It would be easier to not talk about Annihilation than to talk about it. It is deep and dark and strange, and there is something lurking in it that threatens to pull you under. After my first viewing, I was frozen from the spectacles of body horror and a profound sense of resonance. I was as drawn to the film as I was repulsed. Coming out of my second viewing, I can only describe the whole thing as beautiful. There are some pieces of art that just affect a person, and I suspect at this time in my life, this is one of mine, with all of the protective trappings that come with it.
At its core, the film’s title is more of a question than a threat. Annihilation is about destruction, and especially self-destruction, but it is fascinated with renewal and rebirth, the creation that comes from the building blocks left behind, and their reflection of what used to be. In the paraphrased words of the characters, Annihilation is “nightmarish sometimes, but beautiful too.”
The plot of Annihilation forms around the Shimmer, an iridescent bubble expanding across the landscape with a lighthouse at its center. The teams who go in do not return. Communication in or out is impossible. All prior teams have been military, and male. The film focuses on the last team to go in, a crew of female scientists: Anya Thorensen, a paramedic; Cass Sheppard, a geomorphologist; Josie Radek, a physicist; and Ventress, a psychologist and leader of the team. Their mission is to make it to the lighthouse to discover the source. Lena, a cellular biologist, is introduced to the Shimmer when her husband, Kane, becomes the first person to return from an expedition. He appears unexpectedly in their house before suffering massive organ failure. Lena volunteers to go with the team to figure out the cause and find a solution.
The film’s imagery focuses on external disruption of form – different flowers mutated and merged to grow from a single vine, or deer with horns of slender, flowering branches. But the film, opening with a discussion of cellular division and decay, asks us to focus on the entropic pull towards self-destruction, the “quirk of genetics” that causes a cell to eventually die. (In a flashback, Lena is shown reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about the African American woman who provided the first immortalized cell line.) This defining theme is reiterated most clearly when Lena confronts Ventress about their journey into the Shimmer being a suicide mission. Ventress suggests that Lena is confusing suicide with self-destruction, which, as Lena knows, is coded into our very cells. This discussion marks the turning point of the movie, after which each character must face their self-destructive nature and desires, as well as a rebirth.
Immediately after this conversation, Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) is mauled and dragged away by something that used to be a bear, but is now something more. Novotny’s performance is marked by a sense of restraint, like her character is always holding something back. Earlier in the film, Sheppard reveals to Lena the quirk that marks each of the team as “broken.” Sheppard herself is marked by the death of her daughter, which she describes as the simultaneous death of the woman she used to be.
The effect of the Shimmer is to refract everything within its bounds. Communication cannot escape the field because it scrambles electronic transmissions. Living organisms within it change as the Shimmer refracts thought processes and genes. When the bear follows the team to their next camp, it screams with the spectral wail of Sheppard’s final moments, an agonized cry for help. With the death of her daughter, Sheppard’s soul died while her body continued. With the death of her body, part of her mind is reborn in the lumbering body of the creature that killed her. Cass Sheppard is trapped in cycles of death, and in this rebirth becomes an avatar of the pain that consumed her life, all the rage, grief, and pain of two deaths echoing into the world.
Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) has a history of self-harm, which Sheppard suggests is an effort to feel and remember that she is alive. The team’s second encounter with the bear is Radek’s memento mori. The bear approaches, takes her shoulder in its mouth and, almost tenderly, bites her, a reminder of life and death. The next morning, Radek is shown for the first time without her hoodie, arms bare and lined with scars as she sits in the garden. Before this moment, her body language was nervous; she made herself as small as possible. Now, she exudes contentment and confidence. She gives herself to the Shimmer. Green sprouts from her scars; flowers bloom along her shoulders. Radek finds peace in the reflections and translations of the Shimmer. She does not experience an annihilation of the self, but discovers purpose in union with a greater whole.
