This article contains spoilers for the plot of the film and novel Annihilation.
Just days after its release, Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller Annihilation already has all the hallmarks of a polarizing cult classic. Its $11 million opening weekend means the film will likely struggle to make its budget back unless the word-of-mouth is exceptional; its C grade from audiences (awarded by the theater-polling company Cinemascore) suggests it will not be. Reviews from critics were largely strong, with some praising it for simply being a studio film that dares to be weird; others, including The Atlantic’s own Christopher Orr, found it visually stimulating but “mundane, largely opaque, and intermittently comical.” And crucially, Annihilation has a surreal, open-ended climax that’s left to the viewer to puzzle out and discuss.
Though based on Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, Garland’s movie takes considerable plot liberties with a story that was written with sequels in mind. The director, who was working from a manuscript that had been acquired by Paramount and the producer Scott Rudin, made it clear that he didn’t want to leave the ending of his film open for future installments. As a huge fan of VanderMeer’s book (and its subsequent volumes), I was initially discombobulated by Garland’s approach and just how radically different his take on Annihilation was. But the more I think about it, and about the ending in particular, the more I’m impressed with how he translated a very internal, psychologically focused novel to the screen and, in doing so, gave form to so many of the story’s horrifying concepts.
In VanderMeer’s book, a team of (unnamed) scientists journey into “Area X,” an inexplicable and expanding ecological phenomenon centered on a lighthouse in the “Southern Reach,” an uninhabited part of the country. Teams of researchers have been sent in, and those that return often emerge in a zombie-like state and die of cancer soon afterwards. The book’s protagonist is a biologist whose husband was part of the prior mission; she is transfixed by a “tower” (described as a subterranean staircase) that her expedition comes upon, within which she meets an unfathomable creature she calls the “Crawler.” The encounter changes her (in mysterious ways expanded on in the sequels) and eventually puts her at odds with the leader of her group, a psychologist, who had been controlling the team through hypnotic suggestion.
None of this material, past the bare plot bones and characters, is in the film. The biologist is named Lena and played by Natalie Portman, the psychologist (now Dr. Ventress) is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. (The biologist is also specified as being half-Asian in the sequel book, Authority, something Garland says he was unaware of when adapting the first novel.) Area X is still an unexplained and growing ecosystem on the Florida coast, but it’s mostly referred to as “the Shimmer,” after the soapy, hazy glow of its borders. Lena’s husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), did go on the last expedition and come back changed, but he’s still alive (though in seriously ill health) and the specifics of his relationship with Lena (who at some point had an affair with a colleague) are more crucial to the overall story. There’s no Crawler, no hypnotic suggestion, and Lena’s final showdown at the lighthouse is not with the psychologist, but with a humanoid being that’s more obviously alien than anything in VanderMeer’s book.
Garland has said his interpretation of Annihilation is inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), in which a nameless writer and a scientist journey into a ruined area called “the Zone” with the help of a strange guide. In Stalker, each character’s quest for meaning and understanding—be it artistic inspiration or a thirst for knowledge—becomes a literal environment for them to navigate, a frightening industrial wasteland of concrete Soviet-era architecture and desolate forests. In Annihilation, Lena is journeying through a world that reflects her darkest fears of disease, death, and the lonely disillusion of her marriage.
The film begins with Lena explaining the reproductive cycle of a cell, dividing and spreading. When she and her team—Ventress, the paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), the physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and the anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny)—enter the Shimmer, they encounter strange biological formations that Lena describes as malignant, like a tumor spreading across the planet. These structures echo the nightmare disease besieging her husband, who returned from the Shimmer an emotionally distant sleepwalker of a person who quickly begins to suffer multiple-organ failure. Lena observes as things shift and mutate around her, encountering bizarre, blended forms of plant and animal life. One of these hybrid creatures, a bear, kills Cass and absorbs her in death, tormenting the others with the sounds of her final screams.
As their journey continues, the team realizes that their own bodies are changing into something new, a fate that befell every group before them (including Kane’s). This knowledge drives Anya mad, turning her against the rest, while Josie decides to accept it, transforming into a plantlike structure. Early on, Ventress diagnoses Lena as self-destructive, wondering why else she’d walk into a death zone like Area X. Lena does seem to be haunted by her own failures in life—we flash back to better times with Kane, then her affair. By the time Kane returns, he’s a hollowed-out shell, and in going into the Shimmer, Lena is essentially exploring the psychological landscape of their ruined relationship.
At the end of the film, Ventress and Lena reach the lighthouse, a sort of Siege Perilous for them to endure. Ventress, who is revealed to be suffering from terminal cancer, transforms into a psychedelic flower-like creature (think Georgia O’Keeffe meets Alex Grey), proclaiming the purpose of the Shimmer to be total Earthly destruction. But then Lena is confronted by a metallic figure that mirrors her every move, a clone of sorts that fights with her in an elaborate physical ballet that was choreographed by Bobbi Jene Smith (playing the humanoid is Sonoya Mizuno, the actress and dancer who appeared in Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina).
Lena escapes, but only because the creature copies Lena’s own hostility, fighting her until it’s destroyed by a grenade; the lighthouse burns up in her wake. Lena has navigated a world that’s undoubtedly dangerous but also weirdly beautiful, and she’s left it in ruins. So much of Garland’s imagery—of the curious plant life, the hybrid creatures, even the thing Ventress becomes—is as beguiling as it is forbidding. On returning, Lena seems physically changed by what’s happened (her eyes have a Shimmer-like glow to them), while her husband (an alien clone spawned by Area X) has magically recovered and greets her with a hug. Their relationship has survived, though it’s been unmistakably altered.
“It’s destroying everything,” Ventress says earlier in the film as the team investigates. “It’s not destroying, it’s making something new,” Lena replies. They’re both right, in a sense; they’re just taking in the Shimmer from their own perspectives. For Ventress, who is being ravaged by disease, it’s like she’s walked into her own cancer cell. For Lena, she’s reliving the death of a relationship, coming across disturbing video evidence of her husband’s team (who all died in some mysterious manner) before finding, at the lighthouse, his own skeletal corpse. In going into Area X, Lena thinks she has nothing to lose; in surviving, she’s mutated into something she might not entirely recognize but that can live in the world again.
Garland’s achievement with Annihilation is in merging sci-fi horror with a more intimate psychodrama. He took VanderMeer’s book and, like the Shimmer, made it into something new, something retaining a seed of the original idea that also manages to exist alongside it—a rarity for an adaptation. In refusing to slavishly adapt the novel, Garland swerved away from the imagery and storytelling I loved, but his film is fascinating and dense in its own myriad ways, the kind of cult classic I know I’ll love revisiting in the years to come.