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SYFY WIRE Alex Garland

Annihilation and the agony and ecstacy of self-destruction

By Dany Roth
Annihilation (1)

Horror movies are seldom just viscera painted on walls accompanied by the soundtrack of a blood-curdling scream. For every tar zombie hungrily screaming for brains, there are many more stories about the ghosts who haunt us over the wars we've lost, from both without and within. As the 2010s wrap up, it feels even moreso that horror, as a genre, spent the last decade wanting to have its metaphors writ as large and unmistakably as possible.

The Witch has its takedown of patriarchy; The Babadook looks compassionately at generational mental illness; and It Follows is an unflinching portrayal of our most basic fear of mortality. But maybe the most honest of all of these is Alex Garland's 2018 film, Annihilation, an alien invasion story that digs to the core of human self-destruction in a way that both breaks the heart and chills the soul.

Annihilation is a tragedy on every level, even in its metatext. Quite infamously, a disagreement between producer and creator prevented Annihilation from seeing a proper long-term, cinematic release. A fast and dirty deal with Netflix meant most people saw Annihilation from home, if at all, making the production seem like a box-office failure. And that kept even more people away.

But I think it's more than that. I would say that it's far easier not to watch Annihilation in almost every respect. It's quiet and slow, but it's also unsettling and even genuinely triggering in places. "You're probably gonna feel bad while watching this thing, but watch it anyway" is not the most ringing endorsement. In fact, that sounds more like a dare or a challenge, as though Annihilation is so much "Two Girls, One Cup." But it's not.

What Annihilation is remains hard to define. Yes, it's about aliens coming to Earth with mysterious and seemingly destructive intent. Yes, it's about a group of scientists trying to know that intent despite it being unknowable. Yes, there is a bear that screams with the voice of a woman it devoured. And, yes, it is, to some degree, about cancer.

But the core theme of Annihilation is right in the title. And in most cases it is about self-annihilation. Annihilation states its thesis plainly: Whether it's a marriage ruined, a good job abandoned, or our very cells fighting against themselves, annihilation is baked into every human's DNA. We want to self-destruct. We want to die. Maybe we'll fight it at first, struggle to understand death, but, in the end, everything we are is pre-destined to change until there is nothing of us left, not even our name. And, deep down, even if we've never had a single, suicidal thought, every one of us still wants that.

Annihilation isn't just about what makes that revelation sad or scary, it's also about what makes our inevitable self-destruction pragmatic, even hopeful and beautiful in moments. On today's episode of Every Day Horror's 13 Days of Halloween podcast, creator of the Folding Ideas YouTube channel Dan Olson and streamer Crystal Donovan join me to talk about Annihilation and why it hit each of us so hard. Maybe our stories will sound familiar.

On tomorrow's episode of the 13 Days of Halloween, we're going to do something a little different. Instead of a movie, we're going to take on a specific race of science fiction antagonists: Star Trek's The Borg. Our guests for that episode will be Benjamin R. Harrison and Adam Pranica, the co-hosts of the Star Trek podcast The Greatest Generation.