This almost religious surrender contrasts with Anya’s (Gina Rodriguez) violent rejection of the Shimmer. After discovering video of the prior expedition, specifically Kane, cutting open one of their members to reveal intestines that writhe and slide like a giant worm, Thorensen clutches to denial. By the time they reach the house of the second bear attack, the whorls of her fingerprints whirl and shift. The discovery that Lena is Kane’s wife pushes her over the edge; she attacks and ties the other three to chairs for an interrogation. When the bear arrives, it kills her.
Thorensen is sober, a recovering drug addict. Of all the members of this expedition, she is the one most intimately familiar with an external force enacting physical and mental changes on her body. She is a fighter and survivor, and as a paramedic, she fights to maintain the functionality and integrity of the human body. Confronted with Sheppard’s death, she is the one most desperate to leave the Shimmer. She is also the only one to not experience a rebirth of some kind. The Shimmer seems to respond to desire. Where Radek found strength in being part of a group and surrendering to something larger than herself, Thorensen revels in her selfhood. She is loud and brash and singularly her. For Thorensen, incorporation into the Shimmer, rebirth, would have been a hell and counter to who she was. The juxtaposition of their reactions, submission versus retaliation, lend each other weight. Is the self sacred unto itself or through its release? Both answers feel valid, and tragic, in their own way.
Ventress (Jennifer Leigh) and Lena (Natalie Portman) have desires connected to the Shimmer itself. At the expense of all else and all others, Ventress wants to discover its nature. Lena wants to destroy it.
Ventress, having left the others after the second bear attack, is first to arrive at the lighthouse. Her pull towards self-destruction is marked by her loneliness – Sheppard notes she does not have any friends or family – and a terminal cancer diagnosis. When we see her again, it is in the role of prophetess. She sits in the dark cavern beneath the lighthouse, eyes covered and blinded to the world so that she can see the nature of what exists there. She is still humanoid, but has become inhuman, at least until Lena arrives. She regains her normal appearance, but speaks with a still inhuman understanding, declaring that what is in the lighthouse will divide everything into its smallest components. “Annihilation,” she invokes, before light streams from her mouth and she begins to unravel into a fluctuating mass of light and light particles.
She is reborn, first as light, and then as something new. Light congeals into a metallic being. Ventress is remade into the clearest form we have for whatever exists at the heart of the Shimmer, the only way for her to gain full understanding. It consumes her, like the cancer consuming her cells. The lack of connection that marked her previous existence replaced by perfect union. This being mimics Lena’s every move as she tries to leave the lighthouse. They circle each other. When they touch, it begins to take Lena’s form.
Lena cheated on Kane. That was the impulse that led to their self-destruction, that drew Kane into the Shimmer and Lena into her mission for redemption. In the lighthouse, a camcorder shows Kane, confused and lost, detonate a phosphorus grenade in his hand. He asks the person operating the camera to find Lena. When they walk into frame, they are revealed as Kane’s double.
Lena gives her own forming double a second grenade, and runs. As the being returns to its metallic form, it begins to burn, watching Lena leave but no longer mimicking her. Did its contact with Lena, and her desire to destroy the Shimmer, introduce a quirk for self-destruction? It walks around the circular base of the lighthouse, setting fire to the coral-like growth covering it. It stumbles and crawls into the cavern that is the heart of the Shimmer, igniting and destroying it. Outside, Lena watches everything around her begin to burn as the Shimmer dissolves.
Lena fought to revive an identity that no longer existed – who she was with Kane – and when confronted with annihilation of her individuality, through this strange reflection of herself, she destroys it. Nonetheless, she is indelibly changed. Back at the base, she reunites with Kane’s double, now healed. As they hug, their irises pulse with a strange light. She did not succumb to physical annihilation, but she is still something new. And even now, the two are reflections of each other: the clone who killed his original, and the original who killed her clone, tied together by something, perhaps, reborn in them.
Annihilation is a series of questions with shifting answers, about identity, purpose, destruction, and the permeable line dividing them. It is, in some ways, an affirmation of life: varied and confusing, constantly recreating itself, sometimes nightmarish but often beautiful.