NOTE: This article contains spoilers for the books and film of Annihilation. I also recommend you check out the Netflix and Grill podcast or article before this one.
Annihilation (or more specifically the Southern Reach Trilogy) has occupied a lot of my mind for the past month. In that time I have (in this order) read the first book, viewed the film adaptation, and then read books 2 and 3: Authority and Acceptance. As i was finishing the final book, the Netflix and Grill podcast and accompanying article on this site went live, and so I had those as well as the wealth of internet theories, readings and opinions to consider.
This is as much a response to that podcast and article as it is to the work itself, because for this story SO MUCH of its truth is in the reactions to it (more on that later). So yes, this is my response to an article and podcast analysing a film of a book… and I’m going to talk a lot about things surrounding the film itself to start with. Trust me, it’ll come together. If you’ve read VanDerMeer’s trilogy, that particular form of blind faith will already be familiar to you.
The reason I wanted to continue the conversation in this way is that Michael and David talked about the film as a film. It was viewed as its own work, as a story in and of itself. The reason is simple, and good: They hadn’t read the book. I, however, see the film (and the entire story of the Southern Reach) in a very different light because I have.
In interviews, Alex Garland, director of Annihilation and pure-genius-at-film said reading the book was like reading a dream. I cannot think of a better description than this. The books are almost seen through a sheen (or a Shimmer?… shut up it’s funny) even when the events are just playing out in your head. There is a truly otherworldly quality to it, despite that fact that it appears to be such a sparse and simple narrative.
Here is basically WHAT happens in Annihilation (the book). Team enter Area X. Team find hole in ground. Team argue over hole vs lighthouse. Biologist is infected. Team start to lose their humanity, die one by one. Biologist enters hole in ground, meets Something, escapes, decides to stay rather than return to normal world.
If you’ve only seen the film, some of the points above will already be sounding new. Garland’s take on the story is true to the themes and intent of VanDerMeer’s book, but the details can vary wildly.
Except, and this was my first of two lightbulb moments with this series… they don’t.
– I watched the film surprised at the decision to make the Psychologist the leader of the Souther Reach. In book two, I find out she was.
– In the film, the framing device of the returned Biologist (while a good idea) changed her final decision to remain in Area X. Again in book two, I learned a copy of her had returned.
– The first shot of the film was a meteor bringing Area X to Earth, which I saw as an addition that streamlined the story, but was needed for the film. In book THREE, we see this happen.
My (long overdue) point is this: I saw the film with the context of only the book it shares the title of. I then gained the extra context of the whole book series, and a LOT of other peoples opinions. Michael and David had only the film. Some had more (or less) than them, to varying degrees. And strangely for a source material that seems to horde answers like George R Martin hordes release dates… all these readings work. Not only work, but co-exist… compliment each other… to an extent I have very rarely seen.
And this was my second lightbulb moment: In the Southern Reach Trilogy, the context of the PLOT and EVENTS isn’t everything… in fact it’s nothing. And the secret is one word, used pointedly often in the trilogy’s second half: Terroir.
Terroir is the exact, specific, totally unique conditions (including soil type, height, humidity, temperature, water direction etc) that give grapes their flavour. It’s why no two vineyards, even if right next to each other, produce a wine that’s EXACTLY the same. It is a word invoked by Whitby, a scientist studying Area X, in his theory. He sees the exact environmental conditions of Area X as being vital in understanding what it is. He seeks to understand the terroir of Area X, and this becomes the chosen theory of the new Director by book three.
Context as it is normally used means almost nothing to Annihilation because as a book, a film, or both, it understands that we the audience ARE our own terroir. The whole story is almost solely concerned with what happens, and actively avoids giving any firm answers on why or how because BASED on what happens we intimate and pick a ‘why’ that works for us… based on the terroir of our lives.
We as people, as an audience naturally interpret and unconsciously graft together the elements of the story in a way that it unique to us, because everything in our life has led us to make those decisions.
The film may not have anyone mention terroir but Garland understands the nature of this story to such a degree that he gives a character the theory that Area X is a prism that refracts not just radio waves, but all material: Thoughts, identities, genetic material, biology, everything. This place refracts all parts of life back on itself, just as an audience watching a film with no singular objective ‘answer’ will find their own thoughts and history refracted back to them by the film.
Is Annihilation a film about cancer?
Is Annihilation a film about the entropy of the universe?
Is it about environmental destruction?
Depression and the battle against mental health issues?
Yes. Or rather, it can be. You can make it that. Annihilation is indeed a dream… but you are the semi-lucid dreamer.
Area X came to earth, as we discover in Acceptance, in a meteor-like form as an engine to transform biospheres, and so began to eat and transform and create wholly new ideas of life from the raw materials of our world. The Southern Reach Trilogy or (because it is wonderfully complete in its own right) Annihilation is something that likewise enters your life as an unknown, and the more you discover, the more possibilities and ideas it sprouts in your mind, until you realise that just like Area X it has no agenda, no purpose, no specific effect it wishes to evoke in you… it simply exists.
And in every reader or viewer the truth of what that existence means is a little different, because it has been fed by our own personal terroir. Some stories are said to “get inside your head”, and I put forward that Annihilation is so effective because it understands your head and its contents isn’t just where a story can sit. It’s where it can lay its seeds, and grow into a beautiful and terrifying garden.