SPOILERS for Annihilation to follow
“Usually if people are talking about what something means in a movie, it means you’ve got a movie people want to see. It’s like the obelisk in 2001. People went around for year sitting in McDonald’s and Bel Air cocktail parties saying, ‘What the hell does that obelisk mean?’” - William Friedkin
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” - Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
A bear with a woman’s scream, its face peeled back to reveal a human skull, a suffering, lumbering thing. Flowers stuck in a continuous mutation — each bloom different, yet growing from the same plant. Synaptic, crystalline trees echoing the trees in the forest. A giant albino alligator flecked blood-red, with teeth like a shark. A tableau: a man ripped apart, embedded in flowers and lichen. A lighthouse swallowed up by something that resembles tree roots, bones, cancer. This is a place of mutations and phosphorescence, of fractals, of strangeness, the uncanny. This is the Shimmer, a three-year-old anomalous phenomenon that’s rapidly expanding, consuming the land. Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a film about memory, perception, transformation, mutation, the inexorable relationship between creation and destruction. It’s about self-destruction as something cosmological, alchemical, psychological, biological. It’s natural, and it’s devastating. After Lena’s husband Kane returns home, near death and remembering nothing after a year inside the Shimmer, Lena herself embarks on a suicide mission into the mystery of the Shimmer, and into herself. She is like Orpheus retrieving Eurydice in the underworld, only instead of being unable to look behind her as they flee, she must first take a good long look into the darkness before escaping.
Natalie Portman’s Lena, a biologist teaching at Johns Hopkins and a former soldier, leads a lonely existence, mourning her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who has been gone for a year, lost on a covert military mission. He suddenly reappears in their home, without any memory of what happened. Kane acts strange. He doesn’t feel well and begins to cough up blood. An ambulance rushes him to the hospital, but the ride is intercepted, and they’re taken by a mysterious government agency. Lena wakes up in Area X, the Southern Reach facility where she meets psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and finds out Kane is hemorrhaging, suffering organ failure after having spent a year inside the Shimmer. Lena believes the knowledge of her infidelity drove Kane to go on a suicide mission; her guilt, curiosity, and something inexplicable compels her to join a new mission comprised of four other scientists. “We’re all damaged goods here,” Tuva Novotny’s Cass Sheppard tells Lena. Cass, the anthropologist, suffered the death of a child. The physicist, Tessa Thompson’s Josie Radek, self-harms. Cass describes Gina Rodriguez’s paramedic Anya Thorensen as sober - which means she’s an addict. No one knows what Ventress’s story is, only that she is completely isolated.
Inside the Shimmer, Lena finds, “corruptions of form, duplications of form.” Echoes of form. And the closer the team gets to the lighthouse, the more extreme and inexplicable the mutations become. She finds different species of flowers growing from the same plant. The Shimmer has, in places, created malignancy, and in others, magnificence. They don’t seem to be hallucinations, because every woman sees the same thing. Everyone on the team loses time - days and weeks can pass, unaccounted for. All their data, footage, and findings only make the Shimmer’s phenomena less explicable. It’s Josie who realizes the Shimmer is a prism that refracts everything - light, sound, even DNA. It refracts time. And it refracts their minds - into the environment, and into each other.
The Shimmer refracts the minds of the team, Lena’s memory in particular. The house they find inside the Shimmer is Lena’s house, full of shadows, decay, and overgrown vines. The Shimmer is subjective, an internal landscape that reflects Lena and her failing marriage, a place where she’s haunted by memories of Kane and of her unfaithfulness. The mission is a journey inward. In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, each character who looks at the lighthouse sees something different. Significantly, it’s near the ocean, a symbol of the collective unconscious, “a favorite place for the birth of visions,” according to Jung. The lighthouse and the Shimmer that surrounds it in Annihilation signify something similar. Cass is taken and mauled by a giant bear. And Cass’s trauma at the time of her death becomes part of the bear that killed her, a creature that emits her screams, a horror that transcends Cronenberg’s worst nightmare. That creature kills Anya. Josie accepts the Shimmer, embraces it - for the first time, she doesn’t wear long sleeves, the scars on her arms blossom, and she disappears into the humanoid flowering trees that stand together like a family.
