Alex Garland relied on HeLa easter eggs to proffer a "key" to the Shimmer in Annihilation, but his interpretation mimics the instrumentalization decried throughout Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Cancer is cruel. There’s much we yet don’t know about it. There’s a certain air of horrific mystery. It feels like a betrayal, the body somehow rejecting itself, growing malignantly until death. Beyond diagnosis, it can take years to kill you, or it can take months, or it can suddenly seem to only take weeks. We know that cancer has genetic factors, yet we also know enough about it to say that environmental and behavioral factors play a role. There are therefore four ways, we might argue, in which cancer is a particularly woeful fate:
1. it announces itself at potentially any age and then forces you to wait to die;
2. the inconsistency of modern medicine’s treatments offers hope only to often later snatch it away (the treatments are also painful, and in America, devastatingly expensive);
3. cancers result from gene mutations, random design mishaps in our very building blocks and an affront to notions of ‘intelligent design’;
4. placing aside the incalculable cosmic injustice which is child cancer, it is something which often, in some way or another, we have ‘done’ to ourselves.
In other words, whether smoking, drinking, not allowing ourselves time to relax, poor diet, or any other potential factor which relates to our lifestyles and environment, with many cancer cases there’s an element of apparent self-destruction at a time when education on the risks are fairly ubiquitous. In this sense and particularly when a cancer sufferer leaves behind family, there can be an element of overwhelming guilt – a tremendous, crushing regret at the very end.
To the extent we do bring about our own destruction, why is the prevailing question. If cancer is so horrific, and if nearly all of us either know someone or are someone who has lost a loved one to its intractable indifference, why aren’t we all doing everything we can to fund its research, to find its cures, to ensure our access to health care, and to tailor our lifestyles to its prevention? We might ask the same of any number of preventable diseases (though heart attacks often at least permit us a sudden end). Is it really just that human beings have a rather bad track record at long-term decision making? Do we mean to do it? Are varying forms of gradual suicide a kind of compulsion? Is it really suicide, for that matter? When others are intimately involved, do we really mean to hurt them? Is it proof we do not truly love them? What of those who habitually sabotage relationships, marriages, or even their duties as a parent? What impulse within us so lashes out? Why would something be made this way?
In the way of cinema’s rather excellent recent streak of science fiction thrillers, Annihilation (now available on DVD via Paramount) ponders these increasingly salient questions, seeking out less an answer than a simple recognition of our apparent drive to destroy ourselves and the myriad ways in which differing individuals meet that end. Not unlike Alex Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina (2015), it’s often a deeply uncomfortable film to watch, yet it’s because Garland isn’t afraid to probe some of our darkest questions that Annihilation so succeeds as a piece of science fiction. While the film may at times seem muddied thematically, the Freudian psychoanalytic concept of the ‘death drive’ (as introduced by Sabina Spielrein and further developed by Freud himself) offers insight into the subtleties of how and why Annihilation‘s leads find themselves at the edge of their own knives.
“They’re everywhere. Malignant. Like tumors.”
To briefly set up Annihilation, the film opens with a cosmic event, an apparent ‘meteor’ smashing into a lighthouse only to result in strange emanations of otherworldly color. We are introduced to Lena (Natalie Portman) via the film’s framing device, an ongoing interrogation in a glass cell which takes place after an apparent expedition into a hostile world. Lena is a John Hopkin’s professor and biologist lecturing students on the fundamentals of cell division and the apparent inevitability of cellular breakdown (aging into death). We soon learn that she has lost her husband and, a year later, is yet gripped with grief, either unable or unwilling to open herself up to possibilities for renewal, for new relationships.
The film thrusts into motion when her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac, in his second recent outing with Garland) suddenly and rather eerily returns home. Any sense of joy quickly evaporates: Kane is not himself. Borderline unresponsive to Portman’s pressing inquiries, he eventually spasms into a violent seizure. It’s during the subsequent ambulance ride that both Kane and Lena are suddenly stopped and apprehended by military police.
Recovering from a powerful sedative, Lena learns from psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that her husband is suffering from multiple organ failure and was part of a mission into an expanding and otherworldly ‘shimmer’, which poses nothing less than a complete mystery. Eventually, Lena, Dr. Ventress, and three other intelligent, capable, broadly non-military women (Tessa Thompson’s Josie, Gina Rodriguez’s Anya, and Tuva Novotny’s Cass) venture into the shimmer to attempt what previous teams of (male) military personnel failed: to learn just what is happening. The reality is that the phenomena are so alien to researchers, so apparently unknowable, that within the logic of the film trying anything different, even if only the genders of the researchers, has become sufficient cause for renewed expedition (though one would be remiss to assume that each member of the new team, particularly ‘soldier-scientist’ Lena, doesn’t have something real to offer).
