This article contains massive spoilers for Annihilation, both the book and the movie, as well as the book's two sequels... starting right now!
At the climax of Annihilation, a biologist, the sole surviving member of a four-woman expedition into the mysterious mutating zone known as "Area X," comes face to face with a being called "the Crawler." The thing lurks deep in an underground chamber referred to as "the Tower," and seems to have absorbed at least one human, a lighthouse keeper, who lived in the area decades ago.
Although wordless, their confrontation gives the biologist insight into the nature of Area X. Beginning to change through its influence herself, she decides to stay in the zone and explore it further, hoping to find whether traces of her husband — whose duplicate emerged from the zone only to die after disappearing on an earlier expedition — still exist. She leaves her written observations behind for whoever might come after her.
If you saw the film version of Annihilation when it opened in theaters over the past weekend (and sadly, it seems as if not enough of you did), the finale described above was in no way what you saw unspool on the screen after nearly two hours. Director and screenwriter Alex Garland made some rather significant changes to the ending, while still managing to retain the eerie tone and atmosphere of Jeff VanderMeer's brilliantly unsettling novel.
There is no Tower, nor is there a Crawler in the movie; the film does retain another part of the setting, an abandoned lighthouse within Area X, and places a sort-of version of the Tower underneath it, a vast, semi-organic chamber filled with psychedelic forms and light that seems to be the nexus of the alien entity that has taken over and is transforming Area X.
It is in that chamber that the biologist, named Lena in the movie and played by Natalie Portman, learns the true nature of what is happening in Area X: the alien entity or organism or virus or whatever it is is essentially "mirroring" and recombining all the organic matter it finds there and turning it into something else.
It has made a duplicate of Lena's husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) and sent said duplicate to the outside world. The original Kane committed suicide in the lighthouse. Now, the mysterious entity attempts to make a copy of Lena, who manages to escape and trigger the destruction of Area X and the force surrounding it — the "Shimmer" — but appears to still be infected by it.
In the final scene in the movie, a seemingly "real" Lena reunites with the duplicate of Kane, who asks her, "Are you Lena"? In a haunting closing image, both their eyes begin to glow with the same colors that undulated in the Shimmer, indicating that the alien presence is not quite extinguished.
The reason we described both endings — novel and film — in detail is that it helps to have a working knowledge of both in order to discuss the possible direction a sequel might take. Of course, VanderMeer wrote two more books in what he called the Southern Reach Trilogy, Authority and Acceptance, so a blueprint already exists for future films — although those screenplays would likely have to change the text as well to line up with Garland's film.
Garland himself has expressly stated that he has no interest in doing a sequel. In fact, he told me that himself in an interview shortly before the movie opened. I suppose if Paramount Pictures backed a truck up to Garland's house and dumped a whole bunch of money on his front lawn, he might reconsider, but again, that's not likely to happen given the movie's weak opening performance at the box office.
How a movie version of Authority might play out
But let's say the green light is given for a sequel anyway and another filmmaker takes the job. What might we possibly see in a presumed film version of VanderMeer's second book, Authority?
Well, for one thing, Area X still exists in the book and is, in fact, expanding, its border coming closer to the secret research base known as the Southern Reach that has been set up to analyze it. That would pose a problem right there, since Area X is apparently destroyed at the end of Annihilation the movie. But elements of it still remain in the duplicate Kane and inside Lena, so it would seem logical that the alien matrix could recreate itself from within them.
The main character in the sequel is a government operative named John Rodriguez, known as Control, who arrives to take command of the Southern Reach after the disappearance into Area X of the previous director of the agency, the psychologist (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the movie). Control meets resistance from all levels of the agency, including Grace Stevenson, the assistant director who was loyal to the psychologist. Control must also report back to Central, the enigmatic organization overseeing the Southern Reach and Area X.
One aspect of the books that comes to the forefront is that hypnosis is used on key government operatives as a kind of fail-safe, in case they go against orders or end up in compromising or dangerous situations. Control realizes that he has been hypnotized to make sure he stays in line with Central's directives, but he still manages to fight his conditioning and piece together what is happening in Area X and the fate of the many expeditions that have entered it.
Complicating matters is the return of the biologist, sort of: A duplicate of the woman, calling herself Ghost Bird, emerges from Area X and is found wandering in an empty lot (much like how Oscar Isaac's character Kane wanders back to his house in the movie). Control begins to debrief her, but gets nowhere, and eventually she is moved by Central to a different facility when they decide that Control is getting too attached to her.
The book ends with a duplicate of the psychologist emerging from Area X and triggering a massive expansion that overtakes the Southern Reach building. Control abandons the facility and finds Ghost Bird, who has discovered a pool of water that acts as another portal to the region. As the book closes, Ghost Bird and Control enter Area X through the pool.
In theory, you could use a lot of that material for a filmed sequel that focuses on Control's investigation, making his interrogations of Lena, the biologist, and her husband Kane the core of the drama, with the suspense coming from the fact that we already know Area X is still alive somehow inside Lena and Kane. The result would be something along the lines of a spy thriller (which the second book more or less reads like), with Control resisting the efforts of Central to corral him as he probes the mystery of Area X through Lena and Kane.
The movie could even end in a similar fashion to the book but amped up even more for cinematic purposes. The story could make the arrival of the duplicate psychologist activate the Shimmer inside Lena and the duplicate Kane, causing Area X to re-emerge directly from inside the Southern Reach (and what a visually horrifying feast of macabre images that could be!). The ending could also be the same, with Lena and Kane leading Control deeper into Area X, their fates — and the fate of the outside world — unknown.
In essence, Authority could be made into a sequel to the film version of Annihilation with a few relatively modest changes but, much like Garland did with his movie, without altering the basic narrative, tone, or characters of VanderMeer's book.
Beyond Authority and whether the sequels could happen
As for Acceptance, that book is an entirely different proposition. For one thing, it moves backward and forward in time, spending a good chunk of its length at the lighthouse during the actual period when the Area X phenomenon began (in the books, by the way, it's been happening over 30 years, not three as in the movie). We meet the psychologist as a little girl who grew up in the area and spends time bonding with the lighthouse keeper, whose face the biologist sees inside the Crawler all those years later in Annihilation.
Acceptance relates how the psychologist became director of the Southern Reach and the course of events that led her to mount her own expedition. It also finally catches us up with the original biologist, Ghost Bird, Control, and Grace Stevenson inside the now-much-larger Area X. The biologist has been transformed into an utterly alien form, while the others head back to the underground Tower to confront the Crawler and learn the ultimate meaning of Area X once and for all.
The third book would probably have to go through the most extensive changes of all if it were to make it to the screen, but the unfortunate truth is that this will probably never happen. With an expected but still soft $11 million opening (against a $40 million budget), the screen adaptation of Annihilation does not look likely to become even a sleeper hit like Garland's previous (and cheaper) film, Ex Machina.
There is one hope, however: Netflix secured the distribution rights to Annihilation for most of the rest of the world (barring China) and if the streaming juggernaut sees a good response to the film on its platform, then there's always the chance that Netflix could bankroll the next two movies. For those of us who devoured the books and/or loved the movie, it may not be the end for Annihilation just yet.