Movies are not puzzles.
I feel like I argue this all the time, but it sure doesn’t stop people from the pursuit. And it seemed like within mere hours people were arguing furiously about the ending / meaning of Annihilation as if there was some clear answer, one laid out in plain english for all to see. Do no misunderstand, I adore semiotic interpretation and symbology, along with they way they combine into dramatized thematic meaning (and I will be doing a ton of it in this essay). No, my complaint is more for the kind of hyper left-brain movie analysis that looks it like an rigid answer sheet to decode with certainty. I know this seems like I’m splitting hairs, but it’s actually super important. Because it is folly to see art like it is something to hack, that looks for logical explanation in place of reflecting on some kind of inner movement. For there is nothing to hack. There is nothing to outsmart. It’s a movie, which means it’s all about embracing right-brain abstraction. And often, the way forward in “understanding” a complex piece of art is largely to sit back and just listen to / absorb what it’s actually telling you and reflecting in it.
And Annihilation is one complex piece of art.
An impeccably made one at that. Alex Garland and his team has crafted a hypnotic, powerful sci-fi horror film that I’m still reeling from, to be quite honest. As such, I sometimes I feel bad that I don’t spend a lot of time in these essays lavishing praise on the craftspeople and performances at the heart of a great work. But nor am I really all that interested in meta-arguments of relative esteem, like how I could happily declare this film another miraculous entry into the sci-fi canon. Nor am I all that interested in comparing it a book I’ve never read. I’m not interested in any of these, because I view the job of criticism as rather simple: to reflect what the film “is” with mere words.
And this film is a haunting reflection on the horrors of change.
Somewhere not too far there sits a person with cancer cells attacking their body.
And I love them. So I hate this reality with everything I have. But meanwhile, I sit here. Helpless. Writing words into this essay. Offering nothing of real value that does anything about it. Within that simple construct, I languish. Especially as I have no words of wisdom about cancer itself. No insight. No power. So I am left only to reflect on the lives already within that cancer. A life of regrets, tears, horrors, and joys, all adding up to a kind of love that is mostly incomprehensible to anyone else. But this is precisely what gets reflected in the haunting specter of disease. We reflect on life and guilt and what could have been different precisely because we are terrified. And we are terrified because a disease does not care about our narrative. It does not care about your toughness. It does not care about bad timing. It simply does not care because it is incapable of care, nor hate, nor even acknowledging our humanity. Which is also the reason there’s nothing inspirational to say about cancer. It is a machine. It just hurts. It just takes. With no rhyme or reason. Even on a biological level, it is “just” cellular change. A mutation. An existential horror that evolves against us.
To say that the language of cancer is written into the DNA of Annihilation is an understatement. Not just with Dr. Ventress, who literally has the disease and pursues a battle / non-battle with it to her own ends. But cancer even comes up right in the first (chronological) scene, where Lena (Natalie Portman) describes the process of cellular division and generation and how the goal of their work is nothing short of curing cancer. This detail is not accident. She is about the path of medication. And we can all understand the medical instinct to cure. To heal. To mend. To make well again and regain our former self. And how so much of that urge comes from the deep understanding of the terrifying possibility that you may not be able to cure it at all.
But soon Lena will come face to face with a “cancer” beyond her comprehension. Within The Shimmer, she faces a world her deepest fears and most morbid biological curiosity: a world where cancerous mutation and refraction run rampant. Animals become dangerous hybrids of another, alligators with rows of sharks teeth, even plant life spilling into man and vice versa. It is life out of control, and unchecked by that which we consider “the natural order” (again, like the effect of cancer upon the body). It’s all at once beautiful and hideous – true transfixing horror. So yes, for once I’ll take a proper second to again commend Garland and his team for this, because this film has some of the most intense and haunting imagery that I can remember in recent film. Not just in the body horror, or the floral unmaking of human beings, but also the damn tension. For not one person in my theater even dared move during the bear “screaming” sequence. But what is perhaps most interesting to reflect on is that for all the otherworldly imagery, that technically speaking, the life within The Shimmer is perhaps no dangerous than traversing the dangers of the Congo. So no, 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 things that 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.
I consider society’s willingness to start grappling with the reality of mental illness to be perhaps the most important medical breakthrough of the second half of the century (do not forget, Titicut Follies was only 1967). And as much as it changes, we still live in a world that largely ignores the basic realities of mental illness and how it impacts us in our day to day. Even just yesterday I saw an amazing Donald Glover quote about why so many black people self-medicate with marijuana because “all black people have PTSD” from having to live through the basic day-to-day horrors of racism. It’s something so jaw-droppingly obvious that I can’t believe I hadn’t heard someone say it out loud before (they may indeed have, I just hadn’t heard it). But that’s the thing about mental illness. We still don’t know how to engage it because we still don’t understand how to talk about it. We still don’t know how events impact us on a deeper level and thus drive us to have impulses. We don’t know how to transcend toxic masculinity. We don’t know how to talk about perceived “weakness” in ourselves and others. We don’t know how to create true empathy because we both fear it and dismiss it. Which is exactly why de-stigmatizing of mental health continues to be of such stunning importance.
Take it from a guy who always had sympathy for that notion, but could not directly relate to the urgency of it. For I was a guy who thought he was all good, ignoring what was deeply wrong about his own system. Then in coming face to face with it, I learned I was deeply unprepared for the horrors of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts that come with facing it. Simply put, it shook me to my fucking core. And it still does. But at center of this is not some lesson about the mere gravity of mental health, but more the painful understanding of collective human behavior. Because right now, within your own system, you are on path toward your deepest mental health battles (and thereby self-destruction) without even realizing it. You will have to face the thing you are most afraid of. We all will. That’s the whole point.
We all have a potential annhilation to face.
As such, each of the characters of this film go into The Shimmer with their own unique trauma. Yes, some of this is just accounting for the basic logic about who would volunteer to run into a dangerous alien blob thing where no one comes out. But really, it’s more the thematic exploration of those who have had their lives already “annihilated” and therefore have nothing to lose in losing their bodies. For the psychologist Dr. Ventress, that’s literal in the case of her disease. For others it’s clear signs of cutting, or thrill-seeking, or life-saving, or pick your trauma-signifier. But perhaps the most telling is Cass, who admits that what brought her was the death of daughter, wherein she realized she had to grieve twice. Once for her little girl and then once for her old life (this doubling with the “old self” will end up being very important).
For Lena’s journey, it’s a bit more complicated. Because the truth about mental health and self-destruction is that for most of us it is not some deep perceptible trauma, but the fate of hard-wiring and conditioning that comes from little everyday realities. Whether feeling unloved or unsafe or even misunderstood, these situations tend to add up to the kinds of pathologies, behaviors, secrets, and choices that make up the conflict and pain within humanity. In short, these realities create internal systems that drive us forward in lovely productive ways, but also in ways that can undo us. For Lena, she’s literally learned to put all her value in the pursuit of honor and decency. Hell, she’s a former soldier who is literally fighting to cure cancer. That’s quite the two-fer. And yet, she feels like a cancer. That’s because of guilt and consequence, and how they tie into her husband’s disappearance. She had a duplicitous affair that pushed her husband away. Or was he already pushing away and this was a reaction to that? Or was he incapable of accessing his emotions as a soldier figure in deep toxic masculinity? Or was it all just twisted up and tied together like the same devastating fractal of self-damage? It doesn’t actually matter, because she’s filled with guilt and regret anyway. And in her trying to “cure” it, by bringing her husband back to the way he was, by going into The Shimmer, she words the reason very specifically “I owe it to him.”
And yet, this guilt, this “owing” him is just another step in our her own journey toward self-destruction. At every step she should go a different way to heal it properly, to accept and own, but her system doesn’t know how to do that. She wants to “cure” it, but really she’s trapped in her cycle of self-torture and self-abuse. But she thinks there is the way out in fighting it. There’s a reason they are all headed to the proverbial and literal lighthouse, yet all headed to self-destruction. Dr. Ventress literally says as much as says it in the film. And the problem with self-destructive cycles, is that for all the times along the way you “win out” and do not face consequences, all the times you get closer to what you want, you just end up doubling down, deeper and deeper into your own battle within The Shimmer…
Until it all finally blows up.
Lena reaches the lighthouse. The end point. The place of sought answers. Of hopeful curing. A place where everything can, somehow, someway, go back to how it was before. There she finds a camcorder. She turns it on and discovers a recording made by her husband, Kane. This is a man who was already volunteering for suicide missions, remember. Now at his lighthouse, he talks about not knowing who is anymore, someone driven mad by mental instability, the fear, the panic, and the confusion. But it’s all centered around the want of escape from the pain of this, and wishing directly to whoever is operating the camera, that they will take care of things after he is gone. The person behind the camera say yes. Simply put, this is the exact expression of the yearning for suicide. And so, Kane sits down, just as a buddhist monk would for immolation, and sets off a phosphorous grenade in his hands, killing himself instantly (and horribly). Then, his alien doppelgänger, comes forward in front of the camera. Lena covers her mouth in horror. The man who came home to her is not her husband. He is something else. Something new.
There’s a longer tradition, but Self-Immolation was largely popularized by the aforementioned buddhist monks protesting the Vietnam war. They would douse themselves in gasoline, sit in the Buddhas pose, and light a match. Thus ending their life for the martyrdom of a greater cause and the highest attainment of sacrifice. And look, I’m not here to parse out the religious nature of this act, but I am here to talk about how it plays into Kane’s behavior and the suicidal instinct in general. Because the truth is that suicide is a remarkably complicated act. For me, at the height of my suicidal thoughts I would constantly think about doing something productive out of such action. Whether donating my body for science, sacrificing it in some act of heroic good, or even just finding a way to let those who would affected know that their love meant so much and not to carry around one ounce of guilt in their hearts. For some others, there is an incredible fear of the doing the act. And if they’ve learned to deal with the world in pain and lashing out, then the murder-suicide route is largely about enacting revenge for making them feel suicidal and the immense cowardice of not wanting to go out alone. But at the center of most motives within the spectrum of suicide is the basic inability to face what is on the other side. No, not the other side being “death,” but simply choosing not to commit suicide and thus facing “more life.” That’s the other side we really fear. For we are sure that it will be one full of pain, loneliness, regret, and dire consequence. And it is at the center of this, we finally unlock the idea at the heart of the entire film..
Change is so scary because on of the hardest things to do in the world is actually change.
We all know this to be true and yet we ignore this basic reality all the time. We’ve all become hardwired with certain behaviors and yet we act like we can make all these surface level changes and that will fix it. But no, to face them is to face the deepest levels of self. We have to face our worst behaviors and admit that which we do wrong. That’s why Lena has such immense difficulty with her guilt. There is no mitigation allowed. No magic cure. Just the day to day maintenance of change. Just doing “the work.” Hence the incredible difficulty of 12 step programs, therapy, and learning to outgrow our most damaged selves. There’s seriously a reason immolation is preferable to some. But I don’t mean that comment to be all that flippant, because immolation isn’t always about actual suicide. A lot of times, it’s more insidious and invisible. To wit, when you think about Kane’s choice, specifically his words and the emotional plea of the scene. Symbolically, he is “dying” and sending his lifeless husk out into the world for the rest us.
Yup. Sometimes, immolation is the mere act of giving up.
It is easy to view the the word annihilation through the classic definition of “complete destruction or obliteration,” but there’s actually a more pointed definition in physics, which is: “the conversion of matter into energy, especially the mutual conversion of a particle and an antiparticle into electromagnetic radiation.”
It’s the sort of thing you read then slap your forehead it’s so damn clear to the purpose of the film. Not just in the iconography of the terrible imagery, the dueling particles and anti-particles, nor even the notion of contaminating radiation. It’s that 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. Note the way characters fear their voice becoming like a death rattle. Or the way some part of them will be wiped out. Note how the birth / death imagery is freaking everywhere in the film. Bodies and fungus seeding out like walls in horrendous birth, the fear of otherworldly life growing out from the very inside of you. Likewise, Lena’s journey to the alien core is as clear a birth canal motif as I’ve seen in a recent film. But you’ll note that these threshold changes are not… pretty. Some art treats birth / death metaphors as a gentle, glowing white fades, like a nice pleasant hug as you transition from one life to the next. But no, Garland’s is much less comforting because he’s not trying to lie to you. And thus, it reflects the notion of change as it really is: wild and terrifying.
All because the thought of becoming someone new (even if better) is terrifying. Sure, we all give benevolent change plenty of nice lip service. But in actuality, we rarely can actualize deep change because doing that means we have to experience a “death” of our old selves. And we don’t want who are to die because it will feel like *we* will really die. Because in order to real change, we have to let go of real behaviors that feel safe, correct, and “right” to us because we learn they are destructive. Because we have no idea what it really means to create new hardwiring, let alone live within it. And thus, we have to put the kinds of effort and trust it takes to make our brains accept that new reality as “true.” And more so, get a world we have damaged to accept our change, by being sure we rooted in the deepest honesty and ownership of our old and new selves. Which means you not only have to truly know and understand yourself, but be willing to say goodbye to everything that you are.
Yes, the true horror of annihilation is that it is a mirror.
There’s a reason Lena uses that exact verbiage in describing her fight with her double within the lighthouse. Even moments earlier, when Dr. Ventress reaches the core tells us with terrifying clarity that there’s nothing “it” wants. Sure she’s talking about the alien, but it’s doubling for her cancerous disease. An answer she likely knew, but had to forge ahead anyway, unable to come to grips with the idea there is no “why” behind the actions of her annihilation. And as for Lena, it’s at the heart of that amazing final sequence. Her battle with her cancerous doppleganger self, it mimics her movements, except when she tries to leave and flee. Then it suffocates her against a door, anxiety rampant. It is every part of her bloodied old self (literally made from her blood), and it is hell bent on their mutual, cancerous annihilation because that’s what it thinks progress is. This highlights the horrible truth: we pursue self-destruction because we think we think it is the cure, because we think we can beat it, because we think we can transcend it. But really there is only ourselves, and we have to let it all go. We have to leave the grenade in the hands of our most toxic mirror selves, the once born from cancerous inheritance, and burn it to the ground. Burn it all down, like chemotherapy burns away our cancer cells but also our healthy cells. We have to expunge, irradiate, and ultimately, we have to barely survive it.
As the final burning images spurred out in the film, I was shaking. Some people say Annihilation is an intense movie, but still a “cold” movie. And yeah, I supposed you could take all this same messaging and ground it some heartbreaking story of love and yearning, but it’s not interested in that game. This is about something in humanity more somber, broken, and honest. And it’s aiming to unnerve and undo that part of us on the deepest, most visceral levels instead. Say what you will, I spent the car ride afterward sobbing uncontrollably. But maybe the problem of existential horror is that you have to life a lifetime to experience that amass that kind of pain, guilt, and regret. For all the topics of toxic change in this film are not mere concepts or things I hope I never do. They are not warnings. They’ve already happened. So they’re as real to me and as relatable as coming of age films are to many others. And the metaphor of who we really are when going through the fires of annihilation, curl into my guts, twisting and turning like some otherworldly, alien eel. For the film confronts the parts of myself that lied, that feared, that brought me to the heart of my own personal battle with annihilation. And ultimately left me wondering whether or not I’ve “won.”
Which brings us to the very ending of the film, one we could get lost in some kind of argument over if we still thought movies were puzzles: is her story a lie? Was her alien doppelgänger the one who really get out? Is it just trying to give us a nonsensical horror scare? Yeah, those questions don’t matter because Garland isn’t playing a game, creating a puzzle, or trying to jerk you around. The answer lies in what happens when you merely accept what’s been given and follow the damn metaphor: having gone through the fires of annihilation, whether you are someone who has given in and immolated and left the husk of yourself behind (like Kane), or burned your worst bloody self in the name of finally expunging (like Lena)… the truth is we’re never really sure if we’ve grown or transcended those boundaries. Just as we’re never sure how much of the old us in still inside. Because the truly haunting thing about our grappling with disease, mental illness, or that which annihilates us, is that it’s never really gone. The pain and trauma of it is dyed into our bodies, and we must carry it with us into new lives no matter what. Like the final image reels, you can see the pain in our eyes, like singed ashes, burning radiant and wild, eating us still… We may be through the fire.
But we are not the same.