Problems abound once inside this ‘Area X’. Firstly, the group eventually loses track of their initial three-or-so days, apparently unable to remember what they’ve been doing or how they got to where they are. Comms and navigation devices are predictably inoperable. Eventually, Lena begins to identify flora which should be genetically impossible, mutations which appear to feature the characteristics of several different species yet growing from the same organism. An early attack from a mutated albino crocodile reveals the danger and provides another example of bizarre biology, a reptilian predator featuring the teeth of a shark.
In an interview between Garland and The Verge‘s Bryan Bishop, Garland makes it clear that although he was inspired by Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, his adaption focused on the ‘feeling’ he had when reading it, “a very strong dreamlike aspect.“ He succeeds in imparting this sense of otherworldliness through a variety of means: Area X is a thoroughly alien, overgrown, often beautiful place, full of strong, vibrant coloration (which signals ‘danger’ in its own way). The camera seems ‘smeared’, the image distinctly blurred around the edges; some scenes focus on an actor so strongly as to all but entirely obscure the surroundings in the manner of a dream where you can’t quite recall the details. Everything, from the shimmer to nearly ever reflective surface, reminds one of the sickly-yet-compelling chromatic displays of chemical spills when they catch light. Prior to entering, the shimmer itself catches Lena’s eyes psychedelically, rendering her pupils displays of swirling light and color. Even domestic scenes at Lena’s home appear blown out, softly lit and comfortably dreamy.
As the women continue onward, the dream turns increasingly to nightmare. When they arrive at what was previously a base of operations (given Area X’s expansions), colorful vines bulbously crawl up the concrete base of one of the structures: “More mutations. They’re everywhere. Malignant. Like tumors,” Lena forebodes. Dread drops upon the company like a hammer when they discover a video log from the prior expedition. To Lena’s particular terror, the video features her husband Kane slicing open one of his comrades to reveal the film’s first truly shocking moment of body horror, intestines which seem to slither around inside the man as if a writhing worm were to consume him while he yet breathes. Immediately thereafter they discover the mutated man’s fate, a display of distended body parts which grow out from a cavernous center as if a tree sprouted from his waist and tore him apart.
Notes Garland in the above interview, he considers himself no auteur. Annihilation‘s influences are many and much discussed. Most immediately apparent are the parallels to master filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s utter masterpiece Stalker (1979), itself an adaption of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s science fiction classic Roadside Picnic (1971). Stalker was Tarkovsky’s last film in the USSR, followed up by only two films made within the West prior to tragically passing away from cancer at the age of 54.
Annihilation, like Stalker, features an apparently extraterrestrial phenomenon which creates a ‘zone of exclusion’ full of dangers and mysteries, at the center of which lies an object or place preeminently desirable to a cast of desperate explorers seeking something, a wish for either escape, transformation, or final resolution. Events within the zone do not appear to conform to conventional knowledge on natural phenomena, with a host of ‘anomalies’ – reality-benders of some form or another – both fascinating and dogging the group each step of the way.
Annihilation‘s mutated creatures, however, seem more reminiscent of other popular manifestations of Roadside Picnic than anything in Tarkovsky’s tremendously philosophical film. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise, beginning with 2007’s Shadow of Chernobyl, takes place in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone had the plant experienced a second explosion a few years following our own. This explosion fractures reality itself in, again, a growing perimeter around the ‘center’.
Within S.T.A.L.K.E.R.‘s ‘zone’ are both anomalies and horribly mutated creatures, grotesque pigs, radioactivity-resistant boars, and blind dogs which evolved to cope with their new environment at an unthinkably fast rate. A truly arresting mutated bear which appears later in Annihilation might also remind one of Metro 2033‘s naturalistic-yet-warped mutant foes (the title here referring to both Dmitri Glukhovsky’s excellent 2005 novel and the 2010 game adaptation). Additionally, some of the film’s body-horror takes rather clear potential inspiration from a plethora of films and/or games, whether John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) or Dead Space (2008), a horror game whose Guardians ( bear several design similarities to the above-mentioned torn apart soldier.
