Posted on January 12, 2019
TL;DR: A beautiful movie that makes its own kind of sense while abandoning most of the key elements of Jeff VanderMeer’s moody classic. See it, but don’t do your book report on it.
Spoilers for Annihilation (2018) follow.
There are two summers in my life entirely affected by the fiction I was reading at the time. The first was the one where I unwisely chose to read Time Traveler’s Wife, Children of Men, Never Let You Go, 1Q84, and Oryx & Crake that ended with me in a bathtub quietly sobbing as I drew lines on my wrists with a rusty razor blade.
Eh, just kidding, but I did spend most of that summer consumed by a dread sense of dissociation. It was as if I had lost the ability to fully discern the difference between the reality of the programmed simulation we call life and the books I was reading inside that simulation. Basically, I felt like the world could conceivably collapse at any moment.
The next time that happened I was stuck with a long commute and listed to all three books of Jeff VanderMeer’s brilliant Southern Reach trilogy while sitting in the stultifying traffic at the 360 bridge in Austin. I can’t honestly think of another book like the ones from that series. I still haven’t seen the movie version of Children of Men or Time Traveler’s Wife. It’s a compulsion born out of the desired to protect the books I truly love from exposure to Hollywood hacks.
But I really like Natalie Portman and Alex Garland. And I really wanted a chance to see inside The Reach. To get that feeling that not only could life be a weapon, but that it could be unleashed on a whole planet, inexorably spreading out from a single point of impact until it remade all life in a new, mutated image and there’d be nothing we could do about it. No bomb. No gun. No amount of armed soldiers.
That’s not what the movie is about, however. The movie is more of a traditional Hollywood film with some of the moody air of the books left in for atmosphere. Portman does turn in an excellent performance, as does Oscar Isaac, but the complex interplay between the women on the team, between Lena and the Kane copy, between the team and management all seemed too neat and not mysterious. The fuel of the books is mystery and I just never got that from the movie.
The addition of body horror elements was effective. Nothing scares me more than a swamp or a jungle. The sight of life growing on life growing on life fills my mind with images of thick carpets of fungus coating my lungs and things moving under my fingernails. But they kind of let that notion go in order to end with what is becoming a standard Garland coda: the messenger(s) of the new way now in the established world. As with Ava in Ex Machina, the corrupted or copied versions of Lena and Kane are out of The Shimmer when it burns wondering what they are and what impact they will have on the world.
I’m sure the movie wants us to wonder about that, too, but I was still focused on The Shimmer. Was it destroyed? What about all the other things that take place in there in the other books? I wasn’t nearly as afraid of Lena and Kane as I was of The Reach itself. And that’s the primary failing of the movie: The Shimmer is the monster.
I never believed the books were adaptable and I think what we got mirrors the movie made from another unfilmable book called The Shining. It’s a copy that has the surface sheen of the original, but is filled with tumors.