2018 Film Essays

A Problem Without a Solution: On Alex Garland’s ‘Annihilation’

[Writer’s note: What immediately follows in italics is a journal entry I wrote after seeing Annihilation for a second time.]

March 10, 2018

I don’t know if I am correct. It feels histrionic to write that, but I think it might be a more universal feeling that I thought. My body doesn’t always seem like it is my own. Don’t get me started on my mind (and, of course, there is no real distinction). My mind plays tricks on me. My mind knows how to provoke me. It knows where to prod, where to poke. It is my own worst enemy. It sabotages, it destroys, it makes way for change I didn’t, couldn’t anticipate. To some extent, I have done what I can to tackle this reality, mostly through medication. But it is exhausting to wake up every day and address the same problem. It is a problem that will never be solved. It is a problem that is evasive, disruptive, powerful. I’d like to think that I am not defined by it, but in many ways, I am. I’d like to think that I am not my illness, but in many ways, I am. The faceless creature, which appears alien to me, is just me — and it does everything that I do. I go left, it goes left. I go right, it goes right. I attack it, I attack myself. I embrace it, I embrace myself? It is a lifetime companion and I’m starting to feel like there may be a way to work together. But how? Maybe if I don’t think of it as a “problem” anymore. Maybe if I stop looking for a solution. Maybe.

A body is biological. It is physical. It is what it is.

But we have long envisioned ways of making our bodies unlike themselves. Perhaps they are not so fixed? Are there ways of bending, reshaping, unlearning the fundamentals of possessing a body?

The guiding ethos of Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation is the possibility for change. As Lena (Natalie Portman) and her comrades explore more of Area X, otherwise known as the “shimmer,” it becomes clearer that its hazy surreality is not only something to fear, but something worth revealing.

An alligator, mutated into something even more dangerous, hybridized with a shark’s ferocious features. Flowers and other plant life, commingling with vastly different species, creating a washed-out assemblage of yellow, blue, red and purple. The light itself, filtered through the shimmer, feels uncanny, somehow organic and artificial at once. It gives everything inside a psychedelic sheen, a trippy and sneaky way of making each leaf and each drop of water look like somehow new. Within the gleaming electromagnetic field of Area X, bodies made up of all sorts of biological matter are up for grabs.

Soon enough, the group comes across something seemingly horrific: a human body, mutated beyond recognition. The legs, mostly left intact, protrude from the wall of an empty pool. A dark hole sits above them, and then, spiralling outward along the wall, are root-like veins, spreading like a tree of DNA. It resembles an explosion, as though the body imploded and began its physical diffusion outward. Near the top of the growth is the upper torso, with a skull that appears to be screaming in agony, or ecstasy, or both. The image is, on its face, disgusting, but — after a moment — it begins to take on a strange beauty. The viewer, like the characters themselves, has trouble looking away. There is so much freedom in transformation.

There is a long history in horror and science-fiction cinema of body horror, sometimes called biological horror, which exhibits mutations of the human body in ways that typically feel wholly unnatural. It is an interesting anxiety for filmmakers to prey on, purposefully depicting perversions that scholar Xavier Aldana Reyes and others have suggested provoke a self-awareness in the audience of their own embodiedness, and providing a threat to the corporeal body that can be transferred to the viewer.

Theories of cinematic experience focused on how movies can affect us are familiar, but body horror has been an acute example, dedicated to violating the organic integrity of the human body in a manner that is usually pretty upsetting. This tends to erase our assumptions about the mind and the body being distinct entities, as they can’t help but react as one to the bodily transgressions onscreen.

What Annihilation proposes is that we rethink our presumptions about bodily transformation in a way that subverts body horror tropes and traditions. Others have written thoughtfully about the gendered implications of the film’s body horror, but Annihilation likewise evokes and exploits the complex ways that we feel our corporeal vulnerability. As Reyes writes in his book Horror Film and Affect: Towards a Corporeal Model of Viewership, “The body, and its inextricability from mind and thought, has grown to become the main character of the Horror film.” As such, we find ourselves naturally aligned with the bodies we see being mutated or transformed, largely independent of thematic relevance or character sympathies.

This bodily threat is matched by each character’s struggle with self-destruction. Whether they are fighting it or learning to embrace it, each member of the expedition is being faced with the very human inclination of despair and, frankly, self-annihilation. Each member’s body, viewers learn, is working against them in some way. Doctor Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is suffering from cancer. Josie (Tessa Thompson) has a history of self-harm, merely a physical manifestation of her internal reality. Lena herself has been struggling not only with the absence of her husband (Oscar Isaac), who ventured into the shimmer before her, but also with the realization that their love had failed before he even left. Each is a handy slice of expository backstory, helpfully offering the audience easy excuses for the characters’ presence on this suicide mission, but they are also representative of humanity’s inherent corporeal limitations, our bodily fallibility.

In the film’s climax, Lena encounters the force within a lighthouse that seems to have crashed onto Earth and caused this phenomenon. After absorbing a drop of her blood, it transforms into a humanoid entity, and it begins mirroring Lena’s every movement. In a stunning sequence choreographed by dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, Lena and the entity move around the lighthouse in a balletic trance. It appears as though they’re sizing each other up, when in actuality the entity is simply taking its every cue from Lena. Ultimately, then, Lena is getting in her own way. Many have interpreted this sequence, along with other strongly affective moments in the film, as representative of depression or mental illness, as Lena does battle with herself, or as Josie sprouts vegetation from her body and vanishes into her own serenity. This interpretation is supported, then, by what we know about the film’s body horror.

Life doesn’t end itself in the shimmer — life is fluid and everchanging. Josie hypothesizes that DNA within Area X is in a constant state of refraction, which serves as a metaphor for our human tendency toward anxiety over our bodies (and minds, it goes without saying). This anxiety, of course, manifests itself in all kinds of ways. Some of us feel uncomfortable in our own skin because our body does not match our identity, while others feel such astute discomfort that we starve ourselves, desperate to mold our body into our desired dimensions. We take on new bodies, or in our digital lives, completely disconnected from a corporeal existence, we can perform in any way we choose. And mental illnesses like depression refract reality in a multitudinous ways, turning lived human experience into an otherworldly, alien episode. In each case, though, the root is bodily apprehension. The refractions of the shimmer provide an opportunity to transcend the human body’s limitations, to let go of our fleshly unease in something that doesn’t resemble destruction but transformation. And as Reyes argues, as viewers, we are intimately in tune with the transformation of the body onscreen, which could help to explain some of the more personal responses to the film.

The threat to our bodies, to our minds, is frankly intrinsic to the human experience. And yet, as Lena (or her copy) seems to suggest in the film’s final moments, some of this threat is self-imposed. We are beholden to our own vulnerability, afraid of change and freedom in body and mind precisely because it seems so precious. Lena’s experience in the shimmer, though, seems to have taught her another way. As Lomax (Benedict Wong) questions her, preoccupied with attempting to understand the entity (“Was it carbon-based?”), he asserts the violence and ill-intent of the so-called alien presence. “It wasn’t destroying,” Lena tells him. “It was changing everything. It was making something new.” The body and the mind, and the horror therein, may be renewed through a metamorphosis of perception, as there is hope to be found in letting it, whatever it is, grow. You just have to put the fear out of your mind.

Jake Pitre (@jake_pitre) is a writer based in Ottawa and a graduate student in Film Studies at Carleton University. He has been published at Dazed & Confused, Polygon, Hazlitt, Paste Magazine, and Real Life.