SPOILERS for the movie Annihilation.
Apocryphal or disproven science is fun to think about. For example, for much of our lives we truly believed we only use 10 percent of our brains. Similarly there’s another pop science factoid that gets a good amount of play around the internet, this one being that the process of replacing every cell in our body takes 7 or 10 years. This effectively means approximately every decade you are, in the literal sense, a completely different person than you were. I think disproven or misunderstood science tidbits like these permeate pop culture and drink conversations with friends because they offer a peace of mind. Both are about unused potential and the ability to evolve, To shuffle off not our mortal coils but to shuffle off the dead and flaking parts of ourselves that we once were. To elevate ourselves into something new and maybe even better.
Remember, change doesn’t guarantee success or enlightenment, just a different set of circumstances to work with. Those circumstances could be advantageous or they can be equally as detrimental. It just depends on how you choose to accept change and evolution. The journey to acceptance can be as terrifying and incomprehensible as staring into and infinite abyss. It can ravage you and make you stop in your tracks and become a rotting lump of flesh with only down as the direction to move in.
This, among other things, is what director and writer Alex Garland’s Annihilation chooses to tackle in its dense, alarming, draining and maddening imagery. The films stars Natalie Portman as a cellular biology professor and former US Army soldier named Lena as she begins to deal with the grief of what she assumes, after months of radio silence, is the passing of her husband and US secret operative Kane (played wonderfully by Oscar Isaac). Kane however, shows up out of the blue one day. He’s distant and disoriented but he’s there. He falls ill immediately upon their reunion and is rushed to a hidden army base that’s located outside of a place called Area X.
Area X is, for lack of a better description, a giant rainbow streaked soap bubble the people at the army base have dubbed “The Shimmer.” It popped up and has continued expanding its radius ever since a small meteor crashed there months ago. The army has sent people in to investigate (mostly soldiers) but nothing comes out of The Shimmer. No signs, no signals and no people. That is until Kane returns. Lena decides she wants to help man the next expedition into The Shimmer so she can find some answers as to what happened to Kane. She joins a team comprised of a geologist named Cass (Tuva Novotny), paramedic and muscle Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) and psychologist and team leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
As they enter The Shimmer it becomes abundantly clear why no one come back from this place. Your mind begins to deteriorate and and time passes like sand being poured down a well. The creatures and plant life have begun to evolve at a pace and manner that resembles the way tumors and cancer spread throughout the body. The environment and its wild life take on a form that resembles if you took Cronenbergian aesthetics and blended them together with Miyazaki-esque designs, all wrapped up in a At the Mountains of Madness-like atmosphere and served on a Tarkovsky-shaped plate. Even the explorers themselves are changing physically in horrific ways.
It’s one of those rare semiotic films where multiple readings have been applied by viewers and all of those readings are supported by what the film brings to the table. It’s a story about dealing with the psychological and physiological trauma and stress of cancer within yourself or a loved one. It’s about how our relationships with our loved ones change as we all change as people. However as I sat there in the theater on my second viewing of the film there was a theme and reading that rung out to me like my head was caught in a bell: depression and how it causes you to self-destruct and how you can become something new amidst the rubble of who you once were.
All of these women are all volunteers on this expedition and as the movie unravels we slowly learn why they would choose to go on a mission so dangerous. Cass has lost her daughter to cancer and says that the event is like two bereavements, the loss of her daughter and the person she once was. Josie is suicidal and cuts herself to feel anything other than the gaping nothing she feels on a regular basis. Anya is sober, which means she’s an addict, which also means it’s a daily struggle to keep her demons at bay. Dr. Ventress has terminal cancer herself, so a mission like this can only speed up the inevitable for her. Then there is Lena who seemingly goes out of love and concern for Kane, but you realize she’s really going for reasons tied to her own emotions about their relationship. How could she and the person she once loved change so much as to be unrecognizable to each other? That unresolved question and the grief she’s had during his disappearance has manifested itself into a full-blown depression that has her going through the motions of life without gaining any new ground. She’s stuck in the mud, and forced to rot in place.
As sophomoric as it feels to write it down on paper, The Shimmer reads like a manifestation of all these characters’ depression the same way the planet in Solaris or the room in Stalker are manifestations of characters’ innermost desires. A place that’s so mesmerizing and oddly comfortable at times but simultaneous toxic. This depiction was particularly relevant to me as someone who went through an intense bout with depression in 2015. It was during what I guess was my quarter-life crisis. During that time I was unemployed so whole days could pass and I wouldn’t move from bed or communicate with another soul for literally any reason. The thing about that time I keep coming back to is how in the moment it felt so heavy but also so alluring to let yourself fall apart. When you’re that deep down why not see if you can go deeper? You succumb to pull and you can’t tell how willingly you did so.
