Book vs. Movie: Annihilation

Annihilation, the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi/horror Southern Reach series, was published a little over seven years ago. I first read it around that time, ended up reading it again a year or so later, and have had the other two books in the series on my shelf for the last year or so just waiting for the right time to sit down and revisit the series in entirety. During the pandemic’s lock down last year, I had that time and was able to read all three of the books in the series one after the other (yes, I have read the first book three times now and I really could probably read it again – I may be an addict!). I especially wanted to revisit Annihilation in conjunction with the movie, which came out in 2018. After indulging in a deep dive of the books and movie, I came away even more convinced of how effective Annihilation is, and even gathered a few new ideas that kept me thinking about the series long after I was finished. (Note: Spoilers ahead!)

The Book

AnnihilationAnnihilation introduces us to a world where part of the eastern United States seaboard has been significantly changed by an unknown type of event. There is some type of permeable border around the area, which is now called Area X, and a military organization called the Southern Reach has been tasked with controlling and investigating the situation. Scientists have been sent in on expeditions with the hopes that they can record information and report back. Our protagonist is introduced to us as The Biologist, and each member of her expedition is referred to in similar terms by their role: The Psychologist, etc. The story follows the group as they journey into the border zone, a trip that The Biologist undertook with the hope of finding out what happened to her husband, who seemed to have been damaged in some way on his venture into Area X. However, she eventually comes to understand that the being that returned to her from the previous expedition was likely not, in fact, her husband at all.

We see Area X through The Biologist’s eyes and it quickly becomes clear the changes that have taken place are both wonderous and terrifying. Electronics do not work within Area X, so all members of the expedition are given paper journals in which to record their findings. The flora and fauna within the area have been altered in ways that would seem to be impossible based upon our current understandings of nature, and it isn’t quite clear that time and space work the same within the area as they do without. As the expedition ventures further, ever more disturbing mutations are encountered, and each of the individual’s personalities begin to change. By the end of the novel we have some answers as to what is happening, but those answers serve only to spawn more questions. My main takeaways from the book:

  • One of the most haunting ideas from the novel is “the tower”, which is actually not a tower at all, but rather a sort of bunker with a winding staircase that continues downward for an undisclosed depth. However, for some reason The Biologist cannot help but think of it as “the tower”. Venturing into this anomaly, the explorers encounter writing upon the walls in the form of living flora – a sort of moss or lichen substance that spells out words that have a religious cadence and connotation to them, and which don’t seem to make any real sense while still managing to transfer a feeling of looming terror. This aspect of the book is one that visited my dreams for many nights.
  • The religion vs. nature theme that runs underneath the storyline is what I kept returning to as I was reading the novel this time. There is an overwhelming feeling throughout of a god gone mad, or a god with power but no real understanding or humaneness, who has been set loose upon the area making changes to nature at its whim. The religious-like text of the tower lends to this feeling, but there is also The Biologist’s “awakening” after inhaling spores from the vegetation forming the words. It seems that she has been gifted the truth of the new natural order in this area and essentially she becomes privy to an innate revelatory understanding that is beyond attempts of explanation – something very akin to a religious experience. Afterwards she begins the process of converting to someone – something – different than she was before. I can see Area X as the Eden of this mad god, a place where creation serves an unknowable purpose, or possibly no purpose at all. It is not an Eden of human interpretation, but something beyond and alien, something terrifying as the boundaries and limits that we take for granted are removed.
  • Some of the most beautiful writing in the book is The Biologist’s discussion of nature. It’s clear that the true love of her life is the natural world. Her journal entries are written to her husband, and her struggle to connect with him in many of the emotional ways that we might find typical in romantic relationships is in sharp contrast to the articulation of her love and appreciation of even the smallest aspects of the natural world. She wants to share it all with him, and her choice of sharing it with him is the best way that she can express her love for him. She marvels at what she sees around her even as she revisits her past attachments to and her reliance on the fulfillment brought to her by experiencing the natural world – her unconscious and innate preference seems to be for a relationship with it over that of a human relationship. However, we get a sense of someone who has a very clear realization of her emotional shortcomings, but for whom those emotions and thoughts for others are, in fact there, only harder to grasp and feel deeply; they are simply more distant for her than for others. This is demonstrated by her continuing search through the piles of journals in the lighthouse in hopes of finding her husband’s journal – one last piece of him to cling to. Despite this, the reality seems to be that she can more easily fall into the rhythms and beauty of a moss filled pool of water than her husband’s eyes, and she knows this and sees how it separates her from what most humans find to be of utmost importance.

