The following description uses information from the novel Annihilation, but avoids major spoilers and plot points beyond the initial situation of the novel
Natalie Portman’s upcoming film, Annihilation, has a cryptic trailer that may create more questions than answers. Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, Annihilation is Alex Garland’s newest directorial project. Garland began his career in film as a screenwriter, writing 28 Days Later and Sunshine among others, before taking on the role of director with Ex Machina. Ex Machina, which embraced and defied science fiction and horror tropes, went on to win an Oscar for its special effects. Annihilation will also explore the relationship between science fiction and horror – and the special effects in the trailer look excellent – but its similarities to Ex Machina may end there.
The novel Annihilation is the first of three books in the Southern Reach trilogy. It is told from the perspective of Natalie Portman’s character, known exclusively by her job title “the Biologist”. The other two books in the Southern Reach trilogy, Authority and Acceptance, are narrated by other characters. The trilogy gets its name from the Southern Reach, a mysterious organization that is facilitating scientific explorations into Area X, a region that is undergoing a drastic and otherworldly environmental change. The Southern Reach is a corporate entity, but they have partnered with the United States government and military to secure the border to Area X to prevent anyone from getting in – or anything from getting out.
A number of images from the trailer also appear in the book’s imagery: the lighthouse, the tower/tunnel, the cross-pollination of animals and plants, the human-like plants (or are they plant-like humans?). Just as the mysterious “it” that Portman’s character is questioned about in the trailer defies categorization, much of the flora and fauna of Area X continuously pushes the boundaries of how our society understands language, intelligence, and life. The book Annihilation is less concerned with how exactly Area X came to be, and more concerned with how humans have to confront their own limitations within this incomprehensible and seemingly hostile environment.
Portman’s biologist is part of a team of four women – the Biologist (Natalie Portman), the Anthropologist (Gina Rodriguez), the Surveyor (Tessa Thompson), and, their group leader, the Psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – who are entering Area X to study what it has become and why it has become this way. This group has trained together specifically for this mission, and have been given certain parameters (such as never using their real names and being limited in the technology that they can use) which are dictated but never fully explained in the book. The trailer seems to show five people entering into Area X, which may or may not be a reference to the Linguist in the book who chooses to turn back at the border of Area X. In the book, the Linguist is only mentioned in passing, but it is possible that the film has either chosen to expand her role or introduce a new team member.
As members of the twelfth expedition, the team knows that some (if not all) past expeditions have ended in strange and deadly ways. In one previous expedition, all members committed suicide. In another, expedition members all killed each other in a firefight after apparently going mad. In the eleventh expedition, the Biologist’s husband (Oscar Isaac) went into Area X with a team of all men. The trailer includes shots of his character with the Biologist inter-cut with shots of the Biologist exploring Area X. In the trailer, Portman’s voice asks, “Why did my husband volunteer for a suicide mission?” Presumably, she is alluding to the fact that people who go into Area X usually don’t come back out and even if they do, they come back changed.
Over the course of the book, the reader learns about the Biologist’s husband, what happens to him, and why that drives the Biologist to enter Area X herself. Without going into the specifics, it appears that the film could be deviating from the book, as the trailer ends with Portman’s character saying, “I need to know what’s inside… I could save him.” Her counterpart in the books does not join the twelfth expedition because she is looking for a specific information that could “save” her husband; instead, the book’s Biologist could come across as more self-centered, because she joins the Area X expedition in order to experience what her husband experienced, even if the cost is her life.
Even in the trailer, it is clear that the film of Annihilation will deviate from its source material. For instance, the novel is written as the biologist’s journal from the expedition, whereas the trailer includes a sequence where Natalie Portman is being questioned after the expedition. This could be a framing device that is meant to help translate the book into film, but fans of the book may already notice that something more complicated is happening.
These interview sequences could also be a variation on the events in the second book in Annihilation‘s trilogy, Authority, but since Garland has said that he didn’t write the screenplay imagining a trilogy it’s possible that these sequences are entirely of his own creation. VanderMeer, too, has said that the film’s ending differs from the novel and is, in a word, “mind-blowing“.
We’ll have to wait until the movie’s release on February 23rd, 2018 to find out just what that means, but the novel is well worth checking out in the meantime.
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