Review: Annihilation (Book and Movie)

When I read Annihilation last fall, I was intrigued, repulsed, mystified, enchanted, horrified, compelled, absorbed, and ultimately so unable to articulate what had happened that I didn’t attempt a review. But it has never stopped growing on me, new insights twining around in my brain. It’s insidious.

Then the movie happened. I. Had. To. Go. I didn’t think anyone could film the book, and I was on Cloud 9 when I saw the abundance of rave critical reviews. It got compared to Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey! It got called “stunning” and the “Best Sci-Fi Film in Years” that “ranks among great philosophical sci-fi”! And though there were many differences from the book, it sounded almost as batshitcrazybrilliant as the book!!

Which means there are now two equally haunting versions of this story for me to wonder WTF happened.

I might not have all the answers, but I’ve certainly enjoyed replaying scenes in my mind and pondering the possibilities. And I suspect that’s what’s important—the ongoing quasi-epiphanies and existential musings, and what I might glean about the nature of life and death and growth and identity and change. This story will keep my brain churning out conjectures for decades.

And as a showcase for Mother Nature, it’s dazzling.

So if you’re curious about the book and movie that inspire such glowing Twitter reviews as “What the living fuck was that?” and “If [you’re] dumb enough to take acid; take acid and watch #annihilation”, I hope you’ll keep reading!

What audiences are saying!

Here are some typical Twitter reactions from both readers and viewers of Annihilation.
WTF did I just read?
What in the fuck did I just watch?
What in the living fuck was that?
This was also my initial reaction after finishing the book and the entire Southern Reach series. It was amazing. It was brilliantly creative, a lush and verdant jungle writhing with dreams and nightmares. But WTF happened?

When the back-to-nature lifestyle goes too far.

This Twitter review is almost as colorful and disturbing as the movie:
...talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same, totally unique, completely not ever been done before, unafraid to reference or not reference, put it in a blender, shit on it, vomit on it, eat it, give birth to it

Book or movie first?

They’re both masterpieces. They share the same exotic world, are more similar than different, yet veer off in somewhat dissimilar directions to arrive at somewhat different outcomes. Yes, I’m being vague.

I read the book first, so that’s where my emotional connection with the characters and their fantastical realm (called Area X) originated. The author, Jeff VanderMeer, lives in my family’s hometown and takes inspiration from a place I’ve known my whole life—the “forgotten coast” of the Florida panhandle—which forges another emotional connection for me. However, the vegetation there was too thick to get a proper perspective when they filmed test scenes (which makes me feel better about my many disappointing photos over the years), so they filmed most of the movie in England. It makes a surprisingly passable substitute, but no matter how much Spanish moss they drape on the trees, I know that’s not Florida. Most viewers won’t be distracted by that.

Before book or movie, there was Real Life Area X.
(Visit @gotoSt.Marks on Facebook for more photos!)

I’m also going to say the book is better because it delves more deeply into the psyche of the characters and has a whole bunch of cool stuff that the movie completely left out. Annihilation is the first (and arguably best) book in a trilogy, and it left me so totally mystified at the end that I instantly picked up the rest of the series. Which I enjoyed immensely, but be warned. It provides few answers and a whole lot of new questions to WTF about!

A dolphin with a human eye in the book or
a megacrocodile with shark teeth in the movie,
they will both freak you right out!

If you haven’t read the books yet, I think you can go ahead and see the movie first. It’s hard enough to figure out what’s going on without being distracted by all the differences from the books, and the books cover extended storylines. But for either, you’ll want to pay close attention to everything. Clues and symbolism and existential mysteries abound, every single thing is important, and you’ll probably want to start over when you’re done, maybe after taking some time to WTF about it all. I know that I missed a lot the first time through, and I can’t wait to watch the movie over and over when it’s released on DVD. In the meantime, I really want to reread the books.

Both try to bend your mind, but the books test the limits of your inner eye, while the movie assaults your outer eyeswideopenwithamazement. They’re just so insanely weird, they’re fun. Terrifying, mesmerizing, and gorgeous fun. I doubt there is a right way to feel about this story. It’s all about the journey—the characters’ and yours.

Differently disembodied human cries of pain are also equally chilling.

What’s it all about, part 1

It’s hard to explain why this story is so deeply stirring and its effects so long lasting without divulging major plot points and spoilers. I don’t want to do that, because it’s better to let it grow on you organically while you read or watch, slowly and stealthily, as you sit rooted to your seat in horror wonder. So I’ll give you a super-simplified, 60-second summary, in complete contrast to the story’s magnitude of complexity.

A team of female scientists passes through a menacing boundary (of psychedelic woo woo called The Shimmer in the movie) into an isolated section of coastal wetlands called Area X, where Nature seems to have gone berserk. They’re on a mission to explore, report their observations, and maybe figure out what happened to previous teams that never returned. (In the book, they’re female because the last team was male. Different teams test for variations in the outcome.) Area X seems to be alien in origin, transforming the lifeforms within it, without discernible method or purpose, and growing in size. It seems to be centered around an old lighthouse, which the team travels circuitously toward. Living within Area X—interacting with its mysterious inhabitants and anomalies—affects each team member in different ways, as each grapples with her own inner demons. Many unfathomable scenes unfold, many minds gape in awe.

The environment is hypnotic, chaotic, and a character in its own right. The story is unrelenting, the mutations and revelations increasingly bizarre. Some of the changes in the movie were the director Alex Garland’s attempt to translate a narrative that largely takes place inside the main character’s head so that moviegoers can follow along; others reflected his slightly different spin on the story. But this is still primarily a story about inner transformation—evolution or annihilation??—that is mirrored in the panorama of wonders and horrors surrounding the team.

