Some spoilers ahead for Jeff VanderMeer”s novel Annihilation.
Ex Machina“s Alex Garland is following up that gripping and thought-provoking directorial debut with another science fiction film but one that will look starkly different from his A.I. thriller. Annihilation, based on the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, won”t have a single robot or computer onscreen, possibly not even any modern technology.
It”s a smart career move – he”ll further establish himself as a talent worth watching for sci-fi fans, with a project that plays to his strengths for unsettling and eerie filmmaking. Meanwhile also (hopefully) proving he”s adept with a completely different aesthetic.
Successfully realizing that aesthetic will be a challenge. VanderMeer”s book absorbed the reader in the depths of a wild, dense land cut off from the civilized world for decades. Known as Area X, it is a place where bizarre incidents have occurred to the people who travel there on expeditions.
The unusual way VanderMeer wrote the novel is what makes it so effectively immersive: Aside from the name Area X, there are next to no names in the book. No proper nouns, with a few eventual exceptions.
Area X”s location is never specified, though feels a bit Pacific Northwest rainforest, a bit Florida marshes (VanderMeer”s inspiration for the book was a 14-mile hike through St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in northern Florida). None of the four women in the expedition to Area X are ever referred to by name, nor the remembered family members back home. We don”t learn the name of the city the biologist lived in. Never are tools, food, clothes, and other supplies referred to by any proper nouns. The few exceptions aren”t really names. They”re just descriptive words for things found in nature given a rare capital letter: Rock Bay (where the biologist does field work years prior), Old Flopper and Ugly Leaper (the frogs in the backyard of the biologist”s childhood home), and the names she uses for the mysterious entities in this weird place: the Tower and the Crawler.
The absence of proper nouns in the pages of Annihilation, narrated by a woman known only as the biologist, serves to transport us to Area X and also to get the reader to ponder what it means to have a name, to be addressed by name, to be humanized by a name. The biologist”s refusal to use names in this wild territory that”s pure nature yet somehow off tells us something about her relationship with this place, about what she feels like she needs to give up – names – to do her job as an explorer of Area X and to survive this mysterious and dangerous place, this natural land (or is it preternatural?) that transforms, changes, overtakes the people who dare to enter it.
In our day-to-day lives, we”re inundated with names. Apple, Chevron, McDonalds, brand names everywhere we look. Our friends and coworkers Tom and Britney and Ryan on our iPhone”s contacts and in our Outlook inbox. Broadway, Sepulveda, Anaheim, Tacoma, more streets and cities on our Google Maps app. Names™ are everywhere we look and in every conversation we have.
Though Disney”s Pocahontas told us every rock and tree and creature has a name, really, the depths of nature has no names for each of its inhabitants. Nature undisturbed doesn”t speak English, nor plaster logos and labels all over itself.
After the biologist finds a letter among one of her companions” belongings, she says, of the name scrawled on the envelope, “The name started with an S. Was it her child”s name? A friend? A lover? I had not seen a name or heard a name spoken aloud for months, and seeing one now bothered me deeply. It seemed wrong, as if it did not belong in Area X. A name was a dangerous luxury here.”
When the biologist and the surveyor have a tense (to say the least) reunion, and the surveyor is convinced the biologist is no longer human, she screams, “Tell me your name! Tell me your name! Tell me your goddamn f–king name!” But the biologist still won”t utter a name in this place.
Ultimately, Annihilation is most compelling in how it”s written, not in its plot. It”s rather atmospheric. But VanderMeer so ensnared me in Area X as he built a sense of disquiet and unease.
The film Annihilation won”t draw audiences into this wilderness in the same way. The weird experience of reading a couple hundred pages devoid of just about any proper nouns won”t translate to the screen. Even if the characters in Garland”s film (which doesn”t have a release date yet) never refer to each other by name, I know I”d see them as Natalie, Gina, Tessa, Jennifer – much like I watch Fight Club and in the absence of a name for the main character other than The Narrator, I just see Edward Norton.
Well, it turns out these scientists in the film do have names, apparently. Gina Rodriguez told Latina magazine, “I play Anya Thorensen, a paramedic from Chicago who happens to be a lesbian and an-ex-addict going into the Shimmer,” which she describes as “an entity that”s starting to destroy the world.”
That statement already tells a lot has changed from the book. (Garland has said it will be a loose adaptation.) There”s no “Shimmer” in the novel (perhaps this is the film”s name for the Tower or the Crawler or all of Area X?) and the purpose of the expedition is never so clear and simple as “save the world from this thing.” There is no paramedic among the 12th expedition in the novel, and we never learn so much about the lives of any of these women aside from the biologist to know any of their sexual orientations or their past.
Without even giving her a name, VanderMeer created a rich, compelling character with the biologist. Perhaps, though, the Annihilation film will give us a whole group of scientists who are multi-dimensional and capture our attention.
In its translation to the big screen, Annihilation loses the affecting way it”s written and everything it has to say about what it means to have a name. But hopefully Garland”s Annihilation will ensnare us in other ways that a book cannot: with this awesome diverse cast of women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in perfect casting as the psychologist, along with Natalie Portman as the biologist, Tessa Thompson, and Rodriguez – plus Oscar Isaac as the biologist”s husband). With the gorgeous photography cinematographer Rob Hardy”s already given us a peek at on Instagram. With whatever eerie music the yet-to-be-announced composer writes. And, of course, with the unique vision Garland has to bring. I”m bummed that my favorite aspect of the novel is unlikely to be present in the movie. But Garland”s Ex Machina (along with his largely satisfactory adapted screenplay for Never Let Me Go) have me trusting that Annihilation is a film worth looking forward to.