Annihilation and the beauty in the horror of death and destruction

Contributed by
Mar 19, 2018

Since its release at the end of February, Annihilation has become prime fodder for criticism across the internet. Alex Garland's latest foray into science fiction has sparked discussion both positive and negative, some praising it for its female cast and gorgeous visuals and others criticizing it for its deliberate pace and dense material. Here at Fangrrls we've raved about its beautiful, slow-burn approach to its subject matter and discussed its place in the larger conversation about female scientists in cinema.

Love it or hate it, though, there is one thing you cannot deny about Annihilation: the interpretations are virtually endless. At its core, Annihilation, as the name suggests, is about destruction, but what that means is largely determined by the viewer. 

The film follows five women as they head off on what is, essentially, a suicide mission to investigate The Shimmer. A dozen teams have gone into The Shimmer before, and of them, only one person has ever returned: Kane (Oscar Isaac), the husband of Natalie Portman's Lena. While he may have come home, he was not the same person he was before. Each member of the newest team knows they may never return from their mission and each has their own story; each has struggled, has lost someone or even lost themselves. 

Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has sent each and every team before them into The Shimmer. It haunts her. It's a puzzle that refuses to be solved. Also, she is dying of cancer. If she doesn't learn its secret now, she might not at all. Anya (Gina Rodriguez) is a paramedic struggling with addiction. Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) is a scientist who lost her daughter to cancer and lost the person she used to be in the process. Josie (Tessa Thompson) is a physicist with a history of self-harm. And then there's Lena, a biologist who understands the smallest facets of what makes life possible but who could not control what happened to her husband or what is waiting for them on the other side of The Shimmer.

For its part, The Shimmer, as Josie puts it, "is a prism that refracts DNA." It breaks down all living things into their most basic parts, tearing them apart and recombining them into new and fascinating things. It is destruction in its purest form. Once you enter, you do not leave—at least, not as the person you were before. It mutates everything it comes into contact with, resulting in flowers that grow where they shouldn't and animals that are too large with too many teeth. It consumes everything and spreads these mutations like a cancer, converting everything it touches and making it unrecognizable. 

And cancer is one of the many ways one can interpret The Shimmer. It represents the thing we, as humans, fear most. An invading force we understand but cannot stop. 

Another interpretation is as an allegory for self-destruction. The Shimmer plays on our fears, changes who we are, makes us something we don't recognize until finally, we give in in one way or another. Maybe we are dragged asunder unexpectedly like Sheppard. Perhaps our own paranoia and fear drive us to suspicion and poor decisions like Anya. Maybe we fall off the deep end because of our own single-minded pursuit like Ventress. Or perhaps you simply allow yourself to waste away like Josie, succumbing to your own despair and the weight of the burdens you bear. 

Each of these interpretations is unique, and each is true in its own way. But there is another one that has not yet been touched upon. It is simple and complex and terrifying and beautiful. 

What if The Shimmer is death?

Perhaps the only thing we, as living creatures of less-than-omnipotent power, fear more than disease is our own mortality. A disease we can fight. We can see it. We can understand it. We can dissect it and plan our attacks against it. But we cannot fight Death, and because of that, we fear it. Like The Shimmer, it is an unknown quantity. We do not know how it will change us, what it will do to us. It eats us up slowly, turning us into something else, tearing us down piece by piece as we watch it happen. It affects all things and we can see its effects in the world around us, and much like the women of the story, there are only so many ways we can meet it. We can meet it with fear; we can meet it with acceptance and despair; we can force ourselves to understand it, however begrudgingly; we can fight it until we no longer recognize ourselves. 

But like Death, The Shimmer is also a neutral party. It has no motivations, no desires. It just exists, and in its existence it consumes our own. It does not consume out of malice or even curiosity. It consumes because that is its purpose. From our perspective it destroys, and destruction — of our bodies and especially our minds — must be malicious, but in its destruction it also creates. It tears apart flowers and creates new, beautiful plant life we could never conceive of in our human existence. It destroys a human body but creates exquisite, macabre structures. It turns sand into glass trees that grow like lighting from the ground. Creation can only come from another thing's destruction. 

Matter is neither created nor destroyed; it is only changed. A rainbow cannot exist if white light isn't torn into its basic components. Just as a prism refracts light into color, so too does The Shimmer reveal the potential of existence. Standing beneath it may rip us apart, but it also may transform us into something else. Maybe even something beautiful. We don't know what happens when we stop being ourselves. That's the point.

The Shimmer of Annihilation is a prism. It is also Death. And just like death, it is terrifying and beautiful and inevitable and futile.