By all accounts, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer is an impossible book to turn into a movie. The book takes place in Area X, a natural environment whose strangeness unfurls in slow, subtle ways. To make matters more obscure, Area X is filtered through the eyes of someone slowly being contaminated by Area X. In her expedition journal, the Biologist claws at the insufficiency of language to describe Area X. Through this unreliable narrator, VanderMeer plays games of perspective and weirdness that, I assumed while reading, would never be possible in a movie.
And yet, thanks to the imaginative efforts of director and screenwriter Alex Garland, Annihilation was turned into movie. Even better – it was turned into a good movie (Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%). In order to adapt Annihilation, Garland had to make some massive changes from the book. Otherwise, the movie would consist entirely of Natalie Portman’s voiceover as the Biologist, Lena, and an argument about whether a certain structure is a tower or a tunnel (that entire argument, which is so present in the book, doesn’t figure in the movie). And that, my friends, would be a strange movie, not necessarily a good one.
For the most part, Annihilation the movie preserves the main concepts of Annihilation the book. A group of women professionals heads into an unforgiving, mysterious landscape, governed by different rules than our world. The protagonist is motivated to journey to Area X because her husband had been on the previous mission, and emerged utterly changed (in the movie, her husband is the only expedition member to ever return home). The expedition members are picked off, but not before rivalries form. Neither the book nor the movie is concerned with spoon-feeding answers to audiences so we can leave feeling like we know, absolutely, what Area X is or means.
There are so many little changes between the two works (ex: there’s no hypnosis in the movie, which I sort of missed), but the most significant deviation from the source material comes at the movie’s end. The movie’s final 20 minutes are spectacular, and will challenge all preconceptions about Area X that may have calcified in your mind earlier on. It is, as VanderMeer says, the kind of ending that people will pick over on the walk out of the theater, and beyond.
“The ending is so mind-blowing and in some ways different from the book that it seems to be the kind of ending that, like 2001 or something like that, people will be talking about around the watercooler for years. Visually, it’s amazing. I must say that and that’s all I probably should say,” VanderMeer told ScreenRant, long before the movie came out.
VanderMeer’s ending is far more subtle, which is fitting – the book is more subtle, too. Towards the end of the book, the Biologist discovers that, during his own expedition, her husband had taken a boat to an uncharted island in Area X. After encountering the terrifying, incomprehensible alien creature that lives beneath Area X — the alien that is creating Area X — the Biologist decides to stay in Area X and follow her husband’s trail.
But the movie is violent. And visually stunning. And loud (literally — the constant rumbling will shake you in your seat). So of course the ending would be violent, visually stunning, and loud. Here’s what happens, in an unpoetic nutshell: Lena discovers that the version of her husband who had returned home was actually a double. In leftover video footage, she sees that her husband had taken his own life, and let his double replace him. She descends into the tunnel, the heart of Area X, where she meets the alien. The alien mimics her, just as it had ostensibly done to her husband. She puts a bomb in the chrome alien’s hands, and sets it off. The alien lights the tunnel on fire, destroying Area X in the process. Lena wakes up in a lab.
So: She wins, right? Lena defeats Area X, and stops Area X’s boundaries from swallowing up the rest of civilization! Not so fast, bucko.
After her encounter with the alien, Lena is reunited with the double version of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). Though he had been extremely sick when Lena left for the mission, the doctor says he made a rapid recovery after Area X was destroyed. Almost as if the life force present in Area X went into him. Earlier in the movie, Lena had tested her blood and found she was contaminated with Area X, too. Lena and Kane stare at each other with the knowledge that they are now changed. Perhaps they are vessels for a new version of Area X. The ending is left purposefully ambiguous, but it's implied that with the creation of two agents, Area X’s relentless spread will continue somehow.
While talking to the scientists, Lena proposes the radical notion that maybe change, in the form of Area X taking over the whole world, isn’t bad. As Lena explains, change can be beautiful, too. Annihilation's ending is so chilling because we can't blame an evil plan or an evil person for the end of the world. The alien life form is nonverbal, and cannot voice its intentions. Instead, the villain is change. Change without meaning. Arbitrary change. And isn’t arbitrary, inexplicable change what we, the content, fear most? Area X is a highly abstract landscape, but its implications – annihilation of all we know — are terrifyingly prescient, especially in an era when world leaders flirt with nuclear war, and annihilation of all we know, on Twitter.