The Movie

AnnihilationPosterThe plot for the movie actually follows that of the book to a great extent. Some of the main changes are interpretations of characters, encounters with the remains of previous expeditions within Area X, and a more detailed interpretation of how the changes to flora and fauna manifest along with a suggestion of how it may relate to our own understanding of physics. The ending of the movie, however, is much different than the book with The Biologist returning to the Southern Reach compound, rather than continuing on her journey within Area X. This plot change serves to facilitate the exploration of an interesting concept related to the way that Area X is facilitating changes especially concerning creation (or re-creation) via duplication or twinning, as well as give a hint at the direction for the following books in the series. Some of my observations when comparing the movie to the book:

  • The Biologist in the movie is much more capable and assured, and much more emotionally and sexually available. One example is the revelation that she has apparently had an affair with a co-worker at some point, something it would be hard to picture The Biologist from the book as being very interested in. Additionally, in the movie we see her waiting for her husband’s return, mourning his loss with music and a search for things to keep herself occupied. It’s painful to watch and shows a depth of emotion that isn’t really available to the character from the text. Her joy when she thinks that her husband has come back to her is well played and very emotional, as is her disappointment when she realizes that something is very, very wrong. We see her struggling through the realization that the one that she loved has not, in fact returned – will never return – at a level that echoes the experiences of many who have seen their partners return from active combat. Overall, The Biologist in the movie is a much more emotionally adept and mature individual with her motivations based more firmly in that humanness.
  • The lack of the appearance of “the tower” in the movie made me very sad. However, so much of that aspect of the book is an internal working of thought and perception by The Biologist that it would have been exceptionally hard to capture on film, and the emotions stirred by this plot point of the book would likely have been impossible to fully communicate on film.


  • The transmogrification of flora and fauna aspect of Area X is shown in two particularly effective ways with the soldier in the swimming pool, who has been changed (the visceral aspect of his intestinal changes in the flashback is horrifying), died from the horrors of the changes, and then left in a somewhat Christlike pose (an interesting inverted religious visual, here), as well as the bear-creature who mimics the cries for help of its last victim. Both of these were terrifying in their own way: the soldier posed and covered in flowers of all colors after a horrific death – a sharp contrast between beauty and pain; the bear’s disfigured face and borrowed voice – a terrifying new emotionally triggering lure to a ravaging death. Both of these incidents work to bring home the alien nature of whatever has taken over Area X and truly focus on abject displays created by an amoral, “natural” source.
  • The twinning theme throughout the movie is very like mirroring rather than cloning or duplicating. The merging of our world with that of Area X is conveyed in an interesting way and it almost seems as if the creator is both copying and modifying with an attempt to improve in some fashion – based upon it’s own, alien values. In some cases this almost appears as a mocking of what we consider natural, as with the changes to the bear and the positioning of the soldier after his murder. This aspect is further emphasized in the last scenes at the lighthouse where the creature that we can assume is at the heart of the spreading changes takes on the appearance of The Biologist, mirrors her and her movements, and duplicates enough of her characteristics as a human to eventually allow for essential self-destruction. While the alien being works to duplicate her, it’s focus seems to be solely on that process, and so as the process and creature evolves The Biologist still retains her individual free will and foresight, which enable her to outsmart the creature and free herself from its trap. All along we have seen that The Biologist has also been in the process of being changed, in this case simply by her presence within Area X, and so what we see at the end of the movie as The Biologist is returned to her would-be husband, Kane, at the Southern Reach compound is another type of mirroring: Kane, we now know, is actually creature trying to be human, while The Biologist is human, but continuing to be slowly transformed into creature.

As you can probably tell, I really love both the movie and the books. I feel like there are just a ton of ideas in this series to think about, so much so that I will be talking more about the next two books in the series – Authority and Acceptance – in another post. Additionally, I was super excited to see a Facebook post from Jeff VanderMeer before Christmas announcing a forthcoming fourth installment in the series – Absolution. I can’t wait to see what’s next!

Halloween Favorite: Phantasm

This is a repost (which actually is yet another way to provide an example of the level of my Phantasm addiction). I watch the original movie in this series often, and it has been a Halloween favorite for many years. While the Tall Man is technically an alien, there are many horror elements in the film. I’m also extremely excited about the upcoming installment in the franchise to be released next year, Phantasm: Ravager.
(Check out the trailer!)

