Life, as the unnamed biologist in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation might say, is complicated. It is birth, growth, death, and rebirth—a cycle of creation and destruction. It’s also a matter of perspective. When we talk about life on Earth, or human life, or the life of an individual person, we are necessarily limiting our focus to things we have named, things we believe we know and understand: a particular arrangement of elements and compounds and electro-chemical processes that produces familiar results in a familiar context. Disrupt this delicate chain, disrupt its context, and the essential cycle is broken; life is extinguished. Or so it seems. But pressing in upon our narrow perspective is a larger one: for all the strangeness and complexity we encounter, the true nature of life is stranger and more complex than we can comprehend.
Faced with the uncanny, most of us retreat into the comfort of the settled perspective. A few brave souls are curious enough to test the limits of what we know about the world and ourselves.
VanderMeer pushes these limits hard in Annihilation, which tells the story of a scientific expedition sent to explore a mysterious stretch of coastland, dubbed “Area X,” somewhere in the American South. Area X has been cut off from the surrounding world by a strange border, and if reports from previous expeditions are to be believed, it has become a pristine wilderness. The current expedition, the twelfth, is made up of four women, all scientists, including our narrator, the aforementioned biologist. (The team members have been stripped of their names and are known to each other only by their areas of expertise—psychologist, anthropologist, surveyor, biologist—the better to encourage scientific objectivity, according to the expedition’s planners.) Shortly after reaching their base camp, the team finds an unexpected tunnel-like structure nearby, and immediately all their training and preparation is rendered useless in the face of the unknown.
What follows is by turns beautiful, strange, and horrifying. Nothing in Area X is quite what it seems. It won’t spoil the wonder of the novel to reveal that the team quickly disintegrates and the twelfth expedition comes to ruin, like the others before it. Nor is it too much to say that the biologist’s husband was among the members of the eleventh expedition; or that he returned from Area X, briefly, as a ghostlike shell of himself, a “sudden apparition” with few memories and fewer emotions; or that he and all the other members of the eleventh expedition died of inoperable cancer soon after their inexplicable homecomings. All of these details the biologist relates early on, to prepare us for the journey ahead. As her story unfolds, as she begins to grasp the true nature of Area X and be transformed by it, we are drawn into the mystery along with her.
Annihilation is a book you read in a sitting or two, a book you steal time to finish, because you can’t put it down. Because if you do manage to put it down, you can’t stop thinking about it.
The book is also unadaptable … or so I thought until I saw filmmaker Alex Garland’s sublime adaptation of it.
On screen, Garland’s Annihilation succeeds by testing the limits of its source material in exactly the same way that VanderMeer challenges his readers to see beyond their assumptions about the nature of life and reality. The film’s basic premise—an all-female team is sent to explore the mystery of Area X after previous missions have failed—remains the same, but the central theme is given a different twist, and many key details of the plot are refracted, reimagined, or replaced entirely. (Emily Hughes, writing in Electric Literature, argues that the film goes so far beyond the original story, it ceases to be an adaptation and becomes something else entirely.) The biologist, played by Natalie Portman, has a name, Lena, as do the rest of the characters, including the biologist’s husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). More significantly, Kane is still alive when Lena volunteers to join the expedition. She knows her husband is dying, she knows his sickness is related to his mission, and she believes she can find a cure in Area X. With this change, the major dramatic question of the story shifts from “what is the mystery of Area X?” to “can Lena save Kane?” It’s a sharp departure, and yet the film nevertheless remains true to the novel’s emotional core even as it transforms into something new and unexpected, not least a meditation on the impulse toward self-destruction that seems to be an inescapable part of the human experience.
Garland, whose directorial debut, Ex Machina, left me in tears, has called his take on Annihilation a “weird, metaphysical hallucinogenic atmospheric piece.” While it certainly is all of those things, it is also an embodiment of the transformative process that is at the heart of Area X—the endless cycle of creation and destruction that defines life at its grandest, most abstract scale, where nothing in the cycle persists except life itself. All organisms die, but life survives and thrives by continuously reclaiming and repurposing its component parts, adapting, changing, reconstituting into different expressions of itself that are neither wholly new nor wholly recognizable. As Area X refracts and remakes everything that passes through it, so Annihilation has been refracted and remade—in a sense, annihilated through Garland’s creative process, only to be reborn in its new form, a dream of a dream.
The two versions of the story stand alone, doubled yet independent in a way that mirrors one of Annihilation’s most uncanny conceits. You don’t need to read the book to understand the film and be shattered by it; and you shouldn’t expect the film to be beholden to the plot of the book. Each manages to achieve something unique. In the novel, VanderMeer challenges us to grapple with “the truth that world is stranger than we recognize, that we understand less of it than our brains trick us into believing,” as he described in an interview with book designer Peter Mendelsund. Through the biologist’s intimate-yet-reserved first-person account, we encounter the unimaginable, the incomprehensible, and we share her existential vertigo as she comes face to face with the mystery of Area X. After trying to describe the indescribable, she acknowledges the futility of her words, the inadequacy of the perspective in which we are trapped by our very nature: “This moment, which I might have been waiting for my entire life all unknowing—this moment of an encounter with the most beautiful, the most terrible thing I might ever experience—was beyond me.”
The film’s climax brings Lena to a similar confrontation, which recalls the finales of both Ex Machina and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here, Garland’s theme of self-destruction comes to fruition. The scene shifts from the book’s focus on the limits of human perception to the implications of the self-destructive impulse that arises from the cycle of creative destruction that sustains life. The departure allows Garland to give his film a self-contained narrative arc, and to set up a haunting conclusion, whereas VanderMeer’s Annihilation is the first book in a trilogy (recommendation: read the trilogy!).
Exploring Area X isn’t for the faint of heart. If you’re curious enough—and courageous enough—to cross the border, you should do it at least twice: once with VanderMeer and the biologist, and once with Garland and Lena. The more often you make the journey, the more it will transform you.