A lot of movies that deal with the theme of apocalypse don’t have the guts to fully realize it. They toy with the concept either as a crisis that can be heroically averted or as a survivable condition for those with sufficient resiliency. And while those can certainly be the touchpoint for all kinds of terrific stories, there still remains a largely untapped narrative wellspring of what it means when we come face to face with oblivion and must go through the four stages of grief on the most intimate and grandiose of scales. It’s not easy territory to enjoy, but the movies that manage to do so often create something truly memorable and thought-provoking. And to that small body of movies, we can add Annihilation, an adaptation of the science fiction novel of the same name and a tale where asking oneself “what the hell did I just see” isn’t a bug, but a feature.
The story begins with a cellular biologist named Lena under interrogation for some kind of mission that appears to have gone wrong. Soon we discover that Lena’s husband Kane was a soldier whose unit was sent to investigate a mysterious area somewhere on the southern coast of the United States where a meteor landed more than a year ago, and the area is now curtained off by a strange wall of light called the Shimmer. The boundaries of the Shimmer appear to be relentlessly expanding outward, and everyone sent inside of it never comes out. That is, until Kane returns home after having been missing for almost a year. It is clear he isn’t the same person he was when he went in, and when his health begins to inexplicably deteriorate, Lena agrees to join an all-female team of soldier-scientists tasked with exploring the Shimmer and getting some answers out of it.For Lena, the mission is a personal quest to figure out how to save Kane, all while battling some intense guilt over having had a romance with a co-worker while Kane was missing. But as soon as Lena and her teammates begin their mission, it becomes pretty obvious that the Shimmer is mutating whatever lies within its domain: animals, plants, everything. And while Lena’s team encounter increasingly aggressive life forms on this newly strange territory, they have to confront the question none of them really want to ask: what if we are being mutated, too? What if it is already too late to save ourselves? What if the only way to contend with the Shimmer is to surrender to it? What if the best outcome from this whole thing truly is…annihilation?
Annihilation is a hard movie to pigeonhole. On its surface, it looks like some kind of military adventure in an alien quarantine zone—complete with weird sparkledeer, sharkgators and mimicbears—and the kind of paranoia that sets in when a group can no longer trust who or what any of them really are anymore. But the movie never really gives itself over to all that. Instead it becomes a trippy meditation on the cruel reality that life is nothing more than a series of transformations, not all of which are gentle, not all of which are beneficial, and not all of which are welcome. The more we see life behind the Shimmer, the more we see that beauty is just nature’s way of distracting you while something horrible is about to happen elsewhere, and if you’re lucky, you’re not the one who will be on the receiving end of it. This time.
For a movie so brightly lit, this is a dark film about how not everyone was meant to survive the evolutionary process. We all face before and after moments where we are different people on either side of them. And when we talk about transformation and evolution, we tend to do it as a good thing, without realizing that more often than not, it brings not awakening but horror.
When we first watch Lena consider her mission, she’s still grieving for her lost husband. But then she is grieving for him differently when he comes back. When she searches to save him, she is made to grieve for the changes happening to her world. And when she has a chance to come home again, she must grieve for what has become of herself along the way. This is a movie where nothing escapes unscathed. Kind of like life itself.
If that is a morose takeaway from this strange, haunting movie that asks way more questions than it answers, so be it. But few sci-fi trips have so effectively deconstructed any romantic notions that we the living cling to so that the machine of life is made more palatable to us. We are made from stardust. To stardust we all return. What we turn into along the way, well, that’s anyone’s guess.
The moment of truth in Annihilation is a quiet moment when the team bivouacs for the night and in their own quiet ways all begin to realize that entering the Shimmer was a one-way trip. That they thought it might not have been is the kind of folly we fool ourselves with out of a survival instinct. But as we see each character reckon with what awaits them, we see a kind of extended elegy for all of them, and for ourselves by extension. Everyone must face their own undoing. How we do that depends on our circumstances. Is it a relief from pain? An inevitability to accept peacefully? Something to resist tour dying breath? Something too bewildering to adapt to? It is all of those things. But above all, it is unknown. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, in this context, what we do not know should frighten us. It should frighten us a lot. What we do with that is perhaps what best defines us in a universe that does not care if we are afraid.