My wife and I watched Annihilation on Netflix the other night. She was thought it was pretentious wank. I enjoyed it (I’m quite fond of pretentious wank), though I agreed it was flawed. I haven’t read the book, but I think I might hunt it out now to see how it differs from the film.
* * * SPOILERS * * *
It’s basically Tarkovsky’s Stalker meets H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space. In Stalker, a group of nameless protagonists (the Writer, the Professor, the Stalker) travel into an area of wilderness sealed off by the government called “the zone”. Reality is breaking down here, so they have to tread carefully. They are searching for a specific landmark in the wilderness called “the room”. Each has their own reason for seeking this place.
In Annihilation, a group of nameless protagonists (the Biologist, the Anthropologist, the Psychologist – at least, in the book they’re apparently nameless… they’re all given names in the film) travel into an area of wilderness sealed off by the government called “the shimmer”. Reality is breaking down here, so they have to tread carefully. They are searching for a specific landmark in the wilderness called “the lighthouse”. Each has their own reason for seeking this place.
Just as in Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, a meteorite has fallen from space. It has released a colourful, radiation-like cosmic effect (“the shimmer”) that warps and mutates (ultimately fatally) the flora and fauna around the impact spot. The affected area is slowly growing, creeping toward civilisation. It’s unclear whether the phenomenon is sentient or not, or what it’s motivation might be (if it has such a thing). The core of the phenomenon is hidden underground (in Lovecraft, it’s at the bottom of a well; in Annihilation, it’s hidden beneath the lighthouse).
Annihilation takes these source materials (though the author of the book, Jeff VanderMeer, has denied Lovecraft was an influence in the original novel) and mixes them up into something new. It scrambles their DNA, adding a splash of 2001, maybe a dash of Arrival, a hint of Under the Skin.
Which is fitting, because that’s the central conceit of the movie; the shimmer is supposedly refracting everything within it, mixing it all together. Creating something new.
Ultimately, though, Annihilation is a movie about annihilation (natch). It’s about destruction. More specifically, it’s about self-destruction. Alex Garland, the director, has said as much in interviews:
“[Annihilation] is really about self-destruction. It’s about the nature of self-destruction in a literal sense: cells have life cycles and stars have life cycles and plants and the universe and us. You, me, everyone. But also psychological forms of self-destruction.”
Self-destruction. Self-annihilation. The annihilation of the Self. Ego death. It sounds like the Sufi concept of Fana (often translated as “annihilation”), which imagines a breaking down of the individual ego and a recognition that all things are truly the same thing. In the movie Annhilation, this happens literally as parts of the individual are incorporated into the environment around them and vice versa (hence the bear who screams with the voice of its victim, or the trees becoming people / people becoming trees). The Self and the Other become one.
For some, the annihilation of the Self is disturbing. The Psychologist says: “If I don’t reach the lighthouse soon, the person that started this journey won’t be the person that ends it. I want to be the one that ends it.” Others embrace it, like the Physicist, who is willingly annihilated as she transforms into her environment.
When Garland says the movie is about “self-destruction”, it’s easy to fixate on the destruction part. But I think the key is “self”. That’s why the mimic at the end of the film is thematically appropriate. The doppelgänger is the ultimate challenge to the Self. How can we be sure which is the copy and which is the original? Does the distinction even matter? If everything is one, then like the Ouroboros tattoo that mysteriously appears throughout the movie, at what point does the snake end and the tail begin?
I don’t believe the final shot with the colourful shimmer visible in the eyes of both the Biologist and the Husband is a cheap attempt at a twist ending. It’s not implying a secret alien invasion scenario similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers or V. When the Husband is asked if he is really himself, he seems uncertain. He doesn’t say “No”, but rather: “I don’t think so.”
He is not an alien pretending to be a human. He is identical to the individual who entered the shimmer. He has no memory of being anything but himself. He does not know who he is. And, at that point, nor does the Biologist. That is what her gasp of understanding represents: her final realisation. Self-destruction. Annihilation of the Self.
So, yeah. Pretentious wank. I liked it. My wife didn’t.