Annihilation. 2018. Directed & Written by Alex Garland. Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer.
Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Sonoya Mizuno, Benedict Wong, & David Gyasi.
DNA Films/Paramount Pictures/Scott Rudin Productions
Rated R. 115 minutes.
There only comes so many truly amazing science fiction movies per generation, if we’re lucky. Father Gore considers Alex Garland’s Annihilation one such work of art. It’s a the type of movie that leaves you thinking long after it’s over— through the night, before you sleep, into the next day and the day after, and then it’s next week. Of course not everybody’s going to feel the same way, and neither should they, because art doesn’t function in that way. For those who’ve found it intriguing and can’t get it out of their head, there are so many interesting themes and ideas at work.
This article’s going to look at what appears to be a more nihilistic angle to the story and themes of Annihilation, in that, as the plot plays out, some of the overall messages of the movie are evolution is a violent process and a perpetual one, and, in my ways, humans are aberrant parts of nature, no more special than any other organism.
The lead actresses – Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez – do an incredible job carrying the sometimes disorienting (in a good way) movement of the plot, helping the movie’s themes shine. From references to Dante Alighieri and Samuel Beckett, to the visuals and thematic role of the Shimmer itself, Garland takes his viewers into a wildly surreal yet also frighteningly real space, where everything’s caught in the cyclical flow of nature at one stage or another: creation/destruction, life/death. All of this is why this is one of 2018’s best so far.
“God didn’t make mistakes”
Early in a scene between Lena (Portman) and Kane (Oscar Isaac), the latter delivers the quote above. But, there’s a big division between God and nature here. We’re firmly rooted in the world of nature— no scientific design here, it’s chaos + evolution, baby! God does make mistakes. Seeing as how he supposedly made people, then people go on to age (a “fault in our genes“). Whereas, in nature, cells are immortal, all of which came from a single organism in the beginning, and it’s essentially a process of perpetual creation, destruction, and evolution. Doesn’t mean it’s not a violent process. Worth noting how Lena’s told people on the crews put themselves to sleep “in the fetal position” and the first time she wakes up in the Shimmer, she’s unfolding from a fetal-like position. As if being rebirthed.
As the team of women progress through the Shimmer, Lena notices a bed of flowers “stuck in a continuous mutation.” This is a reference which is part of a larger set of references to cyclicality in nature. Natural life on Earth is a pattern, a massive cycle moving from creation to destruction, from life to death. Throughout, life remains! In the immortal words of Ian Malcolm: “Life, uh, finds a way.” There’s also a mirroring of self-destruction in the sense of evolution’s destruction in order to recreate, in the breakdown of Lena and Kane’s relationship earlier on when she was having an affair (while still human) v. Lena and Kane coming back together in the end (after they’ve become something else).
So, it’s interesting that after Lena enters the Shimmer she spontaneously develops a tattoo on her left arm of a snake eating itself— the Ancient Egyptian symbol of ouroboros, itself signifying this idea of the cyclical patterns in nature and life. Before the Shimmer, Lena had no tattoo, and after she’s marked. Later, when she’s back outside the Shimmer, she still has it. If we consider the remaining tattoo, in combination with the flickering lights in Lena’s eyes before the credits, and the fact Kane also doesn’t believe he’s himself, there’s a suggestion those who leave the Shimmer, for better or worse, are newly reborn through evolution— they weren’t physically destroyed, but what they were before was, and now they’re something entirely different.
Don’t forget: the ouroboros tattoo appeared on the soldier who Kane cut open in the video. This is fully visible when the women see him as part of the wall growth in the pool later. A subtle suggestion the Shimmer marks ‘victims’ of its evolutionary process.
“It’s the last phase, vanished into havoc…”
Annihilation makes the case for humans as being aberrant forms of nature. It’s easy to read the movie from this perspective, especially from an ecological perspective. As if sensing the destruction humans wrought upon the natural world, a comet hits Earth, and starts a process of evolution in one area. Then nature begins evolving to a stage past unique humanity, where people aren’t necessary anymore because any natural organism can take on the form of a human— ex. the tree-shaped human skeletons/bodies covered in flower growth the women see in the Shimmer. Afterwards, the human’s killed by its evolutionary superior after it’s taken on human qualities, like nature getting retribution.
There’s a Samuel Beckett quote incorporated in the final speech of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), after she’s given herself over to evolution. “Unfathomable mind: now beacon, now sea” is from Beckett’s Molloy. First off, this leads us back to the lighthouse, a literal beacon at the sea’s edge— where the Shimmer begins. Secondly, and without spoiling the novel, there’s a theme of doubles, similar to that of the “echoes” in Garland’s movie, and a near direct parallel between the end of the movie and the end of Molloy. All suggesting an air of the absurd in Annihilation, in the idea there’s no inherent meaning to our lives, only a chaos in evolution.
In another connection, the Beckett allusion is significant because Molloy references Dante Alighieri. Why so significant? While the women move through the building in the Shimmer where the last crew went insane, a message is scrawled above an entrance in one of the walls where there’s skeleton+flower overgrowth: “For those who follow.” Surely a reference to Dante’s Inferno, in which the inscription over Hell’s entrance reads: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here” (Canto III). In the same manner Dante shows the soul moving through Hell’s cricles and then Purgatory in order to reach Paradise, in Annihilation the humans must go all the way through the dark tunnels, deeper into the Shimmer before they can evolve and annihilate their old selves.
There’s so much in Garland’s movie that’s both surreal and also brutally real, even as it goes from an abstract discussion of evolution including a climactic choreographed dance between Lena and the organism replicating her body map, to a nihilistic view of human beings and our destruction of the natural world. Difficult to watch the movie on just one level, which is why it’s the type demanding multiple viewings. You can extract new meaning just about every single time— the mark of art destined for definition as classic.
Regardless of how you approach Annihilation it’s a genuinely impressive piece of science fiction cinema. The brushstrokes of horror only make the whole thing better, as the whole story takes on a creepy atmosphere aided by the few splashes of blood and gore. Above all, rich sci-fi themes end up touched on in a fresh way. The plot + visuals together make for a surreal, gripping, and often terrifying experience, on a visceral and existential plane. Garland continually proves his worth as an artist capable of envisioning new ways the future can scare us, whether it be his perspectives on the undead, synthetic humans, or the violence of evolution. Sign me up for whatever the guy decides to do next. He’s one of the greats, as are the women who headline this fantastical adventure.