Annihilation is the latest movie from Alex Garland, director of Ex Machina and screenwriter of Never Let Me Go, 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd. It’s surreal, terrifying, and definitely worth a watch. I sat down with Cameron Kunzelman to try to make sense of it all.
Gita Jackson: Hi Cameron! Last weekend we both saw Annihilation, a movie I was completely unaware of until the day before its release. You, on the other hand, are a big fan of Jeff VanderMeer, the author of the book this movie is based on. Did it live up to your expectations?
Cameron Kunzelman: It did! It’s the kind of book that lots of people said was “unfilmable,” and while I don’t think that’s true, I certainly thought it was going to be a difficult thing to translate onto the screen. VanderMeer is the kind of writer who is often hanging on to hints or generalizations in order to let you speculate your way through a scene and, well, film is kind of antithetical to that in lots of ways. We see what we see onscreen, so it’s hard to straight-up make a movie of a book that is depending on evocative images more than concrete stuff that happens. I know that you read Annihilation recently. What did you make of it?
Gita: Annihilation as a book read more like a free verse poem, which I was very into. Although I got a good feel for the world and it’s characters, I was most enthralled by the way the book gestures towards these grand, life-altering experiences without necessarily giving them concrete details. It’s my favorite kind of writing—writing that’s about emotions rather than writing that tries to thrust its characters from plot point to plot point. I loved that it left me unsatisfied in some ways, the way it built tension and then left me without a lot of resolution, leaving me, like its characters, grappling for meaning. I read this whole book the day before I saw the movie, so I didn’t get a lot of time to reflect on how in the hell they were going to translate that to screen. But apparently Alex Garland, the movie’s director, decided that he would only very loosely connect his film to the book, which I think worked out.
Cameron: My understanding is that he read the book in galleys and then went off to write his screenplay. It’s the loosest form of adaptation, and it’s maybe crucial to note that Annihilation is the first book in a trilogy and that Garland didn’t bother reading those other books. So it’s this great dreamlike thing that’s almost working like a game of telephone. Scary, ecological horror telephone.
Gita: Let’s set up the movie a little bit.
Cameron: This is a movie that’s about people heading into a place called Area X that is constantly expanding and from which no one ever emerges. It’s got this deep Floridian feel to it that hinges on creeping (and creepy) swampland, and the film sort of posits that if humans don’t get their act together this thing is going to eat us all. And the primary action is just digging in and trying to figure out what is at the center of this shimmering hellplace.
Gita: In particular, we follow Lena, played by Natalie Portman, who goes to Area X after her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, returns from there on a mission with amnesia. He’s got cancer, she’s a biologist, and she thinks that by going to Area X she can figure out what happened to him. What she finds is not pleasant. What I was most impressed by initially is just how lush this movie looks. There are moments of quiet beauty that are punctuated by the uncanny and terrifying. When Lena finds a bush of flowers that’s impossible, where each flower is a different species despite coming from the same plant, I was overwhelmed by its beauty. But it all changes so quickly.
Cameron: Yeah, one of the strengths of the film is that it makes a strong effort to present you with a state of things that you, as a viewer, have to react to. The impossibility of the flowers is one of those great moments, but also the impossibility of the alligator with shark teeth and the composite bear-boar that we see later in the film. What I really enjoy about the film is that the “free verse” feel really maintains itself in the visuals. There’s a moment where Lena is speaking to another character in a boat, and I am pretty sure that the background repeats over the course of the scene. There’s an impossible, uncanny rhythm to this world, and that has as much to do with the plot as it does with what we’re seeing. These characters are following in the footsteps of the people who’ve gone into Area X before them, and by that I mean they really follow in their footsteps.
Gita: Is this the part where we talk about what they found in the pool? Because, jesus christ. This movie is as much about it’s big ideas—nature will kill you—as it is about these individual moments. As Lena and her crew find the remnants of her husband’s mission, the tone of the movie gets darker and more violent. Especially when they find a man adhered to a wall of an empty pool, mold covering his entire body, which has also been split open.
Cameron: AND THEY WATCH A VIDEO OF HIM BEING SLICED OPEN GITA.
Gita: I was sitting next to a friend who quietly whimpered through that sequence.
Cameron: And then the music goes “OOOOAAAAHHHHHHH” and it was so loud in the theater I was in.
Gita: I was at a fancy theater where they had drinks, and after it was over i ordered another cocktail. Garland has made some images in this movie that will stand the test of time for cinema. One of them is Oscar Isaac’s hand inside a dude’s guts as eels swim over it. That, for me, is the defining moment of this film. A moment that just defies comprehensibility to the point that you’ll never forget it.
