I was one of those fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s amazing Southern Reach trilogy eagerly anticipating the film of the first book. It’s called Annihilation, directed by Alex Garland. The books are about a piece of land – Area X in the books, the ‘shimmer’ in the film – which has gone very different in the books and in the film is occupied by something alien. Various military/scientific teams are sent in to investigate and only one man ever reappears. After doing poorly at the box office in the US – apparently because it was too ‘high concept’ – it’s only available via Netflix in the UK.
So I watched it and boy was I disappointed. And not just disappointed: actually quite angry. Here’s why.
1 as I recall the Southern Reach books, one of their major themes was perception and its difficulties. In Area X it’s not clear what’s happening: objects shape shift, sounds are inexplicable, time and space warp and fold. You would have thought that film is a great medium to explore awry perception, visual and otherwise. But no. What’s happening in the shimmer is spectacularised in the film so that it’s all about objects that are shown to have changed form. That is, everything is rendered visible, whereas in the books a lot of the fascination is that the visible is no longer a reliable guide to what exists.
2 the main character in the film is given an elaborate back story about her husband. We get happy scenes, we get sad scenes, we get her having an affair (wot? oh yes, we get to see Natalie Portman having sex)… all entirely irrelevant to the central problematic of the books but hey, core to maintaining patriarchal heteronormativity in wannabe Hollywood blockbusters with female leads.
3 the film explains what’s going on in the shimmer. Whereas the whole point of the books (as I read them) is that what’s going on is incomprehensible. Nobody knows, nobody understands, nobody has an explanation, or at least not one that works. But in the film, we get an Explanation. Again, while the books contemplate what an encounter with something radically alien might feel like, the film reduces it to a puzzle that can be solved by science.
4 the Explanation of the shimmer’s effect is genetic mixing. This is the horror, the film tells us. Genetic mixing is what gives animals human voices and bodies writhing intestines and plants more than one kind of flower and trees coloured fungus.
5 and can the film accept this mixing? (The final book of the trilogy is called ACCEPTANCE). Nope. What does the main character do to its source? She firebombs it. Literally, she sets off an incendiary grenade which burns all the effects of the mixing. ANNIHILATION, geddit?
Now I understand that films can’t be the same as novels. That’s why they’re called adaptations, I get that. And yes, I enjoyed seeing a film full of strong, intelligent, diverse women. But what this adaptation has done, I think, is to systematically strip out the really very radical weirdness of the novels. It’s removed every vestige of unknowability, incomprehension and bafflement, and replaced it with convention, science and control.
And that it represents mixing as a horror that must be violently undone is just apalling. I perhaps feel this especially strongly as I spent today reading Simone Browne’s book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, which is a very powerful account of how surveillance technologies of many kinds have both observed and invisibilised black bodies over centuries, and legitimated terrible racist brutality. At one point she discusses how Hollywood versions of biometrics are imagined as tethering people to a fixed identity (and thus also to gendered and racialised hierarchies of power). What Annihilation does, it seems to me, is to visualise the flipside of that desire for biological tethering: the apparently grotesque horror of fluid identity, of mixing it up.
Barbara Creed wrote a book a long while ago about how so much Hollywood horror depends on monstrous, out-of-control female bodies. I can’t help thinking that Annihilation also takes something excessive to dominant norms and makes it horrible. However, as Browne’s book makes very clear, that horror of mixing has generated, and continues to generate, a far more powerful and violent terror than anything Annihilation appears able to imagine.