top of page

Annihilation (2019): the Alien Experience of our Environment

Ghouls are journeying into the Shimmer, a land where nature has reclaimed what civilization built. Gabe discusses the film and the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer to unpack the complexities of nature, the language it speaks, and why it'll never care about us. Kat finds out if the film has some truth to its science focusing on Hox Genes and Genetic Drift.

Sources in this Episode: Annihilation: "Weird" Nature ‘Annihilation’ Is Fiction, but the Science ‘Isn’t Bullshit’: Alex Garland’s Scientific Accuracy, Explained, Genetic drift (article) | Natural selection | Khan Academy

Other Reviews on Annihilation: Annihilation review: the most thoughtful science fiction movie since Arrival - The Verge 'Annihilation' Review - Variety Annihilation review – Natalie Portman thriller leaves a haunting impression | Science fiction and fantasy films | The Guardian How the Ending of 'Annihilation' Departs From the Book - The Atlantic

Ways to Help:


Media from this week's episode:

Annihilation (2018) - FILM

A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition into a mysterious zone where the laws of nature don't apply.

Directed by: Alex Garland (Director of Never Let Me Go)

Annihilation (2014) - BOOK

A team of four women cross the border into an uninhabited area known as "Area X", an unspecified coastal location that has been closed to the public for three decades.

Written by: Jeff VanderMeer


Annihilation: the Complex Language of Nature & Our Insignificance by Gabe Castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

I have wanted to talk about Annihilation on this show for some time. I read the trilogy back-to-back and it was a journey. The first book is such an experience and I am excited to read more of VanderMeer’s work. I actually don’t plan to spend too much time discussing the movie because I feel much more connected to the book. For me, the biologist in Annihilation was a fascinating protagonist in the book while the film felt like an entirely different message. However, since I’m sure many people are tuning in because they loved the film (which I also do!) I will start there.

Movie Synopsis:

The film follows the biologist, Natalie Portman, as she joins a group of women who travel into The Shimmer. Her husband, Oscar Isaac, had been a part of the 11th Expedition into the unknown land. He was missing for quite some time before finding himself at home. All he remembers is being there, in the house and seeing his wife, a face he feels he remembers. He is almost immediately sick after being unable to answer any of his wife’s questions. She assumes he’s withholding information due to his line of work, it's clearly a point of contention for them, but it becomes clear as he comes up empty for answers that he simply does not know.

After trying to get her very sick husband help, she finds herself in some secret base where it's revealed to her that he had been on a very hopeless and dangerous mission into the Shimmer or Area X, a ecologically altered world cut off from our own by a shimmering forcefield. (The film doesn’t get into too much about this place but the barrier can only be entered in a very specific location). She is told that many people have gone in but until now, no one has come out. She volunteers to join the group of women to venture into this unknown, alien ecosystem.

The group (including actors, Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodgriguez) are led by a psychologist, (underrated scream queen, Jennifer Jason Leigh) who has her own ulterior motives. We learn that each of these women are, in some way, hopeless. They have taken on this mission because they’ve got nothing else and they need some purpose. Through this journey they encounter some truly horrific beings and nature that is incredibly fantastical and fascinating. The group slowly pieces together what happened to the expedition before them as they begin being picked off, one by one, by Area X.

In the end, we’re left with a complete mind trip experience in the Lighthouse (their intended destination). We encounter an alien lifeform that at first seems to want to hurt our protagonist but we learn that it’s simply trying to communicate. It’s trying to create, replicate…clones. And while nature has steadily intertwined with the expedition members (warping their fingerprints and insides), nature too has also been affected by the humans (taking their shape and parts of their DNA). It’s kind of beautiful and haunting, a weird marriage of nature and humanity - no longer separate but something entirely new and united.

Book Synopsis:

Similar to the film, a group of women journey into an area known as “Area X”, a land where nature has reclaimed what civilization built. Unlike the film, these women don’t have names and are reduced simply to their occupations (a biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a surveyor.). This is strategic so that they do not know each other well and can remain independent in thought - which is important in a violent new world like Area X. This story is spun over three books (Southern Reach Trilogy), the first Annihilation is told through the point of view of the Biologist by way of her field journal. We know only what she knows about Area X and the others involved. We know nothing of the organization in charge, the Southern Reach. We learn through her that they are the 12th Expedition to venture into the unknown area. The biologist’s husband was a part of the 11th Expedition. In this series, we learn that there have been many more than 11 expeditions and that several had been labeled as such so as to not alarm folx who were participating - so they could see how fruitless and futile the past explorations had been - and how numerous. There’s a haunting scene where the biologist finds a mountain of journals of previous expeditions.

The film diverts from the plot pretty quickly - keeping only the themes, feelings and phantasmagoric aesthetic from the book. Director Alex Garland had said of his adaptation, “I did an adaptation of my memory of the novel, a slightly odd conceit.” He did not reread the book before adapting it and though, kept the ecological horrors, much of what I personally appreciate about the novel is missing.

In the book, the group of women travel into Area X and like the film, they don’t remember how they got in, what happened when they crossed the threshold, how much time has really passed or how they’ve been able to set up camp. You learn why this happens in the book and it was shocking and unsettling. Considering how little control everyone has, there’s even more manipulation than what we’re seeing on the surface. I won’t spoil it, but just know you can’t trust all those who’ve journeyed alongside the Biologist into Area X.

The biggest change between the book and film is the tower. Which isn’t a tower at all. After the first night spent at the base camp, the 12th expedition come upon a structure containing a set of spiral stairs descending into the ground. Inside the staircase, they find cursive writing that begins with the words "Where lies the strangling fruit..." The writing appears to consist of a plant material growing several inches from the exterior wall. While the biologist is examining the writing, she accidentally inhales spores from one of the script-defining growths.

Thus begins our journey of the unreliable narrator. As readers, we can’t entirely trust what the Biologist tells us because we’re unsure what she’s experiencing isn’t affected by these spores. The group encounters similar wildlife and fauna as the film’s crew, plants with human DNA, clones, and strange evolutions. This includes a monster that I found scarier than even the bear from the film - referred to as the moaning creature that we never get to fully see but it was still terrifying to think of. Th