Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland, 2018) – A team of military scientists enter The Shimmer, a quarantined zone where mutations thrive.
Annihilation finds both terror and beauty in the mutation of nature, as it does the same in our innate instinct for self-destruction.
It is in our nature to destroy ourselves. As Annihilation puts it, almost none of us commit suicide, whereas almost all of us self-destruct in some part of our lives. We drink, or take drugs, or destabilize the happy job or happy marriage. For some, vices are due punishment on themselves for reasons of guilt. Others feel alive by simply keeping our lives in motion – even if it is but chaos.
Such self-destructive tendencies occur biologically too. We change, as nature mandates. Human cells divide at a constant, and the natural process of mitosis sees our bodies duplicate new cells to replace damaged ones. We degenerate to heal and deteriorate with age, while cells replicate rapidly – without control – turn cancerous.
Our psychological and physical destruction is metaphorised on an ecological scale as the Shimmer. Its literal devastation of nature finds parallels with the team of scientists, who step into the quarantine zone, each with their own histories.
In Alex Garland’s ambitiously brilliant screenplay, The Shimmer’s apparent sentience births an understanding of each character’s desire for change. The resultant transmutation is not only stunningly manifested in terms of visuals, but meaningful for every one of them.
In her search for understanding, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) eventually becomes part of the Shimmer – the mission. Josie (Tessa Thompson), who self-harms out of a desire to feel alive, finds freedom by transforming into a different being. Looking to escape their lives, Lena (Natalie Portman) and her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) discover their replicas without the burden of their pasts.
As do our psychology and biology, The Shimmer changes the scientists as individuals, and urges them to accept their transformation. Kane does, as Lena has not. Or so it seems. After all, the story unfolds from Lena’s perspective, its unreliable narrator casting doubt on her fate. Still, her glimmering eyes imply that she is no longer Lena or at least, no longer the same Lena as she was before the mission.
The conclusive change may perturb. But just as mutation can be used to describe a disease, it can be seen as evolution. In other words, a blip in our genetic make-up may categorically be the same as a necessary step towards survival. In Alex Garland’s beautifully realised vision, we see that The Shimmer – or self-destruction – does not simply equate to pure annihilation. Rather, it destroys, so that it may create new life.