by Chester Wilson III
“That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.” ― Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation”
The world is changing.
Mutation and evolution are everywhere, and in the smallest increments, change happens in largest ways. Mutation is the change of genomic structure, a change of form, a change of application, or a change of existence.
“Annihilation,” a new thriller / sci-fi film from Alex Garland adapted from the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, takes this concept and brings it to the forefront. While mutation and evolution as we know them take place over generations and over varying expanses of time, “Annihilation” imagines a world suspended in a constant state of mutation — not from one species offspring to the next, but on an individual cellular level.
The flora and fauna of this unexpectedly horrifying novel and movie adaptation contort this concept, bridging the borders of traditional mutation, and images straight out of a deep space alien forest.
Vandermeer is an American author, editor, and literary critic, best known for his mind-bending work, on the award-winning “Southern Reach Trilogy.” VanderMeer’s characters have no names and no real identifiers — other than their role in a team of four (the biologist, the psychologist, the surveyor, and the linguist).
From the first pages, these four unnamed characters are stranded in the unnavigable “Area X”, under quarantine by an organization known as The Southern Reach. The Southern Reach’s purpose is to understand the bizarre and Wonderlandian mutations present in the area, and their connection to the extraterrestrial.
Along the way, the team of four seem to be torn apart by the properties of their strange surroundings, as reality becomes less concrete. The biologist is forced to fall back on their scientific principles, or as all of the space-time seems to contort around them and forces the group to insanity.
The original VanderMeer story takes place in this semi-post-apocalyptic world, where the breakdown of the world’s ecosystem places the forces humans to reckon with how far they will go to survive. The viewer wonders, “Will they or won’t they continue to send people to investigate an ecosystem that none seem to return from?”
In the book, the characters’ motivations and the story’s antagonist become fluid as the characters branch off, succumb to their insanity, and as they uncover the truth behind Area X. VanderMeer’s novel plays off the audience’s uncertainty and the mystery that comes with such limited information. The story pushed the envelope, illustrating to its audience the dematerialization of self through its characters — all of whom undergo dramatic and irreversible change on in physical, but most importantly in a mental aspect.
The film is different. Garland gives the characters a personality, history with Area X — dubbed “The Shimmer,” and more backstory for why each of them ventured into what looks like a suicide mission.
The characters suffer less from internal destruction and are destroyed seemingly systematically, as each character is brought down by specific individual conflicts the group experiences along their journey. Even the mystery behind the origin of The Shimmer is much better-defined and clearer in the early moments of the film, as a meteor is shown colliding with a lighthouse, clearly the epicenter of The Shimmer.
Whether Garland chose to disregard the book’s hint at the global environmental destruction at the hands of humanity as a nod to the current state of the world, or as a detail best set aside, his work is well received. Garland not only creates a psychological masterpiece that leaves audiences thinking, its callbacks to the book definitely increase the desire for the full story.