SATURDAY FILM SCHOOL | Is 'Annihilation' Just an Ego Death…Without the Acid?


Are humans inherently self-destructive?

How does a film, ultimately about death, explore destruction, mutation, and change as necessary factors for life itself? Naturally, a film about ego death (or dissociation?) will unassumingly render its story and characters slightly portentous—even the best of sci-fi films have a smug relationship with anything perceived as sublime.

Notions of life and death are polarizing abstractions, and when metaphorized in film, even more taxing as subject matter because they are essentially known and unknown realities. We are all born into life alone, and we are all taken from life alone, and what lives beyond that realm of thought is devastatingly unforeseeable and comfortably envisioned.

Similar to Darren Aronofsky's "mother!" in ambition and ambiguity, Alex Garland's "Annihilation"—adapted from Jeff VanderMeer's eco-horror novel—is concerned with the finite aptitude of the human body and its limitations in the physical world. International rights to the film were sold to Netflix, a reactionary, albeit necessary safety net commissioned by Paramount after "mother's!" commercial flop. Considering how visually stunning and engrossing Garland's world is and its accompanying soundtrack by Portishead's Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, it's a shame and regrettable reality of Hollywood politics; the IMAX experience permits a type of immersion not found in the living room.

Early in the film, it's explained that most plant cells are immortal and can divide anew; human cells, on the other hand, are not genetically equipped to modify cell structures, but simply mutate through the process of aging. In the Shimmer's ecosystem, cells not only divide forming new DNA hybrid structures altogether, but they also mutate into refractions, or as the film argues, doppelgängers.

The psychedelically transformed ecology of the animals, plants, and eventually, humans, are corporeal manifestations similarly seen in David Cronenberg films. Alex Garland takes a note from the father of body horror, using the human body as a canvas to demonstrate the violence of evolution, whether self-initiated or environmentally imposed. Garland also evokes Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," another film fascinated with nuances of human development and technological advances. Bodies break down, communities unravel, and civilizations collapse as natural cycles of decomposition—the same fundamental, geological processes that occur in the Shimmer.

Compared to Kubrick's masterpiece, "Annihilation" is equally hypnotic with images that are at once horrific and extraordinary, a poetic rumination on human nature and the ever-changing reflections of life in all of its forms. As plant and human DNA coalesce into the earth, the boundaries of the human body—and all of its capacities—are entirely victimized by the violence of nature itself. Change requires disruption and in some cases, complete destruction. Farmers burn their land for agricultural production; a woman's body undergoes drastic measures to accommodate life; cells split and divide to form new cells and DNA structures—life is quite literally an enactment of change. "Annihilation" is fixated on these organic disruptions, but studies them through the human ego, particularly through Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist who studies cancer cells at John Hopkins Hospital.

Emotionally stunted by her husband's (Oscar Isaac) disappearance after a classified military expedition, Lena one day is painting a wall when she sees a silhouette in the corner of her eye. It's her husband, but he's emotionally unresponsive, and soon, very ill, convulsing and bleeding from the mouth. On the way to the hospital, her vehicle is intercepted by a military unit that takes them to an enclosed facility where her husband is quarantined and she is interrogated. Her husband, as it turns out, has returned from the Shimmer—given its name for the bubble-esque barrier outlining its perimeters. (Like most sci-fi phenomena, the Shimmer is brought on by a meteor crashing into a lighthouse, one of the easiest ways to geographically legitimize and specify its occurrence.)

In short, Lena decides to go into Area X to see for herself what her husband experienced and is accompanied by a group of equally tormented women—Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist; Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic; physicist, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson); and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), a geologist—to uncover whether the Shimmer is an extraterrestrial phenomenon, how it operates, and what exactly it wants.

Paramount Pictures

The Shimmer is recounted from here on through Lena's disjointed memories. Sure, the film's logistical reasoning is substituted by Lena's excessive scientific jargon the average moviegoer won't understand (or care to decipher), but Lena's dialogue mostly consists of one breathy, disconnected line said ad nauseam: "I don't know." Lena's apparent dissociation is a symptom of entering the Shimmer: Those that miraculously return are incapable of retelling their experiences, what they saw, what they ate or drank, and how they survived. That is to say (spoiler alert!), there are several victims in "Annihilation" following in horror's tradition of every man woman for herself. The Shimmer violently eliminates organisms incapable of genetically adapting to the environment, and humans—given our genetic predisposition to self-destruct in unfamiliar territory—are unfit for its ecosystem.

In its second half, Garland's sci-fi horror amps up the gore and cosmic revelations. Rounding out the film's cerebral finale, Portland enacts what would appear to be a Reddit post detailing a DMT trip gone wrong. Lena—like many late rockstars from the 60s and 70s—surrenders to an ego death. "Annihilation" shows what that looks like, the feeling of being unknown to oneself, in fact, complete entropy of the human personality. Indistinguishable from her (carbon?) shimmering copy, Lena's transformation mirrors her flawed mortality, the need to know, the inclination to expose oneself to better understand one's nature.

Annihilation takes pleasure in distorting this reality, reveling in the comical dance and perversion of all things familiar. Filmgoers will likely ponder the quasi-metaphysics of the film's ending, but anyone questioning what it all means may find the Beatles said it best: "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together." What a pity, then, that none of the women morph into a walrus whilst strolling through the Shimmer.

Paramount Pictures

POP⚡ DUST Score: ⚡⚡⚡⚡⚡

Shaun Harris is a poet, freelance writer, and editor published in avant-garde, feminist journals. Lover of warm-toned makeup palettes, psych-rock, and Hilton Als. Her work has allowed her to copyedit and curate content for various poetry organizations in the NYC area.

POPDUST | Read More About Film/TV...

THE REAL REEL | Want To Get Divorced?

THE OPTION | Five Obscure Sports Movies to Help Deal With the February Lull

REVIEW | How One Day at a Time is changing the sitcom game

MUSIC MONDAY | The Oscars: Best of the Best Original Song goes to...

Follow Us On


China Detains Canadian Citizen

The government's charges against a Canadian ex-diplomat are thought to be retaliation for Canada's arrest of a high-profile Chinese executive.

Culture News

Good Riddance, Chief Wahoo

The Cleveland Indians will no longer feature the racist logo and caricature of Native Americans on their uniforms, concluding a dark chapter in the sport's history.