The Psychologist: It’s destroying everything.
The Biologist: It’s not destroying… It’s making something new.
Films are not reality. Even the most naturalistic films can only hope to be replications of or reflections of reality. We regard documentaries as true, but they still see human hands trim, frame, and curate their content. Films are fiction, then. Stories. If you examine them closely and break them down even further those stories are actually composed of ideas and feelings. Those ideas, real or imagined, are expressed in a series of moments or scenes, which in turn can be broken down into a series of images and sounds but when considered at the macro scale those ideas, those feelings, and that story still ring true. You’re left with something you can wrap your head around.
If you apply this same incredibly close inspection to life as we know it you’ll find it’s much the same. It is no coincidence that the smallest identifiable piece of a film and the smallest identifiable unit of life are both referred to as cells. They’re both composed in a very specific way, and they’re both building blocks that when pieced together create something larger and more complex than the sum of its parts. A film, in a way, shares a lot with the idea of life, and I think that’s one of the many ideas at the technicolor, pulsating heart of Alex Garland’s Annihilation.
This may or may not surprise you, but Alex Garland, the director of Ex Machina, screenwriter of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and the novelist behind The Beach is a person in possession of a lot of ideas. As a result, he seems very keen to convey those ideas, many of them complex, through a medium that is noted for its depth: film. He seems most interested in sharing those ideas through the hybridization of two of the great bastions of complex thought and meaning in film: the arthouse drama and the science-fiction film. Though their offspring is not exceptionally common, the shared DNA between the two is obvious: science-fiction film, at nearly all scales, and the arthouse drama both find themselves deeply concerned with philosophy, human nature, and the biggest questions we as a species have ever asked of ourselves and the universe. Annihilation is one such film, and it’s a damn fine one at that.
We define reality through our perception of it. While the world, and therefore reality, may objectively exist it is also true that we as human beings are only capable of engaging with it subjectively. That is, with our own unique points of view. The idea of objectively or subjectively viewing art has been quite popular lately but I’m here to tell you in no uncertain terms: there is no such thing as the objective appraisal of anything, yet alone art. Those unique points of view are informed by every experience we have had, and those experiences are created or at least experienced, with our senses.
A filmmaker doesn’t have the full range of senses to work with, of course. Though a cadre of exploitation film mavens and grindhouse impresarios have tried their hardest to change that through the introduction of gimmickry such as scratch and sniff cards, the theme park attraction of “4D” cinema, and of course, The Tingler, the filmmaker is mostly limited to two primary senses: Sight (Vision) and Sound (Audition). Those limitations don’t diminish the fact that the filmmakers of the world, and here Garland, are still capable of filling our heads and hearts with ideas and emotion as any other experience might. To my mind, it makes those feats of emotional conveyance and thought transference all the more impressive but it does beg the question of how they do it.
The answer, in short, is through deft mastery of the language of film. While the five senses are very well-known, there exist equally, if not more important, combinations of those famous five referred to as sensory modalities. Film has created its own metatextual language over its lifetime. An entire lexicon of complex and often invisible symbols, sounds, tones, and movements that we have been learning through our lives and that have been devised, brilliantly, to mimic our other more blatant senses and more perversely our most complex modalities.
A film is capable of doing something that words alone, sound alone, and images alone are incapable of doing in quite the same way. Cinema is more immersive than these other art forms in part because the language it uses is capable of tapping into that multimodal perception. We are, effectively, able to enter into an idea by surrounding ourselves with it.
Garland’s monumental science fiction adaptation contains myriad examples of the techniques by which this magic is achieved if examined with the keen eye of its scientific characters, but like the best science fiction, there’s arguably as much philosophy on display here as science.
Two of the aforementioned sensory modalities inform film, and Annihilation in particular, more than most. The first, chronoception, is an entity’s ability to perceive or understand the passage of time. and modality or idea of the specious present, a duration of time perceived by the individual as “the present” is manipulated throughout Annihilation as both the audience and the protagonists’’ relationships to time and the self begin to break down once we, and they, have entered Area X. The most blatant of film’s tricks is also one of the least examined by the average person: The usage of montage theory to control our sense of time and our ability to relate images, moments, and sounds to one another.