It is in part due to my familiarity with these influences that some of Annihilation‘s choices struck me as a little jarring. Chief among them is the only real attempt at an explanation for Area X’s impossibly rapid and varied mutations: when the group later stumbles upon flower bushes which appear to have grown with haunting beauty into the shape of people, Josie hypothesizes that the shimmer surrounding Area X is not blocking radio signals, but refracting not just them, but everything, including genetic information. The bushes are the result of refracted HOX genes, genes which offer the ‘building plan’, as it were, for the human body. This explanation is an issue firstly because it relies on outdated genetic concepts which it then proceeds to misuse anyway: according to Pamela Silver and Jeffrey Way (both reputable biologists) over at Sloan Science and Film, “scientifically at several levels, ANNIHILATION makes no sense.”
That said, science fiction films, or films in general, don’t generally need to satisfy scientists in their script writing to achieve their thematic aims. The decision to provide any sort of pretense for a scientific explanation of the mutations in Area X is problematic more so because the film didn’t need it, or at least, it serves as red herring without much of a payoff, likely accomplishing little more for most audience members than to muddy and confuse the film’s strong sense of mystery.
The attempt at a hard-scientific explanation also strays from several of the possible influences mentioned above. In Tarkovsky’s Stalker, whatever is happening in the zone is left an almost complete mystery while its source material, Roadside Picnic, makes it fairly clear that it’s the result of alien visitation (though Annihilation also ultimately does this). In the two other aforementioned manifestations of Roadside Picnic, both the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro 2033, it’s suggested that the noosphere – a pseudo-scientific concept which proposes that the third stage of development on Earth is composed of the sphere of human thought and consciousness – has either been disrupted or directly manipulated, causing information itself as the substance of the universe to result in the bizarre mutations and otherworldly anomalies present within the world.
It is in spite of the fact that there’s no clear indication anywhere that either S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Metro 2033 served as inspiration for Annihilation that the noosphere explanation, or the idea that information as-basis-for-reality is being manipulated within the ‘zone’, seems to help one understand what is going on in Annihilation best. Even if HOX genes were being refracted in some way, how would they result in such rapid mutation? How would the resulting organisms not simply die? If we instead accept that information itself is being manipulated, then we can understand some of Annihilation‘s most dreamlike details, such as the uncanny similarity between a home the group takes shelter in and Lena’s own home.
To elaborate on the example, the film hints that Kane is somehow responsible for the fact that a replication of his home now resides in Area X, both in the suggestion that he apparently left an impression of his home during his time there (perhaps while dreaming of it or while ruminating on how he wished he could return to it), and in that a mutated bear attack which occurs within the home late into the film seems referenced by a bear tattoo his character can be seen with in earlier scenes. If we accept these ideas, Area X is alien in the absolute utmost (much like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.‘s ‘zone’ and Metro 2033‘s wasteland) because it plays fast and loose with the very notions we have about what the universe is made of and what can be possible within it.
So, while Annihilation‘s attempt at an explanation/red herring does not ultimately compose a glaring defect, it does perhaps needlessly complicate a film, which could have either presented a more coherent explanation or simply left it a mystery altogether to no real harm. It’s something an admirer might not even think of if not for the clear influence of, at the very least, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and to be sure there’s a certain baggage when one of your film’s clearest influences is also one of the greatest film meditations ever made; argues The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, the fact that Annihilation appears to borrow so heavily from Stalker only invites comparisons which suffer in the light of a literal genius’s filmmaking.
All of this is certainly not to suggest that Garland hasn’t proved himself a fine filmmaker, because in the space of his last two films he has done precisely that. Annihilation features strong performances (Portman is particularly excellent), fantastic shot composition, assured camera movement, and a dazzling use of visual effects. The film’s pacing is largely effective and engaging throughout; in other words, much like Ex Machina, there’s no denying that the film is well made. Still, odd plot details, grotesque mutations, and alien visitors aside, it’s Garland’s reflections on how and why people engage in varying forms of self-destruction which composes the real heart of Annihilation, and it’s on the basis of how well it accomplishes this thematic goal that I argue the film is best evaluated.
“Confusing Suicide with Self-Destruction”
Sabina Nikolayevna Spielrein, a Russian physician and early noted psychologist, was a contemporary of both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. In more recent years, she has been recognized as an early pioneer in psychoanalysis who offered feminist views on her discipline. Tragically, she was killed along with her two daughters in 1942 by a Nazi SS death squad. Though since Christopher Hampton and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Mind (2011, wherein Spielrein was portrayed by Kiera Knightly) the details of her interactions with Jung have perhaps take a spotlight in the public eye, Spielrein is truly best known within her discipline for her influential paper “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being“. It is here that Spielrein first established the notion of what would later become a key concept in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the ‘death drive’.
