This article contains spoilers for Annihilation, both the book and the movie.
Around 30 minutes into the movie adaptation of Annihilation, I realized that they were going to take a drastically different thematic approach from the novel, although admittedly I probably should have realized it from the start. Annihilation opens with Natalie Portman’s biologist, now named Lena, teaching a class about cancer cells. Throughout the movie, we are shown cells mutating numerous times to reinforce the connection. By contrast in the book of the same name, the character here named only ‘The Biologist’ does a similar thing but with ecosystems. She describes to us a number of the ecosystems that she has studied and emphasized her preference for this study over people. This might in part account for the calm, detached tone in the novel which takes the form of The Biologist’s field notes. A great many frightening things happen in the mysterious Area X, the area the biologist and her all-female team of scientists are tasked with exploring, but these occurrences don’t always disturb the biologist so much, because, well, she’s used to watching ecosystems rise and fall.
This is where the book and the film seem to diverge philosophically. The Biologist and therefore the book sees Area X as an environment to be studied, dangerous, beautiful, neither good nor bad, like most of nature – it just is. In the film, Lena’s Area X is named ‘The Shimmer’; whilst she interprets the strange happenings as a mutation, this is a cancerous one that is twisting the cells of the environment around her. In the film, the environment seems to take the role of ‘antagonist’, which perhaps explains why the mysterious organization that sends the team of scientists into the area, the Southern Reach Facility, no longer occupies a villainous role. In the book the company that sends the women on their expedition has an air of mystery surrounding it, one that adds to the novel’s detached and dreamy tone. Each woman on the mission is stripped of their name and given a title to replace it: ‘The Biologist’, ‘The Anthropologist’ etc. The scientists are forbidden from telling each other anything about their past or their personal lives and they are placed under hypnosis by the organization before entering Area X. We learn later that the organization has been fudging the numbers and the characters we have been following are definitely not only the 12th party to enter Area X. In the movie, the company just sends them in.
The villainous nature of the organization in the novel seems to serve the purpose of adding to the ambiguity of Area X. After The Biologist accidentally inhales some spores she begins changing, although she conceals this from her teammates. This change is frightening, yes, her body is being taken over by a force she can’t control, but it also protects her. She discovers that whatever the company did to allow them to enter Area X under hypnosis also programmed commands into their minds to make them compliant. The Anthropologist is killed when The Psychologist puts her under hypnosis while on a dangerous mission. If you’re wondering why the title is ‘Annihilation’, in the book it’s the word the psychologist uses when attempting to induce hypnotically suggested suicide. Of course, it doesn’t work, because The Biologist’s mutations protect her. In the film, Doctor Ventress uses ‘annihilation’ to describe how The Shimmer interacts with its environment, destroying everything around it.
In many ways, Lena takes more of the path of the book’s Surveyor. The Surveyor, after seeing how the Biologist has become mutated enough to start glowing, tries to kill her. Lena succeeds in destroying The Shimmer, although it is ambiguous as to how much of it came back with her.
The Biologist’s arc is thematically closer to the film character Josie. Josie is the member of the group that gives into the change around her and presumably becomes one of the plant people we’ve been seeing around The Shimmer. At the end of the book, The Biologist decides not to return to the outside world but go deeper into Area X in search of her husband’s presence. She seems to have made her peace with Area X and that’s possibly what’s kept her alive. While a clone of The Biologist appears in the book sequels, its implied that The Biologist herself has become one of the creatures in Area X, becoming part of the ecosystems she had devoted her life to studying. For a film that has consistently been described as unconventional Annihilation takes the surprisingly conventional route of just blowing the whole place up. It’s a pretty Hollywood formula; go to the bad place, survive the bad place, destroy the bad place. The Area X of the book was dangerous, but The Shimmer is a cancer, its ambiguity removed, it must be destroyed.