Even before it was released last month, Annihilation was gaining a reputation as a film that, for lack of a better word, "mainstream" audiences might shun or simply not understand. It was an impression helped along by reports that many of the film's international distribution rights were shuffled off to Netflix because one of the producers found it "too intellectual" and worried over the results of an early test screening. The fear, then — which wasn't necessarily helped along by the film's often vague trailers — was that Alex Garland's Annihilation would either be one of those films that caught on with time (like Blade Runner) or just a film that infuriated general audiences and never really gained popularity.
Time will tell if Annihilation holds up years after its release, but I don't buy that it's too intellectual for audiences, and I'm not just saying that as a guy who gets paid to write about science fiction and therefore spends most of every week somehow immersed in it. I don't mean that I got the movie and therefore it should be easy for everyone else to get. I mean that my experience has simply not shown me evidence that Annihilation's purported impenetrability is a problem, or that it exists at all.
I've seen the film twice now, once at a promo/press screening and once at a regular matinee showing at my local theater. Both times the crowds were good. They laughed when they were supposed to, gasped at the film's revelations, jumped at its big scares, and sat glued to the screen during its bombastic, mesmeric climax. Then something really interesting happened: The movie ended, and almost everyone walked out in relative silence. Almost no one was complaining that they were confused or that the ending was dumb or that they didn't like the movie, but they also weren't cheering and giggling over how much fun they'd just had. That's unusual, particularly with promo screenings, where you often get a big chunk of people who only showed up because they got free tickets from a radio station. I've been thinking for nearly a week about the calm that seemed to settle over both crowds when the film ended, and I'm embarrassed that it only recently occurred to me why everyone was so quiet.
They were thinking.
Annihilation isn't a movie that's too intellectual. Annihilation is a movie that provokes an intellectual response. After seeing it twice and thinking about it for more than a week, my intellectual response has manifested this way: The whole film is great, but the scariest piece of this sci-fi horror wonder is what it leaves unsaid.
If you were to describe Annihilation just by listing plot points, without any real emotional or thematic heft added in, a lot of what you get might sound like Alien with the serial numbers filed off: Anomaly, mystery, team investigates, scary stuff happens, last survivor fights for her life. Throw in the body horror and paranoia from films like The Thing and you've more or less got it. Where Annihilation makes its mark is in the character details, as well as its gloriously mystery-laden ending. It's in these moments that the film meditates in the clearest way on the themes of identity, transformation, and self-destruction — and that's when it's at its most thought-provoking and, ultimately, terrifying.
As Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) explains rather early in the film, each member of the Shimmer team is physically or emotionally wounded in some way that has, perhaps, motivated them to attempt what's viewed by many as a suicide mission. Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) is a recovering addict, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) has a history of self-harm and hides her scars under long sleeves, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has terminal cancer and no apparent family connections. Meanwhile, Cass herself has lost a child and a romantic relationship. Lena (Natalie Portman), though she doesn't initially reveal it to the entire team, is going in to try and discover what inside the Shimmer caused the illness that's killing her husband (Oscar Isaac), the apparent lone survivor of the Shimmer.
But this is not simply a case of trying to rescue the man she loves. As Lena tells Lomax (Benedict Wong) after leaving the Shimmer, she wanted to save her husband because she owed him. Because at some point in his frequent work-related absences she cheated on him, and perhaps even flirted with the idea of leaving him. She almost imploded her marriage while her husband was off facing untold horrors that are now killing him, and so she feels she must face those same horrors as a kind of penance.
Each member of the group exhibits some kind of self-destructive impulse, whether it's past behavior they're trying to recover from or atone for or a "screw it, I don't have much time left" drive to at least experience something amazing before they go. These impulses can take many emotional forms, as Cass notes when she describes Josie's cutting not as a desire to die, but as a desire to feel alive. Ventress stares at a computer monitor early in the film and sees a rendering of the Shimmer — a rendering not unlike a tumor — then walks into it to see what cancerous thing inside is killing all of the soldiers she's sent in there before her. Lena, desperate to reclaim her husband both literally and emotionally, would rather die trying to atone than come back empty-handed (at least, until she sees what really happened to Kane).