Putting it simply, the concept of the ‘death drive’ asserts that Freudian ‘aggressive’ (‘ego’ or ‘death’) and ‘sexual’ (‘life’) drives can find expression in a kind of destruction which can be directed inward as much as outward. According to Spielrein, “In our depths, there is something that, as paradoxical as it may sound, wills self-injury while the ego counteracts it with pleasure. A wish for self-injury, a joy in pain, is, however, thoroughly incomprehensible if we believe merely in the existence of an ego that only desires pleasure.” (Journal of Analytical Psychology, 1994, 39, pg. 160)
While Freud initially dismissed the idea, his 1920 work, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, accepts it and engages directly with the apparent failure of his ‘pleasure principle’ to explain patients who compulsively and repetitively revisited a traumatic event; if the pleasure principle really carries such explanatory power, why would his patients subject themselves to such horrid and repeated ruminations? Writes Freud, “The patient has so to speak undergone a psychical fixation as to the trauma. Fixations of this kind on the experience which has brought about the malady have long been known to us in connection with hysteria.” (II) It’s proposed that a balance is perhaps being sought, an ongoing struggle between pleasure and pain: “…a strong tendency towards the pleasure-principle exists in the psyche…however, certain other forces or conditions are opposed, so that the ultimate issue cannot always be in accordance with the pleasure-tendency.” (I) It’s when the aggression of the ‘death drive’ becomes inwardly directed that suicide or some other form of self-destruction is conjectured a possible result.
In other words, the death drive refers to an apparently self-loathing, masochistic tendency toward our own destruction. Why the death drive can come to dominate our other drives and the varying factors which may result in such a tip toward inward-aggression is far beyond the scope herein; suffice to say, for some reason or another, individuals of every background very often find ways to hurt themselves even if they don’t understand why. It’s an ‘abnormal’ psychological tendency which Annihilation, for its part, posits as far from uncommon.
Indeed, every significant character in Annihilation demonstrates some mode of self-destructive activity (and, due to the film’s framing device, it is at no point a particular mystery whether any of Lena’s companions survive – an issue which calls into question the necessity of the framing device when the film is otherwise meant to be a sci-fi horror-thriller). For example, the gentle and intelligent Cass reveals to Lena early in their journey that she lost her daughter to leukemia: “In a way, it’s two bereavements. My beautiful girl…and the person I once was.” She also reveals that the brilliant Cambridge-educated Josie self-harms, concealing a series of slashes across her arms which plainly suggest a significant history of suicidal ideation. “She’s tried to kill herself?” asks Lena. Replies Cass, “No, I think the opposite. Trying to feel alive.“ Though Cass doesn’t self-destruct in a manner as plainly deliberate as any of her comrades, an odd overzealousness when investigating a nightly disturbance causes her death prior to anyone else’s, an event which to some degree had already transpired inwardly when she lost her child.
The fiery Anya seems content to destroy what little chances for survival she has left via a burgeoning rage and insecurity, which eventually estranges her from the rest of the group. It’s arguably suggested that her initial drive for joining the mission rests with a recent divorce or failed relationship of some kind (she impulsively hits on Lena early in the film and can be seen torturously examining a ring on her finger later), though Cass also ambiguously suggests that she is an ‘addict’. Outside of her own reasons for accepting an ostensible suicide mission, the first signs of her imminent implosion appear after she watches the video left by the last expeditionary group; when Cass insists she recognize that the man’s intestines were moving ‘like a worm’, Anya aggressively denies it, delusionally asserting that it was a ‘trick of the light’ (we might argue that any denial of reality in the face of plain observations is a manifestation of self-destructive drives). As her mood deteriorates, she eventually turns to greater anger and varying paranoid beliefs. When she discovers that Lena has been keeping the truth about her relationship with Kane from the group (an effort which is also arguably self-destructive), she loses it and ties her three remaining companions up to chairs. It’s because of this that she’s unable to defend herself from a bear attack within the house, dying viciously and alone.
