Life Must Annihilate Itself

A mysterious meteor has landed in a national park, and a bizarre translucent barrier has expanded outward, slowly, from the point of impact. It’s called The Shimmer, and all efforts to discover what’s causing it, or what’s going on inside, have failed. Any expedition that goes in doesn’t come back.

Enter Lena (Natalie Portman), a former soldier, now a cellular biology professor, who ventures into The Shimmer looking for answers about what happened to her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac.) Lena and a team of women (all the previous expeditions were made up of men) are trying to get to the lighthouse where the meteor landed, and must contend with the strange wildlife and warped perceptions that exist inside The Shimmer.

It’s a fairly straightforward story, reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey in many ways–one character even seems to ascend to a higher plane of existence at the end. Because it’s straightforward, it seems to invite people looking at it in abstract and unusual ways.

I saw Annihilation at a screening and discussion organized by Matt Zoller Seitz, for which, thanks. Everyone at the screening seemed to have a different interpretation of the film, and I don’t want to say anyone was wrong, but one angle was certainly louder to me than anything else.

The Shimmer itself is an elaborate metaphor for cancer–it’s a tumor that’s growing very slowly, and while it hasn’t spread to any major organs cities yet, it will unless a cure is found.

Lena describes cancer to her students at the beginning of the film–cells dividing continuously, without going through the aging process that’s programmed into their DNA. She tells Kane that aging and death are just a flaw in our genes–if we could turn it off, we could become immortal.

So many stories tell us that life is precious and beautiful, and I loved how Annihilation takes this to its logical extreme visually. The environment inside The Shimmer is gorgeous, but also scary–lush green grass and leaves, colorful flowers that pop off the screen, it’s the prettiest swamp I’ve ever seen. Even a strange fungus, growing on a mutilated corpse, is beautiful and horrific at the same time. This is life that has grown completely out of control.[1]

But the most interesting twist comes when one of Lena’s comrades tells her that people have an urge to self-destruct: they take drugs, they self-mutilate, they cheat on their romantic partners, they volunteer for suicide missions into cancer metaphors. Indeed, each member of the team has their own tragic backstory that has brought them to make the same foolhardy decision.

By the end of the film, I wouldn’t call cell death a flaw in our DNA–without it, we’d turn into the monsters we saw living in The Shimmer. But is self-destructive behavior necessary in the same way? Everyone has their poison– some things will make you feel the excitement you thought you’d lost; others will make you forget the painful things you’d rather not think about. Without these distractions, would we just be bored and miserable?

Even if it’s destructive for the characters, the mission itself is vital to humanity. Curing the cancer of The Shimmer will save the rest of us. We’ve all benefited from others who have sought out new life, new civilizations, and new understanding, often at great personal risk. This is the heroic sacrifice we celebrate in our superhero blockbusters–while it’s great for humanity as a whole, it’s often terrible for the people trying to stop the inter-dimensional army from invading Earth.

It seems then, that death offers two options: the chaotic, out of control from cancer, or the orderly, programmed aging from our DNA. I don’t know if I can choose… I’m sorry, Dr. Freud, did you want to say something?

If life has this self-destructive drive, the film wisely extends it to all life–including The Shimmer. Even life out of control would want a way out of its unending existence. We never get to hear The Shimmer speak for itself, but when given the opportunity, even its Avatar seems to assist its own destruction.

Thanks again to Matt Seitz for organizing this event–I hope we can do it again sometime.

I’ve also been thinking about David Bordwell’s new book Reinventing Hollywood, which I finished not long after I saw Annihilation. The film’s narrative structure– using flashbacks, chapter-like structuring, and playing with point-of-view all connect nicely with the book, but I’ll have to save those thoughts for another time.

  1. [1] Also I have to mention the frakking mutant zombie bear, which spends a good two minutes sniffing around the room where our heroines are tied up in chairs, completely helpless–THAT is a magnificent suspense sequence.
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