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For decades it seems we’ve been searching for a new Eden. A natural area untouched by our corrupting influence. Perhaps we can create it through conservation. Perhaps it lies up there, among the stars. In Jeff Vandermeer’s 2014 novel Annihilation and Alex Garland’s 2018 adaptation of the same name this New Eden exists but not as we imagine it. Its name is Area X and it is nature, deified.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist whose husband Sergeant Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for over a year. Upon his return a strange aloofness rapidly turns into massive organ failure and both Lena and Kane end up in a research facility in the Florida Everglades. It’s revealed that Kane was part of a recon team sent into a region known as Area X in the novel or the Shimmer in the film. Seeing no other way to save Kane, Lena travels into the Shimmer with four other women: psychologist Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), geomorphologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) and physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson). From there the mutated landscape, animals and atmosphere of the Shimmer conspire to tear the group apart.
Upon a first reading of Vandermeer’s Annihilation it can come off as strangely emotionless as if the main character – the unnamed Biologist upon whom Lena is based – is already an alien in an equally alien land. But diving a little deeper it’s easy to read this emotionless, scientific gaze as both a coping mechanism and the result of world-changing grief. This evolves in Lena – a Portman performance for the ages – as she attempts to overcome this lack of feeling by painting the bedroom Kane disappeared from a year ago. This lack of feeling quickly disappears as Lena sobs uncontrollably, overcome by the emotional enormity of such a simple task. But this surge of love and loss is ultimately what drives her to search for answers in the Shimmer no matter the cost.
Where Garland adapted it into a science-fiction film with the palpable unease of a horror, Vandermeer’s novel veers closer to eco-horror by way of H. P. Lovecraft. The creatures in his slim, lean book are esoteric and unknowable but nonetheless natural, provided whatever caused Area X to spring up was natural. Lena and the Biologist enter Area X and the Shimmer the same way but soon after they pass the border the differences emerge. The Biologist’s husband is already dead by the time she arrives at the Southern Reach facility but there is still a chance that Lena can save Kane. Though both Lena and the Biologist are grown from the same DNA the differences between the two are fundamental.
Garland picks and chooses what to keep from the novel. Gone is the hypnotic suggestion, most of the infighting and, most importantly, gone is the Tower and the Crawler. Within the first few chapters of Vandermeer’s text the Eleventh Expedition stumble on a structure that corkscrews deep underground; a seemingly endless but not uninhabited staircase. Written on the walls is a message by a creature so unknowable the team christen it only as “the Crawler”. It begins: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead…” It’s written like a sermon from some evil God that resides in the trees, the water, even the air.
Annihilation as a film finds little beauty in words but quite a lot in imagery. Any of the man-made structures look sterile and artificial especially when juxtaposed with what likes beyond the oil slick coloured wall of the Shimmer. Even Lena’s home looks like an untouched show house devoid of any natural life, ironic considering her profession. But maybe a show house is better considering the strangling vines and pinwheel coloured flowers that overtake the buildings within the Shimmer. Trees crystallize, deer grow flowered antlers, a crocodile’s mouth is filled with shark teeth, a bear merges with its victims and moss grows in the shape of a global map.
Garland’s film is built around two stunning sequences. The doppelganger dance at the end, which we’ll get to, and the swimming pool sequence that ends the first act. Through the viewfinder of a battered video camera Lena and her team watch as Kane slices open the stomach of a fellow soldier and slides his hands among the man’s squirming, coiling intestines. Sickened the team pull away and retreat, unintentionally, to the same swimming pool the man was eviscerated in. There he remains but grown out into a throne of moss and fungus, his skull the crown of this new life form. It’s the first moment of real horror in Annihilation. It’s the moment, like in Psycho or The Exorcist or any other horror movie, where that flicker of “Oh shit I really fucked up” appears briefly on a character’s face before cold, inevitable dread replaces it.
Both versions of Annihilation end in a confrontation but who that confrontation is with and how it ends are very different. After learning of her husband’s expedition into Area X the Biologist – changed by spores she inhaled in the Tower – elects not to return to the Southern Reach and instead climbs down into the Tower in search of the Crawler. Lena decides to make her way to the Lighthouse, fully aware of the irreversible effect the Shimmer has had on her as evinced in her blooming, fractal blood cells and the ever-changing, kaleidoscopic colour of her eyes. In the Lighthouse she finds the answers she was looking for and more on top of that.
Where the Southern Reach Trilogy never properly reveals how Area X came to be Garland reveals the Shimmer to be the result of a cosmic impact, a meteorite striking the Lighthouse. This meteorite carried an alien that adapts to its surroundings by both copying them and then twisting them in a way that either it recognises or is totally random. It does this to Ventress, it did it to Kane and it attempts to do the same to Lena. As the two dance around and attack each other to the fog-horn synths of Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s cellular, blossoming score the alien shifts from liquid metal blob to a stick-like humanoid before becoming Lena herself.
Both novel and adaptation end with a confrontation between a changing human woman and a shifting, fractal creature. Area X and the Shimmer are defiantly resistant to human occupation but both are keen to spread their influence into the human world. Nature will eventually reclaim all that we have built, Area X is just keen that it happens quickly.
At the end of Annihilation a division at the cellular level has occurred. The Biologist that walked into Area X at the beginning is not the same as the one that is found in the next book, Authority hence her request: “Call me Ghost Bird”. In much the same way Lena is no longer the bawling, empty mess we were introduced to. As she asks the newly recovered Kane at the end if it’s really him and he responds “I don’t think so…” we’re left to wonder if it was really Lena that escaped the Shimmer. In Vandermeer’s trilogy the old god nature remains and revenges. In Alex Garland’s film a new one rises having killed what created it. Will humanity survive the new Eden it may seek to create? I don’t think so…