Characters in the film meet fates that match up with the ruinous effects of depression. Cass is consumed against her will by it, taking the form of a mutated bear that steals a piece of her mind in her most terrified and vulnerable state. Anya’s mental state fractures and she crumbles under the weight of her paranoia. Josie chooses not to fight what The Shimmer does to her and chooses (in what is one of the most elegant visual cues for suicide I’ve ever seen) to simply slip away and become one with her surroundings. Dr. Ventress and Lena take similar paths with different outcomes: the path to come out on the other side of depression and make yourself into something new.
When you see flashes of Lena and Kane as she reminisces about their pre-Shimmer time together, she looks back on those people as if they are alien to her. She can only look back at that time as an observer and hardly a participant. Like Kane, The Shimmer has changed her into something completely different. As she enters the lighthouse and watches a video of the Kane she knew immolate himself with a phosphorus grenade, it is revealed that he has a doppelganger, one that watches the immolation seemingly in apathy. But it’s not apathy. It’s pity. Some of old Kane’s final words (“My skin moves like liquid. My mind is cut loose.”) are about how things are changing so fast he can’t go on. The old Kane hit his bottom, but new Kane watched, learned and set out into the world to give it another shot.
Lena enters the underground cavern the meteor has created and finds Dr. Ventress there. Her eyes melted over and her skin leathery but all seems normal when she turns to face Lena. Dr. Ventress expands on a point she made earlier in the film about how humans are programmed to seek their own destruction because biologically that’s how we operate. Our cells divide, regenerate and evolve but after a certain point the process slows and stops and our body begins the decline towards implosion no matter how well we take care of ourselves. She has terminal cancer and for her the only way to survive is to completely annihilate herself so that she may become something broader. The second definition of “annihilation” is “the conversion of matter into energy, especially the mutual conversion of a particle and an antiparticle into electromagnetic radiation.” In a sense that’s what happens to Ventress. Her body becomes energy in a sequence I like to describe as “Cosmos as directed by Björk.”
Lena’s blood is added to this amorphous energy blob and after a process it takes on a more humanoid shape, one that begins to mimic Lena’s every move in a way that hinders her from leaving the lighthouse and moving on, and eventually (like Kane before her) it takes on her appearance. The image is clear. Lena has come into contact with her own doubts and hindrances and doesn’t quite understand how to overcome them. At one point she’s even pinned by her doppelganger against the door that will lead to her freedom, only able to break free by moving back into the lighthouse. That is depression. The struggle to reach freedom from its grasp is infinitely harder than just moving back into the status quo, and the closer you are to freedom the tighter its grasp becomes.
It’s why Lena eventually realizes that her best move is this same one Kane and Dr. Ventress both took, except with a spin. She stands face to face with her double and holds a phosphorous grenade in both of their hands. When she pulls the pin you immediately realize that grenade is pointed at her double and it burns. She doesn’t destroy herself, she destroy her toxic image and with that she destroys all the toxicity that has plagued Area X. The lighthouse and the crash sight of the meteor go up in flames. All of the malignant growth burns to the ground and Lena is free to move on. She has chosen the path of cleansing instead of obliteration. It’s the path that’s the hardest to choose and takes the longest to see the effects of. My bout with depression began in the spring of 2015 and it took about two years of inch-by-inch progress to sit here and be in a place that I can even contextualize in a way that would make sense to people. It only happened when I realized much of what I thought made up parts of my identity had become malignant and cancerous and were just making me sicker. I had to burn it away and turn that matter into a raw energy I could make something new with, while I myself (like Lena) was free to move on a changed person.
As we see in the final scene of the movie as Lena and Kane’s double stare at each other with burning irises, they are something new. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a human thing. For as much as we are destined to break down and become ash, we are also destined to change and evolve so much over our lifetime. The apocryphal 7 to 10-year cell cycle may not hold water but the sentiment does. You are a different person than you were 10 years ago, and you will be a different person 10 years from now. The best we can do is take the reins of who that person will be.
Andrei Tarkovsy’s Solaris played at the IU Cinema in Fall of 2011 as part of the President’s Choice series. Stalker played in Fall of 2013 and Fall of 2017, the later date being a 4K restoration of the film and part of Art House Theater Day and the International Arthouse Series.
Alex Garland’s previous film Ex Machina screened at the IU Cinema as a sneak preview in Spring of 2015.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.