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Credit: Paramount Pictures

How Annihilation establishes a unique brand of body horror

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Mar 1, 2018, 5:37 PM EST (Updated)

At one point in Annihilation, the formerly confident Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) has a meltdown. It begins with her staring at her hands with horror in her eyes. Later, after she has tied up her teammates, she fights back tears as she tells them that her fingerprints are moving.

Since entering the Shimmer — a mysterious, ever-expanding area of land where mutations are common and logic seems nonexistent — Anya and her colleagues have been trying to hold on to their own conceptions about biology and physics. But their bodies betray them; no longer can they rely on the one thing that has been a constant up until this point. They're up against something that can change their very DNA.

Annihilation revels in body horror with a small number of cringe-worthy sequences, each as grotesque and mysterious as the last. It isn't unique in how it uses the trope — the film comes from a long tradition of sci-fi horror films where an unknown, alien entity threatens humanity — but what it does offer is subtlety and the reversal of the audience's expectations. The people at the center of the film, all women, are going to get distorted and destroyed. That much is obvious. The mystery lies in how it will happen.

To watch Anya's downfall in Annihilation is to observe the gradual realization that your body is turning against you. When she first walks into the Shimmer, she, like the rest of her expedition group, are confused and wary, but mostly optimistic, even if they're technically on a suicide mission. But when faced with the first real evidence of what happened to the former expedition groups, Anya exhibits intense denial. When a video shows a man with his insides moving around like eels, she calls it a trick of the light. When she sees what happened to that man later, she still can't quite believe it.

Elsewhere in the group, Lena (Natalie Portman) acknowledges a bruise on her arm. When she takes samples of it later, she watches as her cells evolve and swirl. Lena had originally volunteered for the expedition because of her husband, who returned from the previous mission seriously ill and unlike himself. She must have feared, in that moment, that she'd discovered exactly what had happened to him.

Josie (Tessa Thompson), who spends the bulk of the film shying away from the group based in part by a shame regarding self-harm (or so we're told), sheds her sleeves and slowly turns into a plant, calmly walking into a field to join the others who have been changed. Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) used to be a part of the expedition but she had recently been killed, torn apart by something resembling a bear. It's only after Anya's meltdown that the bear shows up once again, sporting a skull on its head and Sheppard's scream in its throat.

Annihilation, Tessa Thompson

Credit: Paramount Pictures

By the end of the film, the Shimmer has taken control. The characters — and the audience — are unsure of what this strange force wants, but, as evidenced by all the mutations and what Lena says at one point, it seeks to create something new. The Shimmer is about life. It's not about destruction, but creation. In a sense, it's giving birth; appropriate considering Lena begins the film by explaining the process of creation in cancer cells.

Even though Annihilation is a movie about birth, none of the characters, in fact, give birth, which is refreshing. Since the beginning of time, when a woman is besieged by a force greater than herself — supernatural or natural — and she is changed, that change often starts in her uterus.

This trend started long before we had movies and TV to absorb. Mythology is filled with stories of women impregnated by gods. In 1726, a woman named Mary Toft managed to convince top surgeons that she had given birth to rabbits. The history of body horror is filled with women being attacked from the inside out to become not just mothers but mothers of monsters.

The 1950s saw a rise in American body horror as an explosion in technology, the Space Race, and fears of Communism shook the public (prompting horror scenarios like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and many episodes of The Twilight Zone). In many of these earlier films, the fear was that our way of life would be replaced. And worse, that we wouldn't be able to tell it was happening until it was too late.

But the horror and science fiