It is out of my fierce love and a bizarre loyalty to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy that I write the following response to the movie adaptation by Alex Garland.
I tend to love movie adaptations and think of them as their own artistic endeavors, free of any responsibility to follow or exactly portray the book it stemmed from. For me, adaptations add dimension, complexity, and thus, enjoyment to a book by giving me insight about how the book and it’s plot points, characters, etc. are interpreted differently by other people. Probably one of the best things about reading is the imagining that comes with trying to make sense of written words, and it’s always incredible to see how people imagine differently and how they realize that imagination for others to see. Many of my favorite books have been made into movies and I have mostly loved all of them! The Harry Potter movies (give or take a two…) East of Eden, Everything is Illuminated, and Wild, just to name a few.
This is the first adaptation I’ve ever seen that makes me understand people who passionately hate movie adaptations. If Garland hadn’t explicitly “based” this movie on the Southern Reach trilogy, I’m not sure I would have even guessed it was related. It wasn’t that names were different (or given at all), the plot was radically different, etc… but he took away so many of the things that I felt were vital to the experience of the book, the core values of the book itself, its’ very spine.
I remember reading Annihilation, the first of three book on countless subway rides and finally finishing it on a MetroNorth train, trying not to sob. It was the first time that I really felt like a male author had written from a female perspective and done so in a way that recognized what women can be… at least one of them. I loved the main character- “the biologist” in the books, Lena in the movie for her abundance of passion for her work and her lack of passion for other things in her life. Her husband disappears and comes back mysteriously in both the book and the movie and she goes to Area X in both as well, but in the book, it is out of a burning scientific curiosity and desire to explore, to be in that wild nature, whereas in the movie, we have yet again, the woman who’s life revolves around the man, and so she follows him, so she can save him. I guess it’s feminist that she goes so she can save him, but really, can’t a girl just make a decision because she wants to do something sometimes? Like in the book? Does she always have to be running to or away from or around a boy? In a flashback, Lena makes fun of her husband for thinking she might be pining for him when he goes on assignments, but in an earlier scene, we literally see her doing just that- she’s weeping while looking at a picture of her husband in her LOCKET. Who even has a locket anymore? There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, it just isn’t faithful to the book. The biologist in the book is curious about the place her husband went to… curious and passionate about the environment there, and far from sentimental and missing him, she goes almost jealously, greedy for the opportunity he had, only connecting to him in the vaguest senses when she’s there.
The visuals. Jeff VanderMeer is incredible at creating something indescribable by overdescribing. He piles words and descriptions on top of each other, heaps opposites, dualities, adjacent words, etc… using too many images and words to create unsettling, beautiful, spiritual images. Trying to see the things he wrote and to inhabit the world he created causes more imaginative exhaustion than I’ve ever encountered in my life. The things I saw and felt when pushed to my imaginative limits reading were things I’ll never forget. He trusts readers to try and when they do, what a gift they receive. Reading is one of the most incredible things because it pushes you to be creative and puts you in touch with the side of you that makes, that sees the unseen.
Garland’s take on a lot of the magical mutations, growths, unexplainable things of beauty and destruction in the movie can be summed up basically as rainbow colors washing everything, flowers on everything, and things being overgrown. The slight mutations which should be living breathing plants we’ve never seen are just flowers on the same branch that are different colors- they look like a bouquet at best, a piñata at worst. The door which is one of the most quixotic and enchanting things to read about is essentially a rainbow wall that they now call “the shimmer.” And a lot of the visuals of human skeletons overgrown with flowers and zombie bears/crocodiles are so cliche I actually rolled my eyes a couple of times.
Let’s see, what were some other weird inconsistencies… When her husband suddenly gets a Southern accent in the middle of the movie or when the soundtrack suddenly gets very 80’s at the end when someone in a full body rainbow leotard is suddenly birthed and starts mirroring all her movements… oh, and the end of the movie. She solved Area X like it was a thing to be solved and destroyed it. “Was it alien?” Yep. “A group just made it there a few hours ago, everything is ash.” I loved that it wasn’t clear for such a long time- could even still be argued that it isn’t clear in the books if the occurrence is from extra-terrestrials, or some kind of ecological mutation or accident. This whole trilogy seemed to play with our need as humans to narrate, understand, and unify everything. This need becomes so apparent when it meets things that refuse to be understood, unified, narrated. So for the ending to be so easy and even kind of “happy” …her husband’s double gets better and she’s secretly the double too- (it’s never mentioned but you know from the huge tattoo that’s obviously only on one character) the movie ends with them hugging, both of their eyes glowing because they’re changed from Area X… just seems like such a slap in the face to the books’ very intentional avoidance of closure and classification.
Most disappointing for me was a difference in how Garland and I interpreted what drives the characters in the trilogy. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character of the psychologist, given the name Ventress for the movie (has there ever been a name that tries harder to be formidably and importantly sci-if?) gives a whole monologue in the middle of the movie about how it’s in our DNA to be self-destructive and that’s what has driven them all to Area X. I interpreted the characters drive, human biology to be one that constantly chooses to learn…to be curious, to assimilate, and to explore, even in the face of destruction. It wasn’t that they wanted the suicide part of the mission, they wanted the mission so much they couldn’t let the suicide part of it stop them. Even Area X itself seemed to me a metaphor, a place that was learning and assimilating and not self-destructing, but self-making in the most stunning ways. For Garland to walk away with such a negative and doomed and honestly …kind of immature interpretation makes me imagine that he wrote the whole script while listening to Evanescence and drinking Mountain Dew.
Ok…the lighthouse was beautiful…I’ll give you that… there were a couple beautiful mutations, and some of the acting was really fantastic- especially by Gina Rodriguez. And of course, I’ll watch Natalie Portman in anything… but overall, I think I would have been disappointed in this movie, even if I hadn’t read and loved the books. I could almost forgive the lack of imagination in the visuals if it weren’t also for the lack of imagination when it came to women. He fails to understand that women can be passionately, emotionally intellectual, and instead reimagines every character as someone driven by emotional reasons instead of intellectual.
Last thing… am I excited there was a cast of 5 females and they were all playing scientists? Yes absolutely, of course. But it’s insulting when there are often movies with 5 men for there to be articles and acclaim talking about how “ambitious” it is for so many women to be onscreen. Sometimes, as a woman, I’m just so tired of having to be grateful for every little scrap of equality. This wasn’t enough, the director should have been a woman. There’s a chance it would have been a much better movie with a female at the helm… not because she’s female but because she could could understand and portray the subtleties of being female better. It doesn’t just matter the quantity of women in your movie, it matters the quality. The women were somehow such stereotypes. I wanted to see complex women. Not a longish episode of Sex in the Science City.
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