I think we are currently experiencing a renaissance in science fiction cinema. Not that pop sci-fi doesn’t still exist; Pacific Rim: Uprising and Ready Player One are just two recent examples, with many others expected later this year. But science fiction films have slowly opened up in their depth and complexity. Movies like Blade Runner 2049 and Ex Machina speak to our imaginations, our philosophical questions and our social anxieties.
With Annihilation, writer-director Alex Garland constructs an intensely challenging sci-fi movie that explores the nature of mental illness and how it mutates the world around us.
Annihilation is told in flashback, as Lena (Natalie Portman) recounts her experience within “The Shimmer,” a strange energy field that slowly expands outward and mutates the living organisms within it. After a number of failed military expeditions, the army decides to dispatch a team of scientists to investigate the anomaly: paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and psychologist/leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Lena herself gets involved when her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) mysteriously reappears after disappearing for months. Kane was presumed dead, and is now the only survivor to return from the Shimmer. However, he returns with critical injuries and drops into a coma. Determined to learn more about her husband’s expedition, Lena heads into the Shimmer looking for answers to this scientific oddity.
It’s a perilous journey, but as Lena puts it, “I owe it to him.”
While I am often willing to discuss spoilers whenever necessary, I intend to be especially careful with this movie. The only way to understand Annihilation is to watch it. Much like the Shimmer itself, your experience with Annihilation will largely depend on your outlook of the world and the trials you have faced in life. The last thing I want to do is ruin your unique viewing experience by spoiling all the major discoveries.
This isn’t to say that the film is accessible or easy to comprehend. Annihilation never makes a direct correlation between its fiction and our reality, and it is difficult to glean the movie’s core message from the mutated abominations we see onscreen. Instead, the story creates an allegory about mental health using recurring themes and crucial lines of dialogue.
My goal with this review is to guide confused viewers to a better understanding of the film.
Annihilation draws a direct link between our cellular biology and self-destruction. While teaching a university class, Lena describes the reproduction of a cancer cell and how the cells refuse to die. In another conversation, Lena tells Kane how cells were designed to live forever; aging and death is really just a flaw in human DNA.
Like all good science fiction, Annihilation then draws a parallel between this scientific truth and its fictional story. In the process, the film makes philosophical statements and clears up any misconceptions. When Lena asks why her husband volunteered for what is ostensibly a suicide mission, Dr. Ventress replies, “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.”
Dr. Ventress finishes the conversation by asking the film’s main question: “Isn’t self-destruction coded into us? Imprinted into each cell?”
Are our actions coded into our biology? More specifically, is self-destruction coded into our DNA? What does this say about the nature of free will? Annihilation raises a lot of questions with its premise, but chooses not to answer any of them. Instead, it uses these questions as a platform to explore the way trauma affects our lives.
Every character that enters the Shimmer carries their emotional baggage with them. Dr. Ventress is terminally ill, Cass has lost her daughter, Josie has self-inflicted scars all over her arms, and Anya is a recovering drug addict. Lena and Kane? Well, I wouldn’t want to ruin their backstory.
As Film Crit Hulk argues in his article, “Annihilation & The Horrors of Change,” the true horrors in the movie are not the monsters in the Shimmer, but the realization that the things you cherish are changing: “What makes this journey so terrifying is constant, evolving instability of what we consider safe. What we consider ‘the rules.’ And the fear that you are unmade within it. Which means [the deeper things] that can annihilate us go beyond disease. After all, there are many different kinds of ‘cancer.’ And often more terrifying… are the ones from the inside the mind.”
In physics, the word “annihilation” is defined as “the conversion of matter into energy, especially the mutual conversion of a particle and an antiparticle into electromagnetic radiation.” And in a way, it all starts to make sense. Facing your inner demons is a lot like encountering an inverted version of yourself, one that no longer seems familiar. Likewise, mental illness is often more familiar to us than we expect. We let our past traumas develop into self-destructive habits, and our only way to break these habits is to slowly build a new identity from scratch. But this change not only requires hard work and dedication, it is terrifying to witness as it happens.
As Hulk describes, “The horror of annihilation isn’t really the horror of facing nothingness, but the horror of facing deep change, especially existential ones that mutate us into something else.”
Annihilation isn’t for everyone. To say that it is a difficult film would be an understatement. But the way it uses science fiction to elevate its emotional themes is truly something special. To quote myself, “Annihilation is both dreamy and nightmarish, complex yet universal, fascinating yet terrifying. It’s like a crossbreed between Aronofsky, Villeneuve and Cronenberg.” If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to watch Annihilation all the way through. It may get difficult at times, but it is something you shouldn’t give up on, in the same way mental health is something you shouldn’t give up on either.
Hopefully, by the end, you will come out of the Shimmer a new person.