Montage theory and the Kuleshov effect, in particular, manipulate and control our sense of chronoception. The Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein explains montage as “an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots” or to put it simply: we derive meaning from images due to their proximity to one another. We, as the observer, give the objectively observed images subjective meaning by forming the relationship those images have to one another. On their own, the individual cells of a film mean nothing, when intentionally grafted to one another we fill in relationships between the images, from the incredibly simple to the massively complex.
The Kuleshov effect is another aspect of montage theory which dictates that the audience can perceive the exact same images as having different meanings when they are presented in different contexts. Alfred Hitchcock, a great believer in both montage theory and the Kuleshov effect, demonstrates it below.
The same two framing images radically change from a kindly old man to that of a lech when the middle image or scene is shifted. This simple example shines a light on the subjectivity of the material as it exists, our fundamental need to define the stimuli we are presented with, and our ability to finetune our reaction to the same material with different, or greater context. Our ability to react and contextualize things on the fly is used to great effect throughout the film and the film’s fractured usage of time and context manipulates us in a similar way to how the characters, and particularly Natalie Portman’s Lena, find their senses of chronoception altered and changed by The Shimmer.
The narrative’s structure is practically a crash course through these ideas, with the film opening at nearly the end of the story. The film then weaves its way through the near past, the distant past, and back and forth throughout. Garland uses the whole toolbox of cinematic devices to keep us rooted in the world and aware of what we are seeing to the exact extent he would like us to be, which changes at any moment. The film grounds us while disorienting us.
The film accomplishes this with its fractured editing making full use of match cuts between stylistically or substantively similar shots to ground us and establish linear or symbolic relationships between radically different times, spaces, and emotions. Here, in The Shimmer and in Annihilation, the relationship between things matters more than any concrete notions of linear time or objective meaning.
The film uses color theory and sound to help inform us of when we are seeing as much as the more easily digestible what that we are seeing. This allows us to feel grounded in each of the three primary periods of time the film focuses on while the film’s editing whisks us through time and memory and explores the relationships thereof. Garland uses cool, low contrast color grading to indicate the distant past and recent past. These scenes are primarily accompanied by a soothing acoustic soundtrack.
We see Lena working at Johns Hopkins, teaching her class about cancer cells that ceaselessly multiply. Her colleague Daniel clues the audience into the fact that it has been over a year since Lena’s husband Kane disappeared on a secretive mission. He informs her that it is not disrespectful to his memory to have fun. This lesson, this colleague, this mission, and that innocent statement will all be radically recontextualized by the end of the film as we and Lena begin to understand what exactly happened to her husband Kane, what Daniel and Lena’s relationship evolved into, and as the film probes our understanding and definition of life and of the self.
Warm and vibrant colors shaped by high contrast indicate time spent inside The Shimmer while those dulcet songs give way to increasingly droning and ominous electronic music as our protagonists progress towards The Lighthouse, the source of The Shimmer. Once the party has passed through The Shimmer, the audience goes along with them as Annihilation begins to fire on all cylinders.
The Shimmer is a world of beauty and of terror. The terror here being driven, as it often is, by our own fear of the unknown. The familiar is soothing, the unfamiliar can be haunting. Garland weaponizes the depth of field and focus, as well as the position of the camera to disorient us and make the familiar unfamiliar and the benign threatening. Focus is racked in the extreme, backgrounds and objects obscure into blurred bokeh images, forms rendering into shapes, unknowable. Things are hidden from us, we’re never quite sure where we should be looking. We want to know, though. Man is above all things curious, but Garland, like The Shimmer, doesn’t always reward that curiosity. All of this is in line with what The Shimmer, and the entity inside of it, are doing inside the narrative.
