I actually love ambiguity.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, my top-level take. “Annihilation” is a really good film. The movie was directed by Alex Gardland, noted for Ex Machina, which we really dig. The visuals are without exception just stunning.
The science geek in me loves the talk of genetics, biology and other science facts, the Easter eggs. The cast does terrific work. The various ways that they are all haunted by the past — or the present — and the way those anxieties are portrayed adds to the sense of mystery and danger.
And there’s the famous Annihilation Sound:
And striking images like this one, when member of the expeditionary force gives up and walks out into the field. We get a quick glimpse of grasses and wildflowers sprouting from her forearm as she joins others who have met the same fate.
But again, I love ambiguity. This is where my objections come in.
Even though I was never a Sopranos follower, I was excited when I heard about the series finale. The controversial black screen for the last however-long when you don’t know what happened to Tony, or his family. You’ve got to figure it out for yourself, you have to write write your own story.
Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy also presents a lot of mystery. Through three volumes you follow protagonists who not only don’t know what is going on, or what happened; they’re not even sure who they are in the first place. And that’s the point of the story: the characters are in a mind-bending situation where reality isn’t what you might think it is. Time bends, the natural world is unnatural. There’s a mystery but you don’t even know what it is.
The story’s genesis is “The Event,”
“the ill-defined Event that locked it behind the border thirty years ago and made it subject to so many inexplicable occurrences.”
A vaguely hinted-at environmental catastrophe, perhaps a military project gone very wrong. The Event created Area X, a large and expanding area where the laws of nature don’t apply, surrounded by a force-field-like curtain called The Shimmer. No one even knows for certain how long it has been there. There is only one spot where you can enter, and once inside chances are you won’t come back. Twelve — or was it thirteen? — expeditions ventured in. Very few people came out, and those that did weren’t themselves.
This is important: The Event and Area X are never defined or explained. They just are.
So imagine my surprise when I get the movie on-demand and in the very first shot a comet comes crashing to Earth right into the base of the lighthouse. That’s the image at the top of the page. (In the book, The Event isn’t even mentioned until page 94.) Right out of the box one of the deepest mysteries — what caused The Event — is answered before you even get a chance to ask.
Then there’s the tower, and the lighthouse. The tower is, well…
The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and the wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond that the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse.
Did you get that The tower … plunges into the earth.
That’s the first paragraph of the book. Not an answer — a question. And indeed the first 70-odd pages of the book are about the tower. The lighthouse plays a pivotal role, too, especially in its upper levels where all kinds of mysterious things are discovered, including vast piles or written notes and boxes of cassette recordings. I’ll come back to these points in a minute.
There are some other substantial changes in the storyline from the book. I won’t quibble, because often it’s a really good idea to change things when translating it to the stage or screen. But there are two big things that aren’t quibbles (spoilers ahead).
- In the book, he dies
- In the book, Area X isn’t destroyed
And things brings me to my point which is, why dumb it down and give the easy answers?
For one, if Area X is destroyed, you’ve effectively sequel-proofed yourself. Congratulations, because you could have had two more volumes to work with. But even more this powerful, world-altering, well-nigh unstoppable Event is stopped and reversed with — a hand grenade.
There are some articles out there that try to explain the ending. To me the ending and the beginning are wrong. They explain too much.
Reasonable people can disagree. But I think the original-original ending, the by-the-book ending, is better because it is so wonderfully open-ended.
And Area X continues to expand.
The Tower, lined with stairs corkscrewing down, seemingly without end. On the walls mysterious markings, prints, images.
The Tower does not appear in the movie. At all. And no, the hole in the floor of the lighthouse does not count because there’s nothing down there. It’s a cool effect, looking all biological like something out of Aliens, but it’s just not as interesting.
Maybe a cut that omits that opening shot. And leaves out the whole battle-in-the-cellar. It would end with Lena, back at the base, not actually herself, trying to figure out how to go on with her now-living not-husband.
I should really relax; it’s just a show.