Cameron: That’s the moment in the film where we go from “this is strange” to “this is impossible under the rules of our universe,” and as a viewer you have to make some choices there. And I love that the characters have to make that exact same choice at that moment: whether to believe or to reject totally.
Gita: This is the part of the movie that felt the most standard for me, but Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson really sell their characters’ reactions to the world falling apart. Rodriguez a little less so, but that was made up for with the bear that screams “help me” in English as it tries to kill them. In the book, the protagonist finds herself totally isolated much more quickly, but I really appreciated that Garland gave her more characters to bounce off of in this film. The book is one huge monologue—Lena’s emotional state would have been impenetrable if there weren’t other characters around to show her the extremes of how she can react to Area X.
Cameron: Yeah there are just so many things that you can do with internal monologue in books that either don’t work or feel clunky in a film. As you’re saying, VanderMeer’s novel evacuates the world really quickly, but I do like that the film keeps the psychologist (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) as this kind of parallel figure who is trying to reach “the truth” or some kind of equivalent thing.
Gita: Leigh’s performance as just a Huge Asshole was really compelling to me, especially because she continues to keep all her cards to her chest. Most of the characters in this movie are trying to move past trauma, but the psychologist doesn’t even want to acknowledge that she has trauma.
Cameron: Yeah, that’s another one of those moments of strange repetition. The psychologist has been feeding people into this slaughterhouse for three years, and we know she’s going to die from cancer, and so she wants to find out. She wants to see what’s happening in here. And what she learns is basically nothing—it’s almost shocking how little she gets from the entire encounter. Through the entire movie they’ve been trying to get to the lighthouse at the heart of the shimmer, and Lena finds her in this nightmare basement there toward the end of the film. She delivers a weird monologue, and she’s consumed like firewood. She gets nothing from this. Just complete eradication, literal annihilation, and she vocalizes the title when it happens.
Gita: All the characters are on their own search for meaning, as they were in the book, and just like in the book, they can only get any kind of satisfaction from Area X by accepting there is no larger meaning. Area X just is. What happens there is what happens there. Human beings, our traumas and emotions, are largely irrelevant to this destructive force of nature.
Cameron: In the Southern Reach Trilogy more broadly, a theory gets floated that they aren’t even on earth and that making your way through the shimmer is the act of traveling to some other place that is doing strange, cruel mimicry of what we are. I find that interpretation or idea so much more horrible than what the movie ultimately gives us. Going into Area X is so horrible because the earth itself is horrible, the churning moment-to-moment experience of being is truly disturbing, and so any alien trying to replicate that will necessarily be so as well. We often talk about film or games as a kind of mirror of ourselves and our values, but Garland’s movie and VanderMeer’s book really makes that striking.
Gita: I think that reading really works when you think about how the film places so much weight on the reveal that Lena’s husband died in Area X, and what came back wasn’t him, but a doppelganger made by Area X itself. Lena and her husband had love for each other but were also toxic and codependent. Lena herself is kind of unlikeable as a person. So what came back is a reflection of her husband that is a weird, passive shell, and Lena’s disturbed by it. By the end of the movie, after some incredible psychedelic imagery, Lena also comes face to face with her doppelganger. To escape Area X, she has to kill herself, or this reflection of herself. But killing this doppelganger doesn’t really seem to make things better for her—she has already been too changed by Area X to ever escape it.
Cameron: Yeah, the final shot of the film really sells the idea that it is interacting with Area X that matters, not being there or having things done to you as a person, that matters. Like the very moment that her husband decided to go there, he was fundamentally altered as a person. And she was too. And staring at it warps the desires of the psychologist. There’s this feeling that, no matter what, Area X existing means that it is changing us, and it’s just this wonderful way of thinking about experience and what happens when we come into contact with anything: other people, the environment, video games, whatever. The fact that there are these doubled people made by Area X is almost a red herring because the reality is that Area X is already doing its work on you the moment that you know that it exists. Your DNA getting warped while inside of it is just the most immediate symptom of it. Damn, what a good movie!
Gita: I need to see this movie again—and also read the rest of the Southern Reach Trilogy. I highly recommend reading the book if you haven’t. I devoured it in an evening.
Cameron: I will say that I am curious as to the opinions of readers who have seen the film and read the books. I think that, to some degree, the film sells the ending of the books better than they do, despite them having all of those techniques and methods at their disposal that we talked about earlier.
Gita: I think the strength of film in general is that it doesn’t have to sell you on a feeling or idea by feeding you a monologue. The idea that Area X changes you just by existing can be communicated in small ways that are just as evocative as the last chapter of the first book (and whatever comes after). All Garland did was give Lena’s eyes a shimmer. It’s enough to tease you, maybe change you a little, make you wonder how you’ve become a different person just by watching his movie.