“The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and the wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats…” So begins Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, a creepy supernatural read focused on a mysterious Area X.

The book is narrated entirely from the perspective of the unnamed biologist who ventures into Area X with a team of three other women (an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist). VanderMeer masterfully builds dread, paranoia, claustrophobia, and suspense…. and I was completely unable to put the book down.

On February 23, the book’s movie adaptation will premiere starring Natalie Portman as the biologist, Gina Rodriguez as the anthropologist, Tessa Thompson as the surveyor, Jennifer Jason Leigh as the psychologist, Tuva Novotny as the linguist, and Oscar Isaac as the biologist’s husband. While I don’t know the full extent of changes from the book to the movie until the actual movie premieres, I know that it will be based off of Annihilation (and its sequels, Authority and Acceptance).

Even though the film is led by five very badass women and one very beautiful man, the studio distributing the film is concerned about the film’s profitability. As The Hollywood Reporter wrote, the studio is worried that the movie was “too intellectual” and “too complicated” (and, can I guess: too female?), so they sold the rights to Netflix for international distribution. As Refinery29 wrote, “essentially, the studio preemptively thinks Annihilation, an inventive movie starring five women, will fail.”

Director Alex Garland is disappointed by this choice: “A large group of people worked flat out on something that’s difficult and unusual and trying to sort of step outside the mainstream in some kind of way…Just as you’re about to reach the start of the race, somebody gives you a hard push and knocks you off balance.”

Since I am a huge fan of the book (less so the entire trilogy, but that’s a post for another day), and I believe that this movie should be given the chance to succeed, here’s an overview of Annihilation to get you excited to go see it in theaters. Additionally, I believe it is way easier to read horror than to watch it, so if you are too afraid to watch the movie, but still want to support female-led films and feel part of the conversation, this will cover everything you need to know.


The Basics

Outline of the plot: The main action focuses around a team of five women entering into Area X. Area X is a region in Florida (because obviously everything weird happens in Florida) where a mysterious shimmer has surrounded an area — possibly related to an environmental catastrophe, possibly something else. Area X keeps expanding, and no one knows what’s inside or why it keeps expanding.

Area X expanding AnnihilationArea X expanding

The expedition: the five women (reminder of who these five women are played by because the casting is just too good to be true: Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny) who are set to enter Area X are told they are the 12th expedition. The expeditions are all run by a government organization called the Southern Reach. In the book, one of the team members (the linguist) drops out before they get to Area X. In the movie, she is clearly still part of the team.

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The team enters Area X
Linguist Annihilation
The Linguist (played by Tuva Novotny) clearly is in the film

The Southern Reach: the mysterious governmental organization that was established to study— and control access to — Area X. They keep sending in expeditions, and the expeditions keep coming back with either no memory of what happened inside, or they don’t come back at all. In the books, the headquarters are removed from Area X; the trailers for the movie make it seem like it directly abuts Area X.

The southern reach Annihilation
Southern Reach
Southern reach Annihilation
Natalie takes in Area X from the Southern Reach’s headquarters
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Area X

Narration: Instead of the story told through the biologist’s field journal, the action will unfold as the Biologist tells Southern Reach officials what happened to her in Area X. We see her here being interrogated by government officials in hazmat suits (they’re worried she’s brought back something toxic from Area X).

annihilation screenshot annihilation screenshot

The Biologist’s Husband: In the books, the biologist’s husband joins the 11th Expedition to Area X. A year after he leaves, he mysteriously returns home: “…as I lay alone in bed, I heard someone in the kitchen. Armed with a baseball bat, I left the bedroom and turned on all the lights in the house. I found my husband next to the refrigerator, still dressed in his expedition clothes, drinking milk until it flowed down his chin and neck. Eating leftovers furiously…. He did not remember how he had left Area X, did not remember the journey home at all. He had only the vaguest recollection of the expedition itself.”

In the movie, he does not return to the Biologist’s home; rather, he leaves and she is sad. (Another deviation from the book: The Biologist shows little emotion, even towards her husband).