We've all felt these impulses, whether it's a sudden desire to break up with someone or the thrill of turning off your headlights when you're driving alone on a moonlit road just to see what will happen. These impulses are interesting on their own, but they take on even greater weight when self-destruction goes hand in hand with transformation.
The Shimmer is a literal transformative space, a prism that refracts everything within it, not destroying but "making something new," as Lena concludes at the end of the film. From the moment they step into it, the five principal characters begin changing whether they want to or not because they made the possibly self-destructive decision to enter in the first place.
Very often as humans, these two ideas go hand in hand with us. We destroy to transform. We quit stable jobs in search of more fulfilling careers. We sell our belongings so we can go backpacking through Europe. We break up with romantic partners because we want freedom, whatever that rather broad concept means to each individual. Similarly, if the destruction is simply inflicted on us, we seek to come out the other side of it a new individual. We revamp our wardrobes and hit the gym after breakups, change our lifestyles after a serious illness, and go on road trips after getting fired. The hope, in the end, is always to wind up something different, something better.
That doesn't always happen.
In 2016, I went through a very long period of illness brought on by self-destructive behavior that included, among other things, copious amounts of alcohol. I got very, very sick and was forced to live with my parents for a period of about nine months. In that time, I got better. I exercised daily, ate right, took vitamins, went to physical therapy, and felt much more like myself after a while. At the end of that time, the goal was to move back to the city where I would begin to live the life I wanted to live and be surrounded by my friends. I felt transformed and ready to do that.
It didn't work. Life on my own became a financial, emotional, and physical struggle I had not anticipated. I briefly went back into the hospital, and I generally spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself. It turns out I hadn't transformed, or at least not as much as I wanted to.
I tell you this not to draw out sympathy (I'm fine now, by the way), but to illustrate why Annihilation's final minutes terrified me more than anything in the film. Lena leaves the Shimmer, unsure how much it's affected her or even if she's truly ended it, while we as an audience can't really be sure if we're looking at Lena at all. Then, when Lomax asks her just what the Shimmer was making in its strange, prismatic cocoon, she says: "I don't know."
When her interrogation ends, Lena returns to Kane's doppelgänger, now certain that she's not looking at her husband. Finally lucid, the doppelgänger asks her if she's really Lena.
She doesn't speak the words — "I don't know" — but her eyes do, and that's when the fear hit me hard.
Lena, whether she's human or not anymore, has been through a transformative experience, but she is not necessarily better for it. She didn't get her groove back. She hasn't found renewed purpose and hope. Her husband, the one she really knew and loved, is gone. Her team is gone. Everything she, as a biologist, thought she knew about how life functions on a cellular level is also gone, annihilated by what she just experienced. So what is she left with?
An embrace from a stranger with her husband's face, and a head full of questions.
Annihilation's screaming bear creature is terrifying, as are its squirming intestines and mold-covered human mutations. It packs plenty of sci-fi creature and body horror into its runtime, but the real scare comes at the end, in the realization that we don't always change for the better, even as the very act of living life forces us to constantly adapt and change in both large and small ways. We can't ever be sure if the next phase of our personal evolution is going to be fulfilling. We don't always feel like ourselves, and some of us never get there at all. Every day can be a walk through the Shimmer, and we might not like what we turn into at the end. Even if it fails in other respects, Annihilation captures that feeling perfectly. That's the real horror of this movie.
I know that fear. You know it, too. We all do, but for all of the uncertainty and the unanswered questions and the unspoken terror in Lena's eyes at the end of the film, there is still something always worth remembering, and I'd like to leave you with that so this little analytical trip into Annihilation isn't just one massive buzzkill.
She's still breathing, and so are we.