In the movie, one team member describes Area X as a prism that refracts everything in it: flora and fauna, bodies and minds, magnetic waves, and even time—merging, duplicating, splitting, creating. In the book, it merely assimilates and duplicates. The movie uses a cancer metaphor for Area X, but the book presents an argument for enhancement rather than destruction. The book is a passionate and unrepentant “love letter to the beauty and the strangeness of Nature”.

There’s also strange beauty.

VanderMeer shared an enlightening video that explains the themes and developments of the movie and book quite well, then discusses their similarities and differences. Highly recommend! I couldn’t have written the previous paragraph without it. But if you haven’t seen or read this story, the video is chock full of major spoilers. If you’re a spoiler prude like me, you’ll want to wait until you’ve seen the movie and read the books, so I’ll add the link at the end of this post to minimize the temptation. Spoiler whores can scroll there right now!

What’s it all about, part 2

This movie gets compared to Apocalypse Now because it is a journey through a junglescape into a heart of darkness—or light. It gets compared to Arrival because it explores communication between vastly different life forms. It gets compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey because of its trippy special effects, the somewhat parallel fates of the protagonists, and the fact viewers can spend the rest of their lives contemplating the Dali-esque spectacles and surrealistic ending.

This is sooooo not Virginia Woolf’s version of To the Lighthouse!

So here are the sorts of thoughts that slither through my head nowadays, round and round in an endless cycle. Deep introspection, creative visualization, or reason to seek professional help?

What kind of plant would I turn into? Would it be random or reflect my personality? Would my leaves be just for show, or would they work like leaves? Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner... What part of me would be interesting enough to mimic? Would I recognize myself in a plant? Or an animal? Shewasn’treallytrappedinsideshewasn’treallytrappedinsideshewasn’treallytrappedinside. Right? At what point would you become more plant or animal than human? Would you be self-aware? ...I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives... OMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGOMGthatpoormanfungusmural. WHO IN THE FUCK COMES UP WITH THIS STUFF??? If there are entities so different that we can’t find a commonality, how would we recognize them? Communicate? Comprehend? Co-exist? Was a living entity causing this? Was it sentient? Was this planned or random? What was it doing? Avoiding extinction? Colonizing? Saving us from ourselves? Experimenting? ...while from the dimlit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been.... Socoolthattheyfacedsamechoicewithoppositeoutcomes. I think. Right? I will never as long as I live understand what happened at the bottom of the tunnel tower in the book. If my loved one died, would I want their clone? If I were a clone, would I know? Is it rebirth or death? When are you no longer you? What makes you you? (Sung to the tune of The Lion King:) The cirrrrrcle of life-growth-transformation-evolution-self-destruction-death-rebirth-survival-annihilation. Was she or wasn’t she???? The Shimmer: It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping!!*
* Classic SNL, 1976

Amongst all the other weirdness, I’d forgotten this.
(from Annihilation Explained)

Where to watch the movie

I rarely see movies in the theater nowadays, but I made an exception for Annihilation. I thought that the sensory splendors of the book demanded the immersive, larger-than-life, big-screen experience, and it was magnificent! I also wanted to support complex, multifaceted movies that inspire audiences to turn their brains on and think about life from new perspectives. I’m surprised and grateful that Paramount took a risk on making this film, but then it unfortunately chickened out. When test screenings indicated Annihilation might be too “intellectual” and “complicated” for the general movie-going public, it didn’t promote the movie in the U.S. and sold international rights to Netflix.

Surprisingly, the movie was still showing in a fair number of U.S. theaters several weeks after it opened, and it has made enough money to convince me the studio screwed up. I hope this inspires more studios to take a chance on other batshitcrazybrilliant stories and then advertise them. (In the meantime, Paramount snapped up the film rights VanderMeer’s also-very-strange novel Borne back in 2016, so we’ll see what happens with it.) In the U.S., Annihilation will go through the usual cycle of theater to pay-per-view to DVD. It hits theaters in China this month. And in most other countries, it is available now from Netflix.

Wherever you watch it, I recommend the most gigantic screen you can find, all the better to appreciate the grandeur and terrorize the bejeebers out of you.

There aren’t enough WTFs in the whole wide world for this story.

What’s it all about, part 3

And now, as promised, an easy-to-follow explanation of Annihilation.

Warning: Spoils all sorts of stuff in both book and movie.

There are also some fascinating articles examining the ending and meaning of Annihilation on the interwebs. Or you can ignore all those and just appreciate the movie as gorgeous cinematography and an excuse to watch the riotous splendor of our (un)natural world for two hours!

Have you read Annihilation, Saucy Readers? Or watched the movie? What did you think?


  1. Turns out A Knight’s Tale was a silly dumb comedy, about in the same league as Airplane II (the sequel, not the original, which was fairly inventive and still remains very quotable). I scratched my head for a while, until learning that the studio got caught hiring a fake critic to write up a fake adulatory review. Apparently it was monkey see, monkey do with the “top critics,”> Reviews annihilation 2018
    who all sang the praises for this “innovatively charming” and “brilliantly irreverent” film. With actors like Heath Ledger and Paul Bettany, it couldn’t stink too much, but it was such an intentional goofball flick, an 8+ rating just did not make sense. Over the years, the rating for AKT has steadily dropped to a more reasonable 6.9.
    See More:
    > the revenant putlocker
    > 2k movies
    > arrival putlockers


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