Natalie upset Annihilation
Upset that her husband has left

She finds out that her husband had journeyed into Area X, returned, and is now sick with a mysterious illness. She swears to go into Area X to find out the cause of his illness. As she says in a voice-over in the trailer: “You need to know what’s inside. So do I.” He becomes the reason she agrees to join the 12th Expedition.

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The Psychologist (and director of the Southern Reach) and the Biologist observing the Biologist’s Husband

Inside Area X…

Minor spoilers ahead. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know (generally) what happens once the 12th Expedition gets inside Area X.

The Psychologist (a.k.a. the Expedition Leader and the Director of the Southern Reach): She has the ability to hypnotize the rest of the team. She has her own reasons for wanting to venture into Area X; she’s the one who has sent every expedition in.

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The Psychologist

Geography of Area X: The region is a coastline in Florida, where time has seemingly stopped. The 12th Expedition is told no technology works inside Area X, and they are completely cut off from the Southern Reach. The only weapons they have with them are their guns. When the expedition enters Area X, they are shocked by the natural beauty.

Exploring on the water Annihilation

Exploring on land Annihilation
Exploring on water and land
Annihilation Area X Map
Map of Area X (not sure if this is going to be the exact geography of Area X in the movie, but it gives you a good idea).

The flora & fauna: The Biologist comments on the flowers she inspects in Area X, saying, “It’s like they’re stuck in a continuous mutation.” (Any science folks want to help me understand what she means by that?)

Annihilation Examining a flower inside Area X
Examining a flower inside Area X

When the Surveyor is attacked by an alligator, they kill it. Note: This does not happen in the books, but the trailer focuses on it as a pivotal scene. It’s probably key to the 12th Expedition understanding just how strange Area X is…

Annihilation squad

Annihilation the Biologist examining the alligator
The Biologist examining the alligator that they kill

The past expeditions: They come across a video camera that is a recording of the 11th Expedition (remember the Biologist’s husband, laying sick in the Southern Reach HQ? He returns on the screen). The Anthropologist says, “They went crazy. Or something in here killed them.”

Annihilation the previous missions
Watching the tape of the previous missions

The Mystery of Area X 

Ok really turn back now if you don’t want spoilers… Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

The Lighthouse: What becomes clear throughout the course of the books is that the origin of Area X is tied to a lighthouse. In the trailer we see a brief image of something hitting the lighthouse, which means the film is going to give us more information of just how Area X was created.

Annihilation lighthouse
The lighthouse

The Tower: a “topographical anomaly” and the other key to understanding just what is inside Area X. After spending the first night in a base camp, the 12th Expedition discovers a set of stairs that spiral downwards into the earth (“The tower, which was not supposed to be there…). Everyone but the Biologist calls this a staircase, or tunnel, but the Biologist calls it a Tower. Inside, they find text on the walls that reads, “Where lies the strangling fruit…” and the text seems to be made up of a plant. The Biologist inhales the plant, and whatever it is gets into her bloodstream. The trailer shows us a glimpse of what this does to her body:

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The Biologist’s arms after leaving the Tower

The Crawler: In another journey into the Tower, at the base of the stairs in the Tower, the Biologist sees a figure (never fully described, so I am very interested to see how the movie decides to depict it) writing the text on the walls….

Annihilation Observing the crawlerAnnihilation Observing the crawler Annihilation Observing the crawler

The Biologist’s Husband: In the books, he dies after returning mysteriously. In the movie, he stays alive, and seems to also get possessed by some mysterious force.

Annihilation Eyes
I think these are Oscar Isaac’s eyes.

… And you’ll have to go see this female-led sci-fi-fantasy-action-horror film (and yes, that is the movie’s actual category on Wikipedia) to find out how they decide to unravel the mystery. Because I have no idea.

I am not ready. But I am excited (and a bit scared).

Header image by Peter Mountain, Paramount Pictures; all movie stills from the Annihilation Official Trailer; map from southernreach.wikia.com

Emily Burack

Emily Burack is an editorial assistant at Alma.