Ventress is the first to make it to the lighthouse. She has been the most serene, persevering member of the team, but she has the most frightening secret: terminal cancer. Lena reaches the lighthouse and finds Ventress, or rather, what remains of Ventress - we see her face in shadowy closeup, featureless, moving like liquid metal as she mutters: “It’s the last phase. Vanished into havoc. Unfathomable mind. Now beacon. Now sea.” Ventress hasn’t met her alien double, she’s become it, given herself over to the “alien” completely. The alien uses her as a vessel to give birth to mysterious spheres of light.
What bursts forth from Ventress becomes a mandelbulb, and Lena stares into it, a light rimmed with psychedelic, undulating darkness, and it takes only a drop of her blood to manufacture her alien double. The iridescent being that mirrors her, echoes her is featureless - at first. It “chases” her up and out of the subterranean chamber, back into the lighthouse. The being isn’t malicious, and it doesn’t seek to destroy — it doesn’t seem to know what it wants, but it’s powerful, mirroring Lena, and quite literally getting in Lena’s way. Lena meets an extraterrestrial alien, an alien completely unlike us - and it represents the alien inside all of us, a shadow self, that self-defeating thing.
Lena explains to Kane that aging, dying, is a defect of our cells, our DNA. We should live forever, our cells constantly regenerating, like HeLa cells (Lena reads The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in one of her memories). But our self-destructive, self-defeating tendencies are coded on a molecular level. Some of its ugliest iterations and manifestations including, but not limited to: cancer, inflammatory disease, neurodegenerative disease, depression, addiction, self-harm, suicide. Annihilation is about how we destroy and reconstitute ourselves. Sometimes we self-destruct in response to pain, grief, trauma, betrayal, illness. And sometimes, it’s for no reason at all.
Like the different species of flowers all growing from one plant, self-destruction is universal, a quality we share, but the ways we self-destruct are idiosyncratic. Like Ventress tells Lena: “Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct. [ . . . ] These aren’t decisions, they’re impulses. Coded into us, programmed into each cell.” And self-destruction can be as meaningless as destabilizing a friendship, a marriage. In one draft of the script, Lena explains to her students: “…we can describe cancer as a genetic mutation that causes unregulated cell growth. But genetic mutation is also the reason we exist. We wouldn’t have evolved from the single-cell organism from which we’re all derived. I think it’s partly why cancer frightens us. It doesn’t just hurt us, and kill us. It changes us.”
At the film’s beginning, Lena speaks to her class about cells: the rhythm of the dividing pair, the structure of everything that lives, and everything that dies. She tells her class that they’ll be observing autophagic activity - an orderly destruction of cells. The word “autophagy” derives from the Ancient Greek autóphagos, meaning “self-devouring,” not unlike an ouroboros. According to a paper written on the subject by Noboru Mizushima and Masaaki Komatsu, “the purpose of autophagy is not the simple elimination of materials, but instead, autophagy serves as a dynamic recycling system that produces new building blocks and energy for cellular renovation and homeostasis.” Mizushima and Komatsu also note that, “impairment or activation of autophagy contributes to pathogenesis of diverse diseases.” Autophagy is a process of disease and destruction, but it’s also a process of balance, of renovation, of renewal.
