This is the most beautiful piece that will be written about Alex Garland's adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's novel.
The way this film now reverberates through me is the realisation that it relates to the book it is based on the same way in which its central premise works: the five women go through the Shimmer into Area X to find themselves transformed by what the meteor caused, their DNA becoming the starting point for violent and beautiful transfiguration and improvisation. It feels like the same thing is happening to the novel Annihilation as it becomes this film: Garland transfigures and improvises with the genetic material that has been provided to him, and the outcome is radically different from that of the novel. In a stunning way, form and content match.
Some of the changes between book and novel are the result of the demands of the film. It was fairly clear from the beginning that there would need to be a different narrative perspective, considering how impossible it would have been to translate the way the readers are bound to the biologist in the novel to the film, regardless of Natalie Portman's talent. Her biologist, named Lena (everyone has names here), has a different backstory, and maybe that was the loss I felt the keenest. Lena used to be in the army, where she met her husband, Kane, who returns from the secret mission after a year - and terrifyingly changed, empty - until he starts haemorrhaging. The way that we find out more about Lena is flashbacks to the weeks before Kane started the mission that he couldn't talk about - and the most revealing moment in those flashbacks is when Lena laughs in Kane's face about the idea of pining for him while he is gone. It's the only sign left of the utterly solitary woman in VanderMeer's novels, whose backstory revealed her to be incapable of connecting with other people, and happiest when she was studying animals by herself. There was a sense in the novel that the biologist was driven by the mystery of her husband's disappearance and the return of a person she did not quite recognise, but at the same time, the way she settled into the terroir of Area X was as much connected to her history as a person who performed the best when she was left to herself, with only a very tentative link to humanity.
I'm not quite sure if the same is true for Lena. Like the other four women on her mission, she identifies with the geologist's notion that they are all "damaged goods", but it seems to be grief for the (ambiguous) loss of her husband more than anything else, and as much as he dominates the flashbacks, his presence in her mind decides the way she relates to the other team members. Nobody except for Dr. Ventress (the psychologist, never revealed as the Director here, but played with the same stoic distance and control by Jennifer Jason Leigh, even though she is robbed of her powers here) knows about her connection to the previous mission, and Lena's decision to keep it a secret causes one of the many catastrophes that befall them as they make their way towards the lighthouse.
This is another departure from the novel, which was so much more concerned with the subtle changes in the fabric of the character's identities, especially the biologist's. This is a horror film with a classical set-up, a cast of very different characters thrown into a situation that the audience already knows will bring out the worst in them. It's even spoken out loud at the beginning of the mission - there are two ways in which the previous missions could have come to their disastrous end, either they were killed by something in Area X, or they killed each other. It becomes an inescapable prediction regarding their own fate. Someone will snap and become a danger to the other crew members. Someone will be very willing to sacrifice everyone else for her own goals. Someone will give up.
None of that takes away from the power of the film, and the way all of those things are realised are what makes it so horrifyingly beautiful. The Shimmer, which the mission crosses, acts like a border between the rational and a dream world in which rules still exist, but not in the way in which all of these women expect (and one of the points is that their combined attempts at comprehending what they find adds up - the biologist, psychologist, geologist, physicist and the paramedic all use what they know and they all come close, in a way). The biologist studies cells, and finds them changed, and perpetuating their change into future generations. The psychologist studies how Area X degrades the mental cohesiveness of her unit, but does nothing to combat does changes, or try to save (it's not what she's here for, and she has no intention of returning). The geologist is the first to go, but somehow manages to be the only character who breaches the quietness, who offers up theories about the human condition and the specific ways in which the team works to Lena (after she dies in the most horrible way, the main thing left behind is silence).
Quietly and secretly, in this version of events, the person that will stay with me might be Tessa Thompson's Josie Radek, who is so very quiet, who is mainly seen through the eyes of the geologist and the paramedic, who both offer interpretations of her character to the group and Lena. She seems to be the first to truly comprehend what is happening in Area X, how whatever has landed here is transforming DNA, maybe even playing with it. She understands that the goal may not be destruction, as much as the set-up for the mission is a fear of the other, of Area X expanding to eventually encompass all of the world. She engages with it, maybe even with the surface beauty of flowers growing in new forms, reinterpretation human DNA into something else. She is more horrified than anyone by the violent part of it - when the geologist's last moment becomes forever trapped inside the bear, that part of her that was most scared surviving inside the creature that killed her, forever screaming for her life. Josie then goes on to refuse the dichotomy between the two explanations and the two choices - it's no longer either being killed by Area X (Gina Rodriguez' Anya Thorensen's death becoming the oddest visualisation of "Man is wolf to man", except with bears), or killing each other. It's not longer running back to where they entered or running towards the lighthouse, where they may leave. Instead, Josie wanders off into the beautiful vegetation, slowly becoming a part of Area X, the self-inflicted wounds on her arms transformed into fertile ground for new growth.
There is no tunnel/tower here, no Crawler writing words on the wall in fungi, as much as that would have been such a beautiful translation of the idea that this other takes what it finds and then transforms it. Instead of asking a why, a reason, or even a motive of what has happened, and as an explanation moves further away the more the horror pervades and transforms, Annihilation becomes about the individual adapting to radical change within itself. The true horror doesn't start with the creatures attacking the group, but with a video they come across of the previous mission, of Kane and another soldier gutting one of their team mates to find his insides turned into snakes, moving on their own. This alienation from the self is what breaks Anya, once she realises that these changes are happening in her own body. At the same time it almost feels like the psychologist is safe from it until the very end because her cancer is already doing that to her, the process started before she even entered Area X and since she knows how all of this will end for her in any case, it doesn't affect her as much as it does the others.
In the end, we are left with Lena, who has traced her husband Kane to the lighthouse. She finds a horrible set up, a dead body against a wall with a video camera pointing, promising truth. When she plays the video, she watches her husband self-immolate, brought to kill himself by a copy that has the same empty, strange eyes that the man who returned to her had. Once Lena enters the underworld created by the meteor, any remnants of a recognisable reality disappear, and what remains is a visually overwhelming sequence - a dance, the birth of a creature that seeks to become, set to music that may as well come from that place. We cannot be sure who returns from that place, and we already know that even if it were Lena, she would have been changed so much that the person returning wouldn't be Lena at all, the same way in which Kane spoke about his error in thinking he was still a man.
directed by Alex Garland, starring Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny.