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Annihilation and the Impermanence of Self

In giving external form to internal processes, Alex Garland creates an unnerving portrait of personal evolution.

[Note: This essay discusses the narrative of Annihilation in its entirety.]

Think of yourself as you were ten years ago.

What were you like back then? Were you shorter? Heavier? Thinner? Was your hair longer or fuller? Was it a different color? Did you have fewer lines on your face, or fewer scars on your body?

Now, think of yourself not as a collection of physical traits, but as a series of ideals, beliefs, actions, and experiences. What were they ten years ago? Would you get along with your past self, who maybe thought that smoking was cool, or that getting black-out drunk was fun? Would the political ideals of your younger self make you shake your head with embarrassment? Would your past self be shocked to learn that you did end up getting married, that you did end up having kids? Would they see this as a betrayal? Do you see it as a betrayal? Is the you that you have become an adversary to the you that you were? How much of your past self did you need to defeat in order to become yourself?

When narrative fiction like novels or television or movies look at the arc of a character, they often call whatever changes occur “growth.” We like to see our protagonists and even our antagonists “grow.” We enjoy watching someone “become” something. Often, a film will employ a kind of silver key moment that allows for a clean delineation between what was and what is—a waypoint on the road to being that the character is traveling. We find it comforting to think of people as static, simple, and easily described up until some trauma forces a rapid shift, at which point they become improved or broken. But we hardly ever acknowledge the fact that people are fluid, ever-changing. The person you were this morning will not exist by the time you go to bed tonight. You will never exist again as you did when you first opened your eyes today.

Alex Garland‘s new film Annihilation doesn’t just admit this truth; rather, it is entirely about this idea. Every single aspect of this film—from the arcs of its characters to the environment it inhabits—is designed to function as a concrete allegorical examination of the every-changing nature of personality and self. Thrillingly, the film also goes one step further in examining the extreme acts of reinvention that can become necessary in life. It can be uncomfortable to think about that fact that everyone you are seeing from day to day is brand new, but one can still adapt to that reality fairly easily by choosing to assume that the person who is is merely an upgrade to the person who had been. What is harder to accept is that, given an extreme enough change, the person who had been might no longer be at all. Destruction is, after all, a necessary force in the act of creation. Even painting a blank canvas destroys the purity of the emptiness. Following a suddenly, dramatic shift, you may find yourself surrounded by strangers. More frighteningly, you yourself may become the stranger.

Lena (Natalie Portman), through whose point of view we experience the plot of Annihilation, begins the film under a pall of guilt and uncertainty following the year-long disappearance of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). Kane, she assumes, left on a secret mission for the Army because of an affair that she had been having with another professor at the school at which she taught. When Kane reappears suddenly, Lena is overwhelmed with happiness, but unfortunately the Kane who returns is not the Kane who left. He is cold (not returning her hug), confused, and soon enough he has lapsed into a coma and seems on the edge of death. It is then that Lena is taken in by a secret government organization known as the Southern Reach, and the truth of Kane’s whereabouts becomes known. He and a group of men had been sent into The Shimmer, a bizarre and growing environmental anomaly about which very little is clear, to attempt to determine its source and purpose. Kane is the only person to enter who has ever returned.

Plagued by guilt over the belief that her betrayal sent Kane to almost certain death, Lena offers to join the next group who enter The Shimmer, searching for the lighthouse that is assumed to be ground zero for everything that is happening. It is her hope that she can discover an answer, a cure that will save her husband. The expedition is almost certain death, making one wonder why anyone would take part in it, but as the stoic Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells Lena as they discuss that fact, very few people are suicidal, but almost everyone is self-destructive. That is especially true of this group, comprised of a sober alcoholic, a woman whose daughter died of leukemia, a cheater, a cutter, and someone dying of cancer. Each of these women has a past that walks beside them and affects them deeply, and each of them therefore welcomes to possibility of the destruction of the self.

While this could seem like a nihilistic, bleak truth, Annihilation is actually much more interested in the way in which this choice could be seen as perfectly natural and even healthy. Dr. Ventress, a psychologist, actually passes the buck of explaining this impulse to Lena, who is a cellular biologist, explaining that the desire must be in our genes. And why not? When Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) tells Lena about the loss of her daughter, she brings up that fact that she had to mourn twice, once for the death of her daughter, and again for the death of who she had been. The woman she had enjoyed being was gone forever, destroyed by tragedy, so what did she stand to lose by putting this new self up for possible destruction as well?

The Shimmer, we learn, refracts everything that enters it. Light, which we see in the prismatic quality of the sunlight that makes it through the haze of The Shimmer; radio and magnetic waves, which explains the lack of communication or working compasses; and even DNA. When Lena examines the flora and fauna of The Shimmer, she notes that the mutations she is witnessing seem nearly constant. Multiple flowers growing from the same stalks and vines, animals with the characteristics of other creatures grafted on to them. The way in which personality is infected and changed by a constant stream of experience and action is reflected in the biological corruption she witnesses. Annihilation turns the internal and existential into the external and environmental. What is even more interest, though, is the fact that experience and personality may also be refracting in The Shimmer.

Sheppard is killed by a kind of bear, and when that bear appears later it roars with Sheppard’s scream. Through the same mechanic that makes shrubs grow in the form of people, the bear has gained Sheppard’s voice. Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) hears this scream in the midst of a mental breakdown over the changes happening to her body and abandons the teammates she had been terrorizing to save Sheppard, and this leads to her death. Radek (Tessa Thompson) is shaken to her core after witnessing both Thorensen’s madness and hearing Sheppard’s voice coming from the creature that attacked them. Dr. Ventress pointedly remarks that The Shimmer isn’t just changing them physically, but psychologically, and she wishes to get to the lighthouse while she is still herself. Radek, however, responds in quite a different way.

Sheppard’s violent death kept a piece of her alive inside of the thing that killed her. Thorensen’s inability to handle the changes to her body made her question her sanity and turn on her companions. Now, Dr. Ventress is going off to face off with whatever is doing this, while Lena wants to fight it. Radek has a different idea. With leaves and vines beginning to sprout from her arms—which are crisscrossed with scars from years of self-harm—she simply walks away from Lena and into the wilderness. She has found peace, embraced the change. She is willing to give herself over to the forces which she cannot control, and thus she comes to perhaps the most peaceful end possible, gently transforming in that which the universe has chosen for her, scars replaced by the green shoots of new growth. When Lena runs after her to try to find her, Radek is no more, and her new form cannot even be picked out from among the environment to which she has given herself over.

This leaves Lena to go find Dr. Ventress at the lighthouse, which both women assume will offer up all of the answers that they desire. And indeed, upon finding the lighthouse, Lena discovers what will pass for answers in this strange world. The first is a tape that shows Kane killing himself with a white phosphorous grenade, only to be examined by another man who looks exactly like him. Then, she witnesses Dr. Ventress, who has let whatever she found enter her completely, get ripped apart from the inside. What follows is a strange, almost indescribable series of events that culminates in Lena being brought face to face with a sort of chromatic humanoid creature, an alien, that begins to mimic her every move. The shadow dance that follows is striking both as a visual representation of the ways in which acting out our old patterns keeps us trapped, and as a set piece of pure wonder and terror.

Lena rushes to the door of the lighthouse and grabs it, pulling it open, but the alien pantomiming her actions then rushes the door as well, slamming it shut through sheer kinetic force before holding itself against Lena. As Lena is pinned to the door, the alien does not move because the one it is emulating cannot move. The unknowability of the intentions of this creature makes the moment horrific and pitiable in equal measures. This thing clearly has no concept of what it is doing, and in trying to be something it is not, it risks destroying the object of its mimicry. Lena is able to escape, however, and collapses to the ground. The alien then carefully follows, taking the same position next to her, another sad attempt to be what it is not. In the end, Lena hands the alien another grenade, and watches in shock as the thing begins to more accurately mimic her physical appearance. Before the thing can copy her completely, Lena pulls the pin on the grenade and runs away as the creature considers the device in its hand. The grenade explodes, and then creature slowly burns both itself and its little pocket world to the ground.

This feels like a victory. The Shimmer dissipates. Lena now knows, vaguely, what was causing The Shimmer. She can explain the concept of the refraction that caused the bizarre changes in the animals and plants. The physiological and psychological changes observed even explain what happened to the previous teams that entered The Shimmer. Not only that, but we know for certain that Our Lena, the one who entered, is the one who left. But then she speaks to Kane, who now has awoken from his coma, and everything becomes less clear.

Kane openly states that he is not Kane. He then asks Lena if she is Lena, and she cannot say for sure. The slow mutation of daily experience has now met with the more extreme destruction of trauma and sudden evolution. This Kane may have begun as something inhuman, but has he not destroyed enough of that former self to become more like Kane than whatever the real Kane had become at the end? Likewise, Lena may still be the same body—plus a new tattoo—that went into The Shimmer, but the changes undergone may have left her less Lena than this new Kane is Kane. Put another way, his facsimile may be closer to the original self than her corrupted original is to her former self. All the same, though, upon realizing these truths about themselves, Kane and Lena embrace; a firm, meaningful connection that still bears with it all of the weight of their life together up to and including this moment.

Given the coolness we saw from them earlier through flashbacks to the time before Kane left initially, this embrace seems like a show of healing. The two of them, wounded husband and betraying wife, have been trying to hold on to what had been, while their various frailties and resentments ate at them and their relationship. Now that they have been adequately destroyed, something new can be made. The “Annihilation” of the title could mean many things, but in this case at least is appears to be referencing the first step in creation, in remaking that which had been broken. Lena and Kane may no longer exist, the relationship which had gone bad likewise may be dust, but from that decimation these two new beings can come together in their mutual understanding of the horror and pain they have gone through—both inside and outside of The Shimmer—and build a new world unto themselves.

We like to view our selves as a sort of static being. Annihilation underlines the ways in which that assumption is wrong, and even harmful. Constantly mutating, taking on the characteristics of our external environment, leeching off the personality and experience of those around us—when these things are externalized in concrete forms, they are terrifying. But they happen to us on a psychological level every single day, making us into what we are, forging the bonds between us. And should the thing that we become ever scare us when we face it, we should not be afraid to burn it down to allow something more healthy,  more meaningful to grow. The Shimmer held no malice, after all—it merely wanted to make something new.