(Disclaimer: this post contains spoilers for Annihilation and for The Southern Reach trilogy that the film was based on)
Earlier this week, the film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy dropped worldwide on Netflix having only gone through cinemas in China, Canada, and the USA when Paramount sold it to Netflix after predictions that it wouldn’t make enough money as it was ‘too intellectual’. This at first seemed reasonable considering the content of the books but it would seem that, though the film did have some reasonably complex science behind the concepts, it was less intellectual and more likely not what was promised in the original screenplay due to studio interference (meaning it was likely dropped because the end product was not what was expected). In this post, I will be breaking down what went wrong with the film and what could have been done to correct the mistakes that were made, especially in relation to where the film differs from the books. Also, as always, if you agree, disagree, or notice any mistakes in this post, be sure to tell me in the comments.
The Redeeming Factors
First, I would like to say that the film is not entirely without merit. There were interesting ideas that were not carried over from the book and the basic premise (not really a merit of the film considering that it is based on a book series) and some other aspects, especially in the first half of the film, were great.
One of these was the shots of people hands through glasses of water (above), cleverly hinting at and mirroring the refraction of genes that cross the shimmer. I think this was an interesting idea and was noticeable yet subtle simultaneously. Leading on from a similar point, the film was aesthetically one of the best films of 2018 so far (also the set design and location was perfect).
The characters and cast in the film were great. Though the characters were changed from VanderMeer’s novel, they worked well and were cast perfectly, especially Tessa Thompson as Radek and Gina Rodriguez as Thorensen who both delivered excellent performances with roles that were too small. Also, the character development was quite lacking and, considering this, the actors all did very well with what they were given (though Jennifer Jason Leigh was somewhat lacking in her role).
In relation to ideas in the film, the refraction of genetics was interesting and cleverly solves one of the biggest questions from the books, with the plants taking Hox (structural) genes for humans, creating the people-plants that can be seen below (which were beautifully made). It is a clever explanation of the genetic anomalies and was well delivered, avoiding too much exposition, catering to a more intellectually capable audience. Also, before the alligator scene, when the group comes across the constantly mutating plants, the exposition was not too much and the idea was well communicated (also the prop design on the plants was amazing).
Also, the idea of the bear taking on the voice of its victim, having absorbed some part of her genetics or consciousness was interesting but not executed well at all (but more on that later) and the giant alligator scene was well done and gave some well-integrated exposition and finally, the group not knowing how long they had been in the shimmer reflected the psychological effects that the border has on people from the books with a twist on it that worked surprisingly well.
Non-Story Related Issues
First of all, on a directing front, the bear was badly done. Though the voice concept was interesting, the actual animal had a strange design and was way too visual. I think it would have been a lot more effective and scary if not much of the creature was shown, much like Ridley Scott did with Alien or Steven Spielberg with Jaws. Also, on a similar note, the guitar music was really strange and just wrong for the tone of the film (the original score was great).
In more of a screenplay-related area, my first issue is that the comet scene at the beginning explained too much. It basically showed the audience that whatever caused the shimmer was alien. This was handled much better in the book, in which you are constantly trying to figure out what has caused this anomaly. My second issue is that the idea from the book that many of the creatures that are encountered (the pink dolphin or the lighthouse keeper for example) were semi-successful mutations of the people who had been in the shimmer before. This was a really interesting idea that was entirely left out of the film.
Another issue that I have is petty but annoying. In the beginning, before they enter the shimmer, Tuva Novotny’s Sheppard says that she is studying magnetic fields and it is like ‘testing a tornado with confetti’ but the group still take compasses as their only form of orientation, expecting them to work.
The final 2 non-story related issues are also fairly insignificant but bother me nonetheless. The choice to change ‘Area X’ to ‘The Shimmer’ was strange but not too surprising as ‘Area X’ presumably sounds too stereotypical sci-fi. The decision to keep the name ‘Area X’ in the film, however, as an unexplained title card, made no sense whatsoever (though I am a massive fan of Alex Garland’s use of chapters in his films – Ex Machina, for example). The second of these 2 issues is simply that the glass trees were obviously meant as another genetic mutation even though it makes no sense because glass is not organic and therefore the genes would not refract in the same way as the other mutations do.
Many of my other issues are adaptation-related, issues with the differences between the books and the film. Also, I would like to suggest that the film may have even been better as a companion to the series instead of an adaptation, a prequel or sequel maybe.
Starting from the beginning, the starting point of the film was strange and the introduction of Lena’s affair with Dan seemed awkwardly shoved in and unnecessary, only acting as a display of Lena’s relationship issues (that could have been conveyed in another way).
The character development, as mentioned earlier, was pretty lacking and I think that Tessa Thompson’s physicist (below) was probably the most interesting character of the group and she was given much too small a role. The film would’ve maybe even been much better if it focussed more on her character than Portman’s Lena. Also, her ending in which she becomes part of the Shimmer (much like Lena did in the books) was probably one of the best moments from the film but it was badly executed and should have been done differently.
The biggest problem, and really the one that ruined the film, was the adaptation of the tower. The tower, of course, would be impossible to adapt no matter what, but what was done in the film was appalling. First of all, one of the most interesting things about the tower in the book was the idea that, though it was a hole, it felt like a tower, giving it a sense of unease (that was then amplified by the mysterious scripture on the walls). This was entirely ignored and the fact that the hole had been made by an alien object took away all of the mystery from the start. Also, the events that occurred in the tower were simply ridiculous. Ventress’s transformation into the floating orb seemed like something out of a bad, hokey science fiction film on a low-budget from the 1990s. It was also an awful story arc for Ventress’s character and introduced the doppelgänger in a weird, nonsensical way.
The ensuing fight with Lena’s doppelgänger was also just ridiculous, with the bad design of the being only adding to the ridiculousness. I think the doppelgänger idea worked very well in the books and in important to include if the planned sequels are going to happen though I think it should have been avoided in the film and another way around it should have been created (even if that simply means that the doppelgänger would be coming from the lighthouse and no further explanation was given).
Another thing that was left out that I think would have bettered the film somewhat is the hypnotisation. In the book, the psychologist hypnotising the group played a very important part in the sparking of mistrust between them, suspicion of the Southern Reach organisation, and why they were really sent into ‘Area X’. This also gave a feeling, in the books, that the people might be going insane themselves, and that something in the shimmer is making them be suspicious of their colleagues (and this feeling is entirely missing in the film, which is a shame, because it is one of the most riveting and interesting parts of the trilogy).
Finally, and probably most insignificantly, I thought that the final scene, in which it is shown that both the returned Lena and Kane were doppelgänger was unnecessary. Kane should not have recovered from multiple massive hemorrhages and organ failures and it makes more sense that the doppelgänger would have been a failed attempt at imitating Kane that did not recover when the shimmer ‘disappeared’ (which also should not have happened as it would seemingly have no reason to do so, unless there is something I missed, that is).
The film was fairly strong until half-way (other than a couple of minor issues) but after Tessa Thompson’s physicist assimilates into the fauna of the shimmer and Portman’s biologist is left alone it goes dramatically downhill (especially with the attempted adaptation of the shimmer). It is a shame that an adaptation of such a brilliant trilogy failed in such a way but there may be hope of a better-adapted sequel or prequel to the books (or other adaptation) may see the big screen soon. Also, I think, considering the cast attached, it would seem as if the script that was originally written was not what the final product ended up being (likely due to studio interference from Paramount).
I hope you liked this post and be sure to let me know what you think in the comments. Also, be sure to check out my spoiler-free review of You Were Never Really Here and my editorial on how HBO and Netflix are providing a home for modern intellectual science fiction.