The new movie Annihilation is based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, but fans of the book may be startled by just how dramatically the film departs from its source material. But writer Andrew Willett thinks it does a fantastic job of capturing the book’s unsettling atmosphere even as it alters virtually every plot point.
“They definitely made changes that served the needs of a movie,” Willett says in Episode 298 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Doing things that movies need and things that movies do well, as opposed to things that books do well.”
After the film performed poorly at a test screening last summer, writer-director Alex Garland was asked to make changes, which were rejected. In response the studio sold the foreign rights for the movie to Netflix, meaning that most of the world won’t be able to see the movie in theaters. That’s a real shame, according to Leah Schnelbach, who reviewed Annihilation for Tor.com.
“This is what you want to get out of a movie in the theater, this sort of full sensory thing,” she says. “And it’s kind of heartbreaking to me to think that people are just going to put this on on their TV and then do other stuff, or be on their phone or whatever, and not have the experience that I got to have.”
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley agrees, noting that Annihilation is the only movie he’s watched three times in theaters since The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. He praises the film for its overpowering visuals and sound design, particularly its mind-meltingly visionary climax. “My brain was just being continuously pulverized into a helpless state of like, ‘I can’t believe what I’m watching,’” he says. “It was as close to a religious experience as I’m ever likely to have.”
Annihilation’s increasingly trippy visuals may tempt one to experience the movie in an altered state of consciousness, but according to WIRED editor Jason Kehe that would be a huge mistake.
“So many people are like, ‘Oh I should get high for this,’” he says. “No no no no. You want to be stone-cold sober for this viewing experience, because it’s just way too intense.”
Listen to the complete interview with Andrew Willett, Leah Schnelbach, and Jason Kehe in Episode 298 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Andrew Willett on the movie versus the book:
“It was certainly challenging to experience the movie strictly on its own terms, because there’s that perpetual little voice in your head that’s taking notes and doing the compare and contrast thing—’This never happened, oh look they’ve changed this, and hey where did this plot line go?’ … The sense of secret-keeping and hidden agendas among the various members of the team is really nerfed, especially when we’re talking about the psychologist. All the stuff about post-hypnotic suggestion is gone. And that plot line, where Lena is understanding how they’re being manipulated by the people who have sent them into Area X, that’s a huge element of the emotional tone of the book, and the action itself. So I missed that. It also means you need a new reason to say the word ‘annihilation’ somewhere in your screenplay.”
Leah Schnelbach on characterization:
“That was the one scene that I kind of checked out during. It felt to me like it was pushing me out of the movie, because it just felt so expository, where Shepherd is just sort of running Lena through why everyone came to Area X, and it just sort of felt a little too ‘this person’s an addict, so of course they’re going to be here, this person was suicidal once, of course they’re going to be here,’ and it just felt too reductive, compared to the idea that they’ve been drawn to this for myriad reasons. Because in order to go on a trip like that, I think you’d have to have a lot of different reasons, and not just, ‘I was depressed for a while, so I decided to go on this suicide mission.’ So that frustrated me.”
Jason Kehe on weirdness:
“In the chat we had with Jeff VanderMeer, he said a lot of people read into the tower and the tunnel obvious Freudian images, but he was interested less in that interpretation and more in destabilizing the idea of height and depth, and that what’s up is going down and what’s down is going up. In the book the biologist refers to this tunnel that goes into the earth as the ‘tower,’ kind of inverting that, spatially. And I kind of liked when she walks into the lighthouse that there is this staircase that she never goes up—which is exactly what you’d expect of a character who goes into a lighthouse—but I think for people who don’t read the book, to see her go into a lighthouse and then to go into it, into this hole in the ground, is the weirder, more magical thing to do.”
David Barr Kirtley on Annihilation’s Theatrical and Netflix Releases:
“They made this movie, and they screened it, and the test audience was like, ‘I don’t get it.’ And then the studio said they needed to change it to make the ending more happy, and Natalie Portman needs to be more sympathetic and stuff like that. But Alex Garland and his producer—whose name I think is Scott Rudin—their contract said that they had final cut, and so they said, ‘Nope, we’re keeping it the way it is.’ But that’s why the studio then sold the foreign rights to Netflix, because they didn’t think it was going to do well in theaters and they were trying to cut their losses. So this movie is the way that Alex Garland wants it. … As far as I know this is how it was written and how it was shot and everything, and there was no studio interference.”