Returning to Josie, following Anya’s death and her ‘revelation’ regarding the shimmer’s refractive properties, she realizes that her death is similarly imminent: we see that vines and even leaves are growing out of her veins. In a final act of agency, she tells Lena that she doesn’t want to die how Cass did, screaming, alone, and ultimately imprinted genetically onto the same monstrous mutated bear that killed Anya. She walks off only to rather quickly become one of the flower bushes so shaped like humans. The enigmatic Dr. Ventress has one of the plainest motivations: she’s dying of cancer. Without friends or family, she’s driven to a single objective: to reach the lighthouse, where the shimmer began. We might infer that the lighthouse, to her, represents either a final mountain to be climbed or a desire to encounter true mystery and feel ‘alive’ when there’s nothing left to lose. Following Anya’s death, she impulsively departs the house in the dead of the night: “I don’t have time to wait. We are disintegrating. Our bodies as fast as our minds. Can’t you feel it? It’s like the onset of dementia. If I don’t reach the lighthouse soon, the person that started this journey won’t be the one that ends it. I want to be the one that ends it.“
Not unlike Anya, Dr. Ventress’s mode of self-destruction thereby ultimately manifests as a form of resolving self-expression, of untamed autonomy in the world. Though each of these women come to join their ‘suicide’ mission for varying reasons, all arguably seem to be seeking resolution for some past suffering even if it means their own deaths. Something compels them to it: “Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct… They aren’t decisions, they’re… they’re impulses.”
Lena’s destructive tendencies manifest as a reaction to her husband’s own self-destruction. We come to understand that Kane’s decision to accept the mission carried impulses similar to Dr. Ventress and her group: he was aware that nobody had come out of the shimmer, yet, for reasons he clearly struggles with, he accepts a mission to enter Area X and recklessly endanger his life, his marriage, and the happiness of his wife. Just prior to his departure from both Lena and the home they built together, he attempts to assure her: “You know I do love you.“ He is not trying to convince himself of this so much as he is recognizing that the risk he is taking is paradoxically in spite of his happy marriage.
It’s when Kane fails to come back for an entire year that Lena formally begins her disintegration. An ‘affair’ with fellow professor Daniel (David Gyasi) is cut to repeatedly throughout the film when Lena dreams within Area X. This is a decision which some viewers may find jarring: after all, what is the point of this? Is it only to establish that Lena feels guilt over her affair, even though she was arguably within her right to try to begin anew? If so, why cut back to it repeatedly?
It is here in particular that I argue Spielrein and Freud offers some insight; in the introduction to “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being”, Spielrein ponders: “Why does the most powerful drive, the reproductive instinct, harbor negative feelings in addition to the inherently anticipated positive feelings?” (p. 155). In other words, why does Lena’s ‘life drive’ result in such self-loathing if the pleasure principle holds out? In a sense, Daniel plays out as representing the seemingly common-sense imperatives of the pleasure principle: “You spend more time away from your husband that with him… there is a clear physical and intellectual connection between us… You know, it’s not me you hate, it’s yourself.” Lena replies curtly: “No, Dan, it’s you too.” (Notably, she makes no effort to deny her self-loathing.) Similarly, the repetitiveness with which Lena (and the film) seems to ruminate on the scene hearkens to Freud’s patients who insisted on revisiting and even reliving the source of their trauma.
Though the dimensions of Lena’s self-destruction extend beyond these elements, to delve into them would require a dissection of the film’s climax (and if you’ve read this without seeing the film, there is assuredly plenty left to see). Suffice to say, no one is left exempt from some final resolution, surrendering to either death or the death of who they once were. It’s the manner in which Annihilation profiles these characters which helps us to examine the varied potential ways in which we might be ushering in our own demise, whether it be extreme self-hate at some moral failure, the dissolution of a marriage, the blatantly destructive excesses of drugs/food/alcohol, or even something we don’t know how to identify which gnaws at us all the same.
“Fragmented… until not one part remains. Annihilation.”
In journalist Chris Hedges’ 2017 article “A Nation of the Walking Dead“, he describes Freud’s ‘death drive’ as “this yearning for a state of nonbeing… the overwhelming drive by a depressed and traumatized person to seek pleasure in a self-destructive activity that ultimately kills the organism.” This drive, he argues, strongly manifests in American society today via varying addictions, focusing in on the opioid crisis and, most strongly, America’s oft-unspoken gambling epidemic. Quoting Natasha Dow Schüll’s “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas” (2014): “It is not the chance of winning… [but an addiction to] the world-dissolving state of subjective suspension and affective calm they derive from machine play.“ In her interview with Hedges, she describes this apparent drive to temporarily ‘obliterate oneself’ as an attempt to escape the ‘entrepreneurial burden of capitalism’, the constant demand to ‘self-manage’ oneself and make meaningful an often crassly meaningless, cruel society under neoliberalism.
In this interview with Alex Garland, he talks about how forms in nature inspire the haunting visual style of his thought-provoking sci-fi horror film Annihilation.
Alex Garland's follow-up to Ex Machina is a visceral cinematic experience that, while plagued with structural problems, delivers plenty of thrills and eye-popping spectacle.