A recurring critique of science-fiction films, from Christopher Nolan epics to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, is their insistence that no one misses the message. The desire to be cerebral and thought-provoking is often undercut by heavy-handed dialogue that spells out major themes. This problem came to a head with the step-by-step narrations of Gravity and The Martian that denied audiences the chance to read deeper into character motivations. Garland’s second feature Annihilation is a beautiful, enigmatic film that bucks this trend by letting the mystery be.
Annihilation opens with Natalie Portman’s Lena at a loss for words. She is cognizant enough to reveal the fate of her team members, but unable to explain what her experiences added up to. The expert biologist cannot even explain the intent or anomalies of the bio-zone known as the Shimmer. In the climactic moment where our brilliant protagonist is asked to summarize what she learned, all she can muster is “I don’t know.”
Scientist: What did you eat? You had rations for only two weeks. You were there for nearly four months.
Lena: I don’t remember eating.
Scientist: Can you describe its form?
Scientist: Was it carbon based?
Lena: I don’t know.
In the final scene of Annihilation, Lena is asked a simpler but more difficult question: is she the same person she was when she entered the Shimmer? The kaleidoscopic glimmer in her eyes offers one suggestion, but Garland cuts to black before Lena responds. Withholding an answer confounds what it means to be Lena. Would getting some cells scrambled change her fundamental identity? Why might a perfect replication of her mind and body be viewed as an impostor? Have previous life events altered her self-image more than anything that happened in the Shimmer?
Source: Paramount Pictures
Lena functions as a stand-in for filmgoers that know what they saw but cannot easily explain it. Annihilation is heavy on questions and short on answers in a way that empowers rather than frustrates. Instead of searching for an Easter egg or Garland quote that helps decode the film, as our r/truedetective generation is prone to do, we are forced to reflect. Annihilation is an inscrutable house of mirrors that refracts our anxieties so that they can be reexamined in a new light.
My entry-point into the film was Ventress’ monologue that re-contextualized the changes undergone in the Shimmer within the innate human tendency to evolve, mutate, and self-destruct.
Lena: Then I have to ask: why did my husband volunteer for a suicide mission?
Ventress: So you’re asking me as a psychologist?
Ventress: Then, as a psychologist, I think you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction, and they’re very different. Almost none of us commit suicide, whereas almost all of us self-destruct. Somehow. In some part of our lives. We drink, or take drugs, or destabilize the happy job… or happy marriage.
In an excellent article for Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién positions the film as a metaphor for depression. Other pieces have drawn parallels between Annihilation and cancer. Both readings are valid, and draw out the alteration of body and mind as an essential theme. My interpretation was guided by the distinction Ventress makes between suicide and self-destruction. I found the film to be a compelling examination of the way we kill parts of our selves to construct a unified identity.
Source: Paramount Pictures
Whether it be by abandoning old friends or hobbies, self-medicating to suppress memories, or discarding drafts we don’t think articulate our worldview, identity is forged by removing parts that don’t fit. A grieving wife cannot last in the Shimmer, so Lena becomes a survivor
Scientists emphasize that the Shimmer is untouched by and inhospitable towards human life. Flashbacks of Lena drifting from her husband as she journeys deeper inward suggest that the zone’s impact is social as much as biological. Isolation makes Lena form an identity independent of her relationship to her husband Kane. A flashback to her affair – the moment she stopped waiting for Kane in her old life – implies that Lena is finally exploring to satisfy her own curiosities.
This form of self-destruction costs Lena the most meaningful relationship in her life and alienates her from the rest of the team. It may even have rewritten her DNA. Yet the tone of the ending does not suggest Lena irreparably changed her life; whatever the Shimmer did to her was no more impactful than her decision to get married, join the Army, or cheat. She emerges from the Shimmer changed but recognizable, with the possibility that she left her grief and self-doubt behind. Self-destructive tendencies can be harmful, but they also help us grow; Portman navigates that tension as masterfully here as she did in Black Swan.
Lena’s sole explanation of the Shimmer hints it is reductive to focus on self-destruction without acknowledging the creation of a new identity. When Lena tells the scientist interrogating her that the Shimmer rewrites the DNA of everything that enters, he fears that its goal is to destroy everything in sight. This snaps Lena out of her trance, and she asserts that “it’s not destroying… it’s making something new.” Identifying what this new thing may be is as difficult as predicting what our fears, goals, and relationships will be like in ten years.
The answers Ex Machina offered about what it means to be human made for an impressive debut. Garland’s follow-up better captures how people work by pondering questions that cannot be answered. The refusal to point towards one meaning encourages self-reflection more affecting than an auteur dictating his certainties. Garland’s exploration of intangible concepts like grief, identity, and self-destruction makes Annihilation difficult to understand. His trust that we can find meaning in the mystery makes it easy to appreciate.