This article contains spoilers for the film “Annihilation.”
There is a placid yet eerie scene in Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” a film concerned with self-destructive infinities, where Cambridge postdoctoral physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) surrenders herself to the effects of The Shimmer, an opalescent bubble of alien origin that domes a small circumference of land on the swampy coast of Florida. Radek deciphers The Shimmer’s prismatic effects, the refracting and splicing of every organism’s DNA upon entry. Tiny plants emerge from her scars that scale her arms, emblematic of her years of self-harm, as Lena (Natalie Portman) attempts to convince her to continue the trip into the heart of The Shimmer. After two violent deaths in their cadre of women scientists, her melancholy surfaces and bleeds through, causing Radek to give into The Shimmer’s iridescence in becoming a Daphne. The camera then pans over to a landscape of human-shaped flora to suggest Radek’s fate. It’s a shot that could double as an art installation, but in the world of “Annihilation,” the bewilderment is split by beauty and horror.
The inseparability of nature’s beauty and horror contours the film’s primary concerns of the conditions that drive us toward self-destruction. The iridescent landscape leans against that angst, lining for an alternative genesis. The dialectic is tattooed onto Lena, the ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail. Garland isn’t interested in unraveling this cycle but instead wants to test its limits. He repeatedly places the leading scientists to confront or be consumed by it.
Early in their mission, the scientists reach an empty base where they find a decomposed corpse that has been pinned to a wall by its host, a malignant cancerous flower. The horrific portrait edges the scientists closer to confirm the absence of an alien or beast in the traditional sense, but a threat that is all-encompassing and otherworldly. It’s the omnipresent gleam of The Shimmer that nudges them toward delirium. The raw terror rests in the environment’s wavering indifference and intentional reconfigurments. The possibility of the environment to possess a certain type of alien consciousness or indifference to humanity tilts the characters’ anthropocentric worldview on its head. The tilt enrages the scientists, driving Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic from Chicago, into a desperate fury that causes her to turn against her team. “Annihilation’s” anthropocentric tilt jabs at larger fear of divine purification, caused by a collective guilt of the earth’s degradation. The refractions play on the fraught assumption of the Earth’s limitless resources.
Humans relentlessly test these limits, bypassing any serious markers of its irreversible effects. In 2016, a pseudo-obituary announcing the death of the coral reef circulated the internet and the sensationalized story was deemed incorrect by scientific data, but revealed a truth to the encroaching death of the coral reef. The media story spoke to the towering angst of environmental depletion as fears of global warming boomed in the 21st century. The response was a mix of awe and desperation at the creed of institutions and corporations who actively deplete one of the planet’s longest living organisms. The pseudo-obituary was a measurement of time where the anthropocene — the dictation of global warming caused by humans — eclipses the romantic abstraction of an eternal environment.
So in the filters of speculative fiction like “Annihilation” where nature is bestowed otherworldly powers by the gift of an asteroid, the environment possesses a way to fend for itself more actively. The Shimmer purges the earth, making the world anew, cleansing humanity’s original sin. A non-negotiable return to Eden terrifies the scientists pooling around Lena, the second person ever able to return from The Shimmer. The scientists ask if it wanted anything in exchange, or if it could be bought. Lena ponders on the possibility and then affirms, “No. It didn’t want anything. It’s not destroying. It’s making something new.”
The “new” she speaks of is a self-destructive, self-replicating environment capable of producing magnificent organisms both marvelous and blood-curdling. Albino deer with flowering horns graze, and carnivorous bears taunt their victims through the grisly wails of their former victims. After all, The Shimmer is a story about human relationships and perceptions that extend and sublimate into the environment. The environment’s distortion — its new form — mirrors large cultural anxieties of the environments state that is caused and profited by humans. It’s a movie concerned with an apocalypse that forces humans to recalibrate their relationships and imagines life from a different angle. Lena enters The Shimmer to save her husband, but also to overcome the grief of wounding her marriage by cheating. The external (like the environment) and the internal (the subconscious) fold into each other and becomes the landscape in The Shimmer. It becomes the most vivid in the cinematic triptych’s final act: The Lighthouse.
“Annihilation” imagines landscape where the internal and external blur and fold into another making possible a potential new world. It elucidates on a more dominant ecology that molds the world. The enclosed terrain of “Annihilation” is an expansive one rendering the old into the new, formulated by cellular arithmetic. One cell divides and becomes another, accumulating into all life, until the cell deviates and self-destructs. The film’s rumination of immortality and mortality rubs against grainier concepts like self-destruction and self-creation that transgress a film concerned about relationships with all objects like people and habitats. In a flashback to a time predating Kane’s voyage into The Shimmer, Lena is reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The book is about the real life story of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman from Baltimore whose cancer cells were taken, studied and profited of off during and after her life without consent. A minor detail that situates “Annihilation’s” concerns with creation with the gross and exploitative reality of creation’s imminent destruction.