Annihilation Jennifer Jason Leigh

Almost All of Us Self-Destruct

Rather than flee screaming from all of this insanity, Lena insists she accompany the next expedition into the Shimmer. She insists that her reason for going is to find a possible cure for the affliction that has brought Kane close to death, but she also says she “owes” him. She’s racked with guilt, because, as we learn from flashbacks, she engaged in an affair with a coworker while Kane was away.

The team assembles: the indecipherable Dr. Ventress is the leader, and then there’s the flirty-but-tough Anya (Gina Rodriguez); the quiet, nervous Josie (Tessa Thompson); and the cool, collected Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). After the women have crossed over through the Shimmer, we learn that they’re all fleeing from something in one way or another. Anya has a history with addiction; Josie engages in self-harm; and Sheppard is still grieving the loss of her daughter. Much later, we’ll learn that Dr. Ventress has terminal cancer. And then there’s Lena, haunted by the disappearance and reemergence of her husband.

These women are all carrying weighty emotional baggage, and perhaps that best explains why they were willing to engage in what could easily be classified as a suicide mission. Later, Dr. Ventress lays it all out in a late-night conversation with Lena. “Almost none of us commit suicide, whereas almost all of us self-destruct. We drink, or take drugs, or destabilize the happy job – or happy marriage…But these aren’t decisions. They’re impulses. And in fact, as a biologist, you’re better placed to explain them than me.”

“What do you mean?” Lena asks.

“Isn’t the self-destruction coded into us?” Ventress replies. “Imprinted into each cell.”

If there is an answer to Annihilation, perhaps it is this. Self-destruction is coded into these characters, just as it is coded into all of us. Try as we might, we can’t outrun it. Just as the characters here cannot escape the horrors of Area X.

Garland renders the Shimmer and Area X as something crossed between a dream and a nightmare. Indeed, when Garland spoke of adapted Jeff VanderMeer’s book, dream-logic was baked into his thought process. Much has been made of how vastly different Garland’s film is from the book, and that is by design, not accident. “I thought, ‘Reading this book is like a dream, so what I’m going to do is I’m going to adapt it like a dream,’’ the filmmaker said. “I’m not going to re-read the book. I’m going to adapt it from my memory of the book’…In some places, it will correlate very closely, and in other places it won’t. It’s a dream response to a dream book.”

There’s beauty within the Shimmer – mysterious flowers, crystallized formations, deer-like creatures with blooming antlers. But there’s horror, too. Early on, the team runs afoul of a mutated alligator. And then there’s that god damn bear – a movie monster that I have no doubt will one day remembered alongside iconic creatures like the xenomorph from Alien or the many mutated forms of the alien from John Carpenter’s The Thing.

And then there are the horrors of uncontrollable mental breakdowns.

Annihilation never comes right out and says it’s a movie about depression, and anxiety, and general mental instability. But beneath all its genre trappings, and nightmare bears, is the underlying sense of wrongness that anyone who suffers from depression is familiar with. The sensation of not being entirely in control of yourself, or your emotions. The terrifying feeling that any moment, you could lose your tenuous grasp on normalcy and slip into full-blown panic.

This first presents itself through Anya. Gina Rodriguez has a tough balancing act here – she has to very subtly go insane before our eyes, and not give it away too soon. Rodriguez pulls this off magnificently, mostly due to body language – she goes from being very upright, carrying herself with strength and grace, to being much more hunched-over, much more twitchy, the further the team travels.

Once in the Shimmer, the team comes across a video recorded by the previous expedition. On it, Lena and company witness a genuinely alarming sequence in which Kane cuts open the stomach of another team member and wraps his hands around the man’s intestines – intestines that are clearly moving like eels.

This video understandably unnerves everyone, but Anya in particular seems to truly begin to come apart at the seams once watching it. She shrugs off the whole moving intestines thing and chalks it all up as proof that the previous team went crazy. But the terrifying thought that begins to set in is this: if they went crazy, how soon will we go crazy?

Anya turns on the team, tying them up and threatening them with injury before she, herself, is brutally torn apart by the bear. If the bear didn’t destroy her, sooner or later, something else would. She had fled as far as she possibly could. Sooner or later, whatever she was running from – physically or emotionally – would catch up with her.

And perhaps that’s the truly unsettling message of Annihilation. That we can only outrun the things that are trying to destroy us for so long, before sooner or later, they corner us in the dark, and tear us to shreds.

annihilation tower

More Than Death

The horrors of Annihilation all come together in an enigmatic conclusion that will no doubt lose some members of the audience. Indeed, at my screening, I could literally feel the audience begin to disconnect with the film during its final minutes.

Lena tracks Ventress down to the lighthouse we saw at the start of the film. There, she finds a charred corpse and video camera. On the camera is a tape that reveals what we could’ve guessed by now: the real Kane is dead, and the Kane that returned home to Lena is a clone created by the Shimmer. Lena also finds Ventress crouched in a hole that tunnels into the ground beneath the lighthouse.

There, Ventress begins to disintegrate before our eyes. “It’s more than death,” she says of the mysterious, alien-force that’s driving the Shimmer and currently tearing her apart. “Nothing of what we are will remain. It’s going to annihilate us. That’s what it is. That’s what’s waiting. Annihilation.”

From here, Ventress bursts into pure energy; pure light. Beauty blossoming from destruction. Lena escapes the tunnel onto to come face to face with an eerie, humanoid thing. Featureless and without any distinguishable characteristics, the humanoid proceeds to mirror every move, every gesture Lena makes. The scene almost turns into a bizarre dance number.

Here, again, Garland seems to be using sci-fi to channel depression, anxiety and mental instability. Hard as she may try, Lena can’t get away from this creature, because in a sense, it is her. As someone who has suffered from depression almost his entire life, I was chilled watching this weird on-screen ballet unfold. I’ve had days where I have literally felt bogged down and tripped-up by some force that’s inexplicably standing in my way. A force keeping me from being well.

Lena is able to get the upper hand on the creature and destroy it, but not before it has transformed to completely resemble her, facial features and all. This leaves a sense of ambiguity – is the Lena who gets away the real Lena? The film seems to imply it is, but it also implies that the Lena who returns home is significantly changed.

Destroying the replicant has also destroyed the Shimmer, and inexplicably brought Kane – or rather, Kane’s doppelgänger – out of his coma. Lena confronts him back at the Southern Reach, and flat-out asks him, “Are you Kane?”

“I don’t think so,” he replies. “Are you Lena?”

She doesn’t answer. But the two embrace, and as they do, Garland makes a point of showing a inhuman shimmer reflected in both of their eyes. And we can practically hear Crosby, Stills & Nash crooning “They are one person…” Any trace of the real Lena and Kane, or at least, the Lena and Kane before they went into the Shimmer, is dead and gone. What’s left are these changed individuals. What does the future hold for them?

What does it hold for any of us?

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net