[Spoilers for Annihilation book and movie]
As a rule of thumb, I always like to read the source material before watching an adaptation of it. It’s not that I think it makes a difference to the quality of the film: a good movie can be a bad adaptation (The Shining/ A Little Princess (1995), and a good adaptation can be a bad movie (Twilight, HP&HBP). So when I walked into Annihilation, I knew it wasn’t going to be like the book, but since I went in spoiler-free, I didn’t realize it was going to be nothing like the book. Overall, I found it boring as a film, for many of the same reasons that Teresa outlined in her review. When things like that happen, it’s not so much that I’m frustrated that the movie isn’t like the book; it’s more that, as I watch, I think “so why wasn’t this not like the book?”
After the whitewashing controversy around Annihilation came up, screenwriter Alex Garland said that a huge part of the reason why he wasn’t aware of the characters’ races was that it was not discussed until the later books, which he did not read because he was only interested in the first book. Except, the book and the movie feel like cousins, similar genes, but still separated by some other stuff.
From the moment the movie began, I knew it was going in a completely different direction. But I went with it, and even as the five women entered the Area X in an almost totally different way from the books, I was fine with it. However, when the movie started changing things like the tower/tunnel exploration into monster attacks that, while effective as a tension-building device, do not add much except to give our “protagonists” spectacular deaths, I could feel my interest waning.
There there was the boat scene where Natalie Portman’s Lena and Tuva Novotny’s Shepherd go through the entire cast’s motivations in one of the most cringe-worthy exposition dumps. However, it is unfortunately necessary, because overall the story spends no time making these women feel like people.
Which I wouldn’t complain about if the movie was like the source material. In the book, the women are purposefully not supposed to be bringing their baggage with them, nor forming bonds with each other, because it would mess up the analysis. They don’t know each other’s names, and they are identified only by their profession. Most of the character development in the book is around the Biologist/Lena and her relationship with her husband, who was on the previous mission. Besides her, the only character who has a big presence in the story is The Psychologist, who is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. The Surveyor is the only other person who does much of anything besides those two. (I suppose her closest equivalent would be Gina Rodriguez’s character, but they do not perform the same functions narrative-wise, aside from eventually becoming paranoid and distrustful of the Biologist.)
It’s one thing to have supporting characters that only exist to give texture to the universe, or to prop up the lead. It is another thing entirely when you go out of your way, and the movie’s way, to give these women sad backstories that amount to nothing.
Which brings me to the whitewashing issue real briefly. The reason why I have been reluctant to buy into the whole positive representation argument when it comes to Annihilation is that, while the movie has used the lack of race in the first novel to give us two Latinx characters in the supporting cast, the two characters who matter most to the story and whose arcs continue into sequels are the Biologist and the Psychologist, who were both women of color in the text and are now white women in the movie.
Annihilation is a hard book to adapt; I have no doubt about that. But it seems like there is really very little from the book that made it into the film that validates it having the same name, other than Garland like the concept behind Area X—which he also changes, from a phenomenon that has been going on for decades to a three-year-old incident. None of the characters were given enough to do to really be interesting, even though the acting was top notch. I did, however, love that it was the two women of color who were quick to go “Let’s get the hell out of here,” and it was the white women who were like, “No, let’s go deeper into the scary mutant bullshit.”
The monster scenes are effective, and the final confrontation between the team and man-bear-pig, which Garland named Paddington, is suspenseful, but it also does very little to tell you anything about Area X other than that it is fucked up. Which I think we got from the first creepy death.
As a film, I found it meh. I think it has some really good ideas, but nothing that made me connect or got me interested in what Area X is. The ending hints at something interesting, but I didn’t leave wanting to see what that was, where after finishing the book Annhiliation this past weekend I’ve picked up the second book.
Despite loving books, I have long come to understand that not every great book can be a great movie. (Anyone who’s read and watched Dune will tell you that.) But one of my pet peeves is when a movie is adapted and loses the core of its heart, its spirit in the process. Or at least, when the movie doesn’t add anything better to make these changes work.
The 1995 film adaptation of A Little Princess changes the location, the ending, the race of a major character, and adds a little good ol’ ’90s spunk to Victorian child Sarah Crewe, but it still feels like the book Frances Hodgson Burnett could have written. The superior Harry Potter movie, Prisoner of Azkaban, takes spectacular liberties with the book, the most jarring being that Harry gets his broomstick at the end of the movie instead of around the middle. But that’s fine, because the movie was shot fantastically, and Quidditch is too expensive to film more than once, so Harry doesn’t need a broomstick until the end. Plus, this change actually makes the movie better. The fact that Harry gets the broomstick from his godfather at the end, knowing he is safe and looked after, lets the movie end on an emotional high.
Annihilation is a poor adaptation, and by trying to keep some elements and change others, it ends up having a great cast that does nothing, monster scares that are powerful in the moment, but mean nothing in the next, and a conclusion that wants you to care about two characters that are not interesting. I mean, they made a semi-crazed, shirtless Oscar Issac boring … Tragic. That’s the sign of a dull movie if I’ve ever seen one.
Although it was great to see Poe Dameron and Padmé Amidala get it on. When your fan-fic becomes reality.
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