Meeting the Alien: Annihilation Review

Annihilation is a film directed by Alex Garland — the breakthrough director who gave us Ex-Machina — and based on the 2014 novel Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. Critics are praising the film as visionary, thought-provoking, and refreshing (in that it’s not another sequel, prequel or any part of an established franchise) in the same vein as 1972’s Solaris or even Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like the book, the film explores an encounter with the archetypal Other, the Alien, as a team goes into a stretch of Florida wilderness dubbed “Area X” which has been invaded, taken over, and mutated by a strange presence dubbed “The Shimmer.”

Natalie Portman stars as the biologist Leena whose husband mysteriously returns from a previous expedition in an aloof state and rapidly deteriorating health. Leena joins the next mission into Area X in an attempt to save her husband.

Garland takes significant, conscious departure from the book Annihilation, so much so that it’d be more accurate to call the film “loosely based” on the book rather than loyal to it. He mentions that in an interview here.

Visually, the film is something like what you get when you submerge Florida into Google Deep Dreaming A.I. The visuals swirl and light is distorted. Colorful flowers bloom where they shouldn’t, and strange baroque animal forms make their appearances throughout Area X, both enchanting and terrifying. To enter Area X is to become a part of its strange ecology — a Weird Ecology — and the expedition soon learns that it’s not just their bodies but their minds that are altered by this strange place.

Harrowing and haunting music adds another fantastical element to the strange landscape, and during the third act, Garland experiments with twenty minutes of little to no dialogue in what can only be described as an altered state of visual cinema, akin to the ending of 2001. This is likely worth the ticket alone. I would’ve liked to see more of this kind of cinematic experimentation in the rest of the film—it approximates the weirdness of the novel in a more faithful way.

We’ll return to the novel in a moment, because after you see the film, you should really go and read it. But let’s hit the core theme of the film, as I understand it, and as Alex Garland was, I believe, trying to portray.

One Becomes Two

A single cell in the primordial soup, billions of years ago, becomes two. It meets its doppleganger, and on and on from there, life stretches on like one, giant super-organism stretched across time and form. Plants and animals and everything in between. Garland’s Annihilation is interested in the cell, in one becoming two, in copies and doppelgängers, in mutation, in meeting the Other—in becoming the Other. The characters and the thematics of the film explore why life terminates itself—cells dying, for instance, is a replication error, but an error that has persisted in most life forms. It also confronts us with the possibility—in the Shimmer, Area X—of life being something that we ultimately cannot know. In the opening scene, Leena is grilled by the Southern Reach facility. Was it an organism? An alien? What did it want? Each question to which Leena can only answer: “I don’t know.”

This idea of confronting the unfathomable and the limits of our reason, and madness, is a theme picked up from H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, but also adapted from VanderMeer’s writing as well: what we can call eco horror or weird ecology. And here, in two very different ways, the book and the movie explore this idea: that life itself is some unfathomable thing. That we are part of that thing. The intrusion from the Outside of the narrow confines of the real can break in at any moment—but we end up being that. Tat Tvam Asi. You are That. When we confront the Alien we oddly confront our uncanny selves. Mutation results, and any annihilation that takes place may simply be the way life moves aside the old order for a leap into the marvelously strange and new. You’ll see what I mean in the third act.

Where the film misses the mark, perhaps, is to emphasize the looming shadow of climate change that takes prevalence in the book. The invasive Area X is a kind of resurgence of nature—resplendent, wondrous, terrifying and strange and for which, unlike the film, no microscope nor physicist can explain what’s really happening (to be fair, in the film, one scientist compares using her instruments to “throwing confetti” at the Shimmer). The invasion of the terrible and wondrous living Other, transforming all life—humans or otherwise—into incomprehensible beings. A stitching across the sky. A moaning in the swamps. A dolphin with a strange, human eye. Living words on the wall. A tower that is not a tower but a tunnel. The book leaves no solid explanation to science: it is quick about breaking down any rational attempt to comprehend what Area X really is. In the novel, Area X is growing and perhaps will one day take over the world. There seems to be little that human beings can do to stop it, but we are left with a haunting feeling that human beings may not deserve to save the world from Area X.

VanderMeer’s Annihilation is a meditation on the resurgence of the ecological age—Tim Mortan’s Being Ecological—and the Anthropocene. In a strange way, Annihilation is about revealing the unfathomable presence of other beings in our backyards, literally and figuratively. This is what academics in the humanities are calling the non-human turn or what philosopher Eugene Thacker describes as the-world-without-us (as in: the world beyond human reason and construct). A glowing starfish in a tidal pond as liminal singularities. An unkempt swimming pool swirling with polliwogs. The “brightness” behind nature and all things participating in a strange and maddening beauty, forms of existence that we can’t, as humans, comprehend—and the irresistible pull to become that which we already find as us.

I digress, but I think I’ve made my point: go ahead and read the book (first chapter available here), and for that matter the trilogy. They’ll continue to work on what Garland initiates for you.

It’s worth noting that the film is a worthy, stand-alone exploration of some of these ideas. The usage of the “prism” concept in the Shimmer is an interesting meditation on the way in which real organisms co-exist in a state of symbiosis. I was thinking of the late biologist Lynn Margulis and her theory of symbiogenesis—that evolution happens when organisms create symbiotic relationships with each other. The mitochondria in your cells, for instance, are actually another organism that early cells probably tried, and failed, to eat. Now they’re the powerhouse of every cell on Earth and they even have their own DNA. Garland’s Annihilation is a meditation on the cell, doubling itself and spurring on planetary life, but also, towards the end of the film, we have a form of cosmic evolution—or perhaps hyper-dimensional mutation—that takes place.

In the doubling, the splitting of the human organism with its copy through Area X—which we might dub “Cell X” or “Organism X” to go with this article’s theme—a new form of life emerges, and the planetary organism of Gaia becomes something cosmic. Annihilation takes the Alpha of the primordial soup of one cell becoming two and unites it with the Omega, of the human being staring at its doppelgänger, spurring on the next evolutionary leap from multicellular life to some other unfathomable existence. But like the mitochondria of our own evolutionary history, Organism X doesn’t simply gobble us up. Symbiosis occurs, as the ending of the film reveals, and whatever kind of human inherits tomorrow is something strange and wondrous indeed.

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