I have been having a love affair with the Phantasm franchise for probably more than 20 years now. It started out innocently enough, just another horror movie that I hadn’t ever seen before, and then, of course, the two sequels — Phantasm II (1988) and Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994) — followed later by what appears to be the final chapter, Phantasm IV : Oblivion (1998). The original came out in 1979, and I have no idea how long after that it actually was until I saw it, but I immediately fell in love with the flying silver orb, whizzing along the hallways with that supersonic keening sound, just dying to chunk itself into someone’s forehead so it could churn out that gout of blood. Whoever came up with the orb really added something to the horror movie culture!

Phantasm's crazy silver orb

(Photo from

And, I was young enough to have a huge crush on Michael — he was so cool. Riding his motorbike in the cemetery, driving that black muscle car around and knowing how to work on it. (Seriously, Jody, your younger brother is the one fixing your car?).

Phantasm's badass car

(Photo from

Once I’d watched the first one, I was hooked. I especially remember the trailer for the second one, and remember watching it with a roommate who also liked horror movies.

I kept re-watching them until the third one came out. At that point, I was older and wiser and had realized that Reggie was definitely where it’s at. He could drive and fix that awesome black car, and was weaponized to the hilt. (And, by the way, all of us Supernatural fans owe a huge debt to the second and third Phantasm movies. If you doubt me, just check them out.) Reggie’s charm and skills always got him the babe (at least for awhile, until she went weird), and the bald with a ponytail thing just seemed to work for him somehow. Who knew that a simple ice cream vendor that just wanted to strum some guitar tunes in his free time would end up being the biggest hero of the series?

Phantasm II - picture of Reggie

Reggie ready for battle (Photo from

Waiting for the fourth installment felt like it took forever. At one point I cycled through all the previous films in a week’s time. I was like an addict, or maybe an 8-year-old with their favorite film (or maybe those are both kind of the same thing). Once it finally came out, it was clear that Michael (the original Michael!) had grown up and was ready to take on the Tall Man in a final battle. He was back from the beyond, and you could tell that it had changed him. He was sadder, tireder, ready for it to be over. While this last installment wasn’t the best movie in the series, I was still pretty much just happy to revisit all those characters and themes, and to let Michael and Reggie have a final say.

Photo of Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man

(Photo from Wikipedia)

So, what’s kept me re-watching these movies over the years? Well, all of the above, but Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man keeps me coming back, too. No one else can growl “Boy!!” in quite the same way. And, what about all those awesome slo-mo sequences of him walking? Or driving that hearse like a madman? Or just appearing out of nowhere, and towering and glowering and grabbing at you with those clawed hands? I love the special edition DVD of Phantasm, because it starts out with Angus Scrimm introducing the movie and talking about being asked to audition for the part. The director told him he would be playing an “alien”, which Scrimm took to mean “foreigner”, until he got the script!

There’s also the overall mood and ambience of the movies – it’s always dark or darkish and it feels like the town or place the characters are in could be the last inhabited area on earth. This is especially so in the second and third installment. And, of course, there’s the Phantasm theme. It’s got a really 70s, Dario Argento feel to it that works for me. There’s the other creepy characters that keep popping up, like the girl and her blind, fortuneteller grandma in the first movie, or the girl that keeps seducing guys at the bar and taking them out to the graveyard to get it on (and sometimes her face looks like the Tall Man’s), or the girls that are horrifically transformed in the second and third movies. There’s the weird gateway to the other dimension that just begs for you to put both hands on it, and the chaos that ensues once someone finally does. Oh, and there’s the crazy squashed hooded creatures that the Tall Man is apparently stockpiling and using as slaves, which are constantly running through the bushes or rolling out from behind things in the basement of the mortuary.

I guess that for me these movies just have an originality to them. There’s nothing else out there quite like them. A sense of isolation, loneliness, and an impending doom worse than death permeates them. A helplessness runs throughout, from Michael’s inability to stop what he knows is happening in the first film, to Reggie’s inability to save Michael and his persistence in fighting something no one else seems to know is happening in the second and third, to the final fight of Reggie and Michael in a battle where they both know it’s unlikely there will really be a win, and where, again, Reggie will not be able to save Michael. The idea of our world being systematically plundered while no one is looking is frightening, as is the idea of a doorway to another dimension that might exist right in the next room. The Tall Man’s absolute disdain for humans, his overwhelming strength, his seeming ability to be everywhere or anywhere, and his delight in using those clearly technologically advanced spheres of murder is monstrous. There is no appealing to this creature for mercy. His ponderous, long gait is patient in the knowledge that he will eventually get you, no matter where you run, how deeply you hide, or how savagely you fight back.