open before the film released that major changes were in store, and mostly those changes helped. Giving Lena (Natalie Portman) a background in the military to shuffle the plot past months of intense training makes sense, as does having the whole team tag along for the adventure to the lighthouse instead of keeping them at base camp.
But for all that I loved this now self-contained story about forces beyond our puny human reckoning, I can't help but wish Garland had read the book series more than once before committing his vision to paper. For every narrative beat or reveal that was left on the cutting room floor, there's another two that could've expanded the world of Area X in tantalizing ways. Below, are a handful of moments from the books that could've made Annihilation even more unsettling — and perhaps more satisfying — than the version we got.
In the film, the women enter Area X by traveling through the Shimmer. The Shimmer looks a lot like a perfectly blown bubble reflecting rainbows in the light. However, in the novels, there is only one way in and out of Area X: the door. It's not really a door, more of a gateway. And it's huge, like Kaiju-can-use-this-entrance huge. It just appeared one day after the Southern Reach had spent so much time sending drones and bunnies to their deaths trying to penetrate the Shimmer. The military freaked out and built a huge defense installation around the door, because why put it there if giant monsters weren't about to pour out? None ever did.
I could've easily labeled this as "The Lighthouse Keeper" as they are truly one in the same. I understand removing the weird creature writing poetry on the walls with alien fungi. It would've added at least another 20 minutes to the film and ultimately nothing explains the Crawler. So what is it? We can't know. Looking at it will drive a human to madness. But from what Lena gleans before succumbing to temporary insanity is an eldritch god mixed with a slug that also has engulfed a human (the lighthouse keeper) and is using him to try and communicate with us. Having a nod to that with the psychologist encased in goo might have been nice.
Speaking of the psychologist, her arc could've had a much more meaningful reveal. Dr. Ventress isn't just obsessed with Area X because of her years dealing with sending teams of people to their (assumed) deaths. She doesn't just volunteer for the mission because she's dying of cancer. Oh no, the psychologist grew up in Ground Zero of the anomaly and, only by a fluke of summer vacation was she not home when the meteor hit. Ventress has spent her adult life wondering what happened to both her mother and the kindly lighthouse keeper that acted as a surrogate grandfather to her curious, introverted child self.
The Time Change
But how could Ventress have grown up in Area X if she's middle-aged and this is only the 12th expedition to cross the Shimmer? Because it's not the 12th expedition. It's like the 100th or more expedition. Each cycle goes through 12 teams and then starts over to keep the numbers low and not freak out the guinea pigs. Lena only discovers this when she finds piles and piles of discarded lab notebooks in the lighthouse. On top of that, Annihilation fails to mention the discovery that time moves faster in Area X. All those overgrown towns and wild forests? It's not an increase in biological functions, it's the long passage of time. There's a good chance the people who weren't evacuated (and a few expeditions) lived and died within Area X.
The Southern Reach/government aren't the only people interested in the phenomenon known as Area X. While adding in a whole subplot about the cultists convinced Area X is the will of their god would've been entirely out of place with the pacing of the film, could not Cast (Tuva Novotny) have been discovered to be part of their mysterious organization after her untimely death at the jaws of the Nightmare Bear?
This is my one real pet peeve with the film. Annihilation takes Lena's journey of self-discovery and turns it into a love story. In the books, her husband's clone is long dead before she enters Area X and the character makes it quite clear she's a little sociopathic and knows it. She loved her husband...as much as she was able. The film scraps this character trait and as such gives Lena a happy ending (relatively speaking) by having her maybe return to the Real World™ to help her Not-Husband acclimate to his new reality. The novel trilogy leaves you with different questions about the nature of Area X but you definitively know one thing: Lena didn't come back, her clone did.
The Elder Gods
Annihilation pulls the easiest punch by turning the meteor into a cosmic event whereby an alien species incomprehensible to us is, for some reason trying to make a new Adam and Eve. We could've had Cthulhu guys. CTHULHU. In a mainstream sci-fi horror film. Instead, we got budget Silver Surfer.
Dive deeper into Annihilation
- Read our review of Annihilation
- The ending of Annihilation explained
- The Lovecraftian connections of Annihilation