Guys, no bullshit. I’ve got no idea what Annihilation was about, and that scares me!
While watching it, I thought it was part-Nietzschean, part-Platonic, part-Darwinian, part-Biblical, and an acid trip. In short, it’s probably too smart for the average viewer (and me too).
Director Alex Garland, owes much of the story to Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, Annihilation, and the film, Stalker, by Andrei Tarkovsky. Focusing on a comet that has impacted a lighthouse on the edge of a scenic coast, the film imagines an ever-expanding shimmer engulfs it. Team-after-team is sent in to study the phenomena never to return. One of those teams has Kane (Oscar Isaac), a soldier and husband of Lena (Natalie Portman), missing for over a year in the shimmer.
Much of the film oscillates between Lena in a stark room, debriefing Lomax (Benedict Wong), and her exploration of the shimmer with an all-female team of scientists: Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Josie (Tessa Thompson), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), and Cass (Tuva Novotny).
The team’s objective is to reach the lighthouse, with Lena needing to discover what happened to Kane.
For the most part, the team’s exploration of the shimmer is mundane. Yea, they get into hijinks. Yea, bad shit happens (and there’s a fantastic scene with a bear that screams like a human). But it follows the pattern of what you’d expect in a Sci-fi when a bunch of dumb humans decide to inspect otherworldly events.
Instead, it’s the philosophies that surround their decisions, and in particular, the final 25 minutes that make the film. The fact that the entirety of the shimmer is a refraction, with species mutating and siphoning traits from one another is Darwinian. That is, the organisms within the shimmer are conducting natural selection on speed.
The fact that anyone who goes into the shimmer knows they’re going into a suicide mission, as teams have been going in for three years with no one returning, is abject Nietzschean Nihilism. This mood is doubled upon itself by the diffused camera effect, as though there is a color-hazed shimmer within the lens, and is juxtaposed by the grey-muted landscape of barren swamp.
But as I said, it’s the final 25 minutes that makes the film. As the team pushes closer-and-closer to the lighthouse, Garland creates a philosophical rendering of Plato’s Ideal Forms. Surrounding this philosophical endgame are amazing performances from the cast, from Thompson’s subtle and quiet Josie, to Rodriguez’s shattered Anya, and Novotny’s balanced Cass. In fact, I would say that Portman probably had the “weakest” portrayal of the cast, while Isaac seems to always make the most of the least (Kane is a man of few words with a random, but effective, Southeastern drawl), and Leigh is a no-emotion tunnel vision heat sinking missile bad ass.
WARNING MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD!!!
It’s difficult to delve into the film without picking apart the ending. As Lena finds the beach, covered with crystallized trees surrounding the lighthouse replete with the same type of white architecture that’d be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey, she discovers a camera by a black hole leading into the depths of the earth (reminiscent of The Last Jedi and The Ring). She also discovers the charred remains of a soldier. When she pops on the camera, she uncovers two of her husbands (Kane and a clone). One kills himself, while the other leaves.
Lena descends into the hole, only to be copied herself. This is where Plato’s Ideal Forms enters, that is we have the chair and the one true form of the chair. One is purely the ideal form of a chair, while the other is a close resemblance with a “slight” .01% flaw. One form has to kill the other form in order to survive, causing the final scene to be a clash of the Ideal Forms and Darwinian Evolution. #Mindblown.
The battle between Lena and her clone becomes a battle with her own self destruction. Through much of the film, Lena is the height of self destruction, as she cheats on her husband (nearly killing a perfect marriage to a point that Kane takes on a suicide mission) with a colleague (poisoning her professional life too).
The editing throughout the scene is intentionally vague. As there are several moments for unaccounted time and lapses of perspective. When Lena is knocked out by her double, there’s an intentional cut between her falling to the ground and the supposed doppelganger lying beside her. What happened during this intervening lapse of time? We have no idea. We only see the late staging.
When considering a form that can shape shift, and cause other species to refract, the question of whether it can swap appearances (that is Lena becomes the shape shifter, and the shape shifter becomes Lena) has to be raised.
As Lena sees the doppelganger of Kane in Area X, after she’s left whatever form of herself that was holding the grenade when it exploded, she asks Kane if he’s the real Kane. The doppelganger admits his lack of origin, and there’s a shimmer in his eye. He asks Lena if she’s the “real” Lena. There’s hesitation. She never answers. Then there’s “acceptance,” and a shimmer encircles Lena’s eyes. As Kane and Lena embrace, one can’t help but feel an Adam and Eve allusion (as the same happened in a previous Garland film, Ex Machina), as two new beings emerge from a God-like wilderness.
In actuality, whether the “real” Lena escaped the shimmer is unimportant because the “real” Lena is just an idea, part of an equation that’s been erased from a chalkboard and rewritten with a different solution. The shimmer is part of her, even down to the DNA. The version we see is a fundamentally and molecularly different person from the human who entered the shimmer.
In actuality, I’m more concerned with the overall theme of molecular defection to the point of self destruction. The tussle between Lena and her doppelganger as the song, “The Alien,” plays in the background isn’t just an exercise in mimicry (which in that case would make it overbearing).
It’s an exploration of the weight of our own mistakes. How the choices we make, and the things we can’t change, fundamentally change us. How we are never the “Ideal Form” of ourselves. When the only way to survive without giving in to crushing Nihilism, is to embrace our fundamental error (the infinite defectiveness of our very cells) in relation to our instinct to survive even in the face of, even in the hopeless cycle of, Annihilation.