Josie tells Lena in a draft of the screenplay that she’s an astrophysicist whose focus is “the life-cycle of stars.” Lena asks, “And what is the life-cycle of stars?” Josie responds, “Long,” and Lena laughs and explains, “I do the life-cycle of cells. Short.” Josie shrugs and says, “Still a cycle.” The mysterious tattoo that Lena develops during her time in the Shimmer represents this cycle: an ouroboros. It signifies infinity, wholeness, two cells dividing, yin and yang, and echoes, like the Shimmer’s refractions. Anya first has the tattoo, which became part of Lena. And a soldier from a previous mission had the tattoo before her. Alchemists used the symbol of the ouroboros to represent integration of the conscious and the unconscious into the self, two halves of a whole. Jung wrote: “The integration of these opposing aspects of the personality is symbolized by the snake that bites its own tail, the ouroboros, another archetype. The ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite (i.e. of the shadow self). This feedback process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said that the ouroboros slays himself and brings himself to life again, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself.”
In Psychology and Alchemy, Jung explained what happens when we encounter the dark half of our personalities: “the contents of the personal unconscious (i.e. the shadow) are indistinguishably merged with the archetypal contents of the collective unconscious and drag the latter with them when the shadow is brought into consciousness. This may exert an uncanny influence on the conscious mind.” The Shimmer’s effect is nothing if not an uncanny influence. And the way the Shimmer refracts everything and everyone inside it represents collective unconscious. In the screenplay, Josie wonders aloud to Lena before deciding to give into the Shimmer and vanish into the forest of human topiaries: “I wonder if I’ll be trapped in you.”
The Shimmer’s effect is strongest in the subterranean cavern under the lighthouse. What Lena meets inside the lighthouse is her own unconscious. Jung described the process of reconciling all three aspects of the self - ego, personal unconscious, and collective unconscious - as individuation, the synthesis of opposites, like the “dance” between Lena and her double inside the lighthouse. Jung wrote: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.” If Lena fights the shadow double, it only hurts her. To survive the Shimmer, Lena must understand her double and the way it behaves, that it isn’t fighting her, only echoing her.
And Lena’s drive to survive the Shimmer is strong. She’s the only character who feels she has someone waiting for her. “I wanted to come back. More than anything. I had to come back. I’m not sure any of them did,” Lena explains to Benedict Wong’s Lomax, who questions her in quarantine after she returns from the Shimmer. Annihilation, in its strange way, is a love story. Not a romance, but a trial of love, a testament to Lena’s commitment to Kane, to fighting through her guilt and pain to make amends. Cass told Lena she suffered two bereavements when she lost her daughter: her child’s death, and the person she once was. The man Kane once was died inside the Shimmer, and the man who came out is technically no longer Kane. But “new” Kane’s only impulse is to find Lena once he’s escaped the Shimmer. The script indicates that the real Lena survives, and her double takes the phosphorous grenade. After she destroys the Shimmer, the person who emerges is Lena, albeit irrevocably changed. Inside the lighthouse, her double retains the memory of loving Kane - it reaches for his body, an echo of Lena’s affection for Kane, as they are both consumed by flames.
The people that Lena and Kane once were are gone; they’ve been transformed, and their eyes share an iridescent mutation, the mark of the Shimmer. Whether that’s good or bad is open to interpretation. Maybe Lena is only left with a ghost of Kane, but maybe this is a new beginning for them, like Adam and Eve cast out of Eden. Regardless, the two are connected, entangled like the infinity tattoo they now share, like one cell dividing into two, like the pair of mutated deer-like creatures that Lena sees in the Shimmer’s forest who leap away together.
Lomax asks Lena about the alien inside the Shimmer. Can you describe its form? No. What did it want? I don’t think it wanted anything. Lena explains that it didn’t attack her, she attacked it. It mirrored her. Lomax counters, It was destroying everything. And Lena explains that it wasn’t destroying — it was changing everything. It was making something new. Annihilation is an open-ended film, one that allows us to map onto it many meanings, philosophical and emotional. Alex Garland said, “It’s about how hard it is to be, how hard it is to be a person.” But Annihilation shows us that it isn’t just hard to be human, it’s strange and terrifying and beautiful. Garland offers no easy answers with his vision, only a vivid dream that lingers long after waking.