Animals and plants being hybridized. Recognizable lifeforms being broken down and mutating beyond the wildest dreams of evolutionary science. Animals being hybridized with plants. Deer with cherry blossom antlers, alligators hybridized with sharks, plants trying to grow into humans, humans trying to grow into fungus. A bear with the voice of a dying woman. The breakdown of the separation between classes of life, the irrepressible and uncontrollable drive to live unbridled and attempting to master its domain through trial and error. The horror of Ventress’s cancer being juxtaposed with alien life mimicking human form. Early in the film, Lena informs the audience that death is a biological failing, one that can, in theory, be solved.
Lena states in no uncertain terms that there is nothing in life that makes death inevitable, it is a problem to be solved. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Ventress later expands, “Almost none of us commit suicide whereas almost all of us self-destruct. We drink, or take drugs, or destabilize the happy job, or happy marriage. But these aren’t decisions, they’re impulses. And in fact, as a biologist, you’re better placed to explain them than me.” Lena asks what she means, though we know that she understands at least on the biological level. Ventress responds, “Isn’t self-destruction coded into us? Imprinted into each cell.”
Perhaps, but so is survival, should we choose to embrace those impulses instead.
The most recent party to enter The Shimmer is a group of four women, each marked in some way by tragedy. They bear the scars and idiosyncrasies of people who have survived hardship. We all have, haven’t we? There’s Lena, driven by her need to understand the impending loss of her husband, who when faced with the prospect of losing him twice embarks on what we understand to be a suicide mission. No one has returned. Ventress’s body is racked with cancer. Josie, a woman afflicted with mental illness, her arms bearing the scars of her own self-destruction. Anya has a history of addiction and Sheppard mourns the loss of her daughter. Sheppard delivers a line that is both emotionally resonant and deeply emblematic of the entire film. She says that not only is she grieving for the loss of her daughter, but she is grieving for the person she was before that tragedy. That tragedy has altered her in some fundamental way. It is a feeling I know is all too resonant for many.
Each of these women has undergone something difficult, or is undergoing something difficult, and come out the other side. They, like all life, are flawed in some way but they’re able to adapt, or are currently adapting and pushing forward. To a point, at least.
Much has been said about Annihilation as an examination of depression and the crushing weight it can cause a person to carry, of the self-destruction inherent to humanity but far too little has been said of it as a film with hope at its core. Annihilation is a film about evolution, both at the personal level as it examines our ability to cope with sadness, depression, and tragedy, and at the macroscopic level. Evolution is about survival, and the idea of survival is, to me, a great source of hope.
The entity that crashed at The Lighthouse, and its method of evolution, may very well be the solution to humanity’s problem of self-destruction if we were able to replicate its specific method of survival: a peculiar blend of tumorous metastasis and rapid Darwinian evolution.
Metastasis is a pathogenic agent’s ability to spread from an initial site to a secondary one and by bridging its ability to spread and its ability to evolve insanely quickly. The entity propagates and transforms itself throughout the area covered by The Shimmer, composing much of what we see inside it. It, like the film itself, replicates reality and shapes it into something alien but beautiful. Something terrifying but if closely examined equally optimistic.
The plant life, the animals, the things existing in awe-inspiring and terrifying places in between those supposedly separate ideas. It is driven to survive, like all life, and does so by being willing to try anything necessary to reshape itself into a form best suited for its environment. It is the ultimate evolutionary opportunist and thus the ultimate survivor. I think the film is trying to tell us that we could learn from it.
“Something here is making giant waves in the gene pool.”- Lena
Like the entity at the heart of The Shimmer, our experiences shape us. That is, to put it simply, the central thesis of evolution. The survival of the fittest, the most digestible explanation of Darwinian evolution means that individuals that push through and survive the difficulties of the environment they live in through adaptation are successes and thus propagate a new generation that possesses those adaptations. We suffer, the strongest among us survive, and those that do are able to create new life that is even stronger than its source. Life compounds on itself just like the cells of a living thing or the meaning contained in the images in a film do, just like our experiences do.
Once Lena has left The Shimmer, the “normal” world is shown to us with different, but equally disorienting and distancing effects. Shots are framed without the comfort of leading headroom. We’re disconnected from the characters by the decision to shoot much of these scenes through semi-opaque surfaces like foggy windows or the clear but rippled plastic of a quarantine tent. We’re only shown the scientists observing Lena through the facemasks of their hazmat suits, some even more disconnected by wearing these suits and being even farther removed, having an additional layer of semi-transparent quarantine plastic between them.
Lena’s present, which could also be referred to as the aftermath, is painted with dark shadows like inside The Shimmer, but the muted color grading we associate with the normal world, informing us even before the story does that the world, as well as the Kane and Lena that we see before us, are not quite the same as those we started the story with.
The film makes it very clear that the Kane that we see at the end of the film, the Kane that found his way inexplicably home again, is not the Kane that Lena knew and loved. He is the idea of Kane, we know him to have been created by The Shimmer. When the two come together, moving through one of those semi-opaque layers of plastic that composes his observation tent, Lena even asks him, “Are you Kane?” “I don’t think so. Are you Lena?”, he responds but she doesn’t answer.
The film leaves it to the audience to decide whether the Lena that we follow out of Area X is simply the one that entered. This ending, informed by the film that precedes it, challenges us to question whether that is a problem. After all, what are we but the sum of our experiences? Do we not solely exist in the present, the core of what makes us who we are existing as our memories and reactions to stimuli? Are we not, as Sheppard states, mourning the person we used to be? We are, almost as much as anything, the idea of a person. We are perhaps, more importantly, the versions of ourselves that survived. We are made stronger by engaging with and taking in that which makes us stronger, we have sidestepped our tragedies and moved forward, and come out fitter and heartier than before.
“I had to come back. I’m not sure any of them did.”, Lena states when asked how she was able to make it out of The Shimmer. While it is never acknowledged in the text of the film, Lena comes out of The Shimmer with Anya’s Ouroboros tattoo. She absorbed something of her, just as the horrifying faceless bear absorbed Sheppard’s voice. Something that made her stronger, a trait like her will to survive, perhaps, represented physically on her body by having absorbed the tattoo. I am of the opinion that as she destroyed The Shimmer, she was transformed by it, gaining Area X’s ability to take in what makes it stronger and evolve on the fly. Taking in what made each of the women strong, processing out what made them weak, and emerging as a new entity that was more than the sum of its parts, as the human body or a film is more than the sum of its cells.
Transformed for the better, Lena reenters the world with a version of the man she loves, a matching shimmer in their eyes, and presumably lives to create the next evolution of mankind. The further hybridization of the pathogen and humanity, a new species made up of the best of us: compassion, fortitude, love, and the indomitable human spirit as well as the genetic traits of the Not-Kane, The Shimmer made into a man. Having merged with the ultimate survivor of planet Earth, mankind, The Shimmer will survive and we will be all the better for it, quite possibly immortal.
The characters in the film posit that what drives humanity to its own inevitable destruction is something inherently written into its existence, a fundamental flaw in our being. Ventress believes we possess an innate drive to self-destruction, but I believe Garland is less pessimistic. I believe the central message of the film is that what drives humanity to despair and destruction is our fear, our hesitance to adapt. If we can move past that, and our narrow perception of what constitutes life, we will be all the better, and stronger for it.
Garland and company have created a piece of fiction, a series of ideas, a film, that will be immortal like its terrifying and beautiful subject due to its depth, its impeccable command of cinematic language, and its richly layered messages.
Much like life, the beauty of the film is immense, as is its terror. The ideas contained inside of it are difficult to process during one viewing but this is a film made to be revisited, examined, and absorbed over time. We’re not quite agile enough to evolve like the entity that struck The Lighthouse, but we are made up of what we consume. The ideas, the films, the experiences that make up life go a long way towards what makes us who we are as individuals, and part of the beauty of a film like Annihilation is that each person’s understanding of its message will be different and quite possibly different over time.
Hell, if the film’s right, I’ll be a different person the next time I see it.