How do you end the first film of a trilogy when there won’t be a second or third?
Annihilation is an odd film. It’s also a polarizing one. A quick search for reviews shows a good mix of those claiming to get it and those claiming there’s nothing to get.
Whatever your take on Annihilation’s obtuseness, it’s undeniable that it’s a very unusual case of adaptation. The film is based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, the first in a series called The Southern Reach Trilogy. But oddly enough, director Alex Garland has said he has no plans to adapt the second or third book. The same Hollywood that stretched The Hobbit into three films is, apparently, going to leave this trilogy alone with a single film.
It’s a refreshing change, for sure.
It’s also bizarre news for fans of the trilogy, and for adaptation in general. Garland wrote the film’s script before the final two books were even written, which means none of the characters or events of the later books are present. And it means the open ending of the first novel is reworked into the closed ending of a standalone film.
This isn’t too jarring, as the whole film is a very loose adaptation of the book. The armature and the mood persist, but the story is profoundly different. The film has its own narrative and agenda, and it crafts its ending to serve that agenda. And that’s fine. But it makes for an unusual disparity:
The end of Garland’s film is the opposite of the end of VanderMeer’s trilogy.
VanderMeer’s Annihilation ends more or less with Lena’s descent into the hole in the lighthouse. (I say more or less because the hole is in a different place and contains different horrors). The open-ended nature of this ending gives Garland free reign to decide what lies at the bottom of the hole, and what happens when Lena emerges from it.
And so Garland’s Lena destroys her double and with it, the Shimmer.
VanderMeer’s trilogy, however, ends with Lena’s double surviving and the Shimmer extending far beyond its borders and possibly across the entire world.
It’s a change that sends some strange reverberations through the film, and through any promise of a sequel. It makes the narrative a closed one, the telling of an encounter with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s a surprisingly daring approach to the material and one that can be read as a direct rebuttal to calls for a franchise.
This is a series about studying an anomaly, and now the anomaly’s gone.
Of course, there’s always the possibility for reinterpretation. The real end of the film isn’t the destruction of the Shimmer, but an exchange between Lena and Kane’s double:
Lena: You’re not Kane, are you?
Kane: No, I don’t think so. Are you Lena?
There’s no verbal response to this, but the two embrace and we see the Shimmer reflected in both their eyes. This brings up a very important question: Did Lena actually destroy her double? Everything we’ve seen inside the Shimmer has been her version of the story as she tells it to Benedict Wong. There’s no real reason to take her at her word.
And between that final embrace and the source material (in the novels, it’s Lena’s double that returns), there’s every reason not to.
So the end of Garland’s Annihilation may not be completely divorced from the books. If a part of the Shimmer remains, so does the possibility of a sequel, but it’s likely to be even more fundamentally different. With the Shimmer gone, any story following Lena and Kane’s doubles is sure to follow the trilogy in spirit alone.
But I sincerely hope this is it for Annihilation. It’s a beautiful standalone narrative that’s banished the past and future of its source material to leave behind two hours of exactly what it wants to show us. Its final yet ambiguous ending leaves room for an expansion that I think is best left to speculation.
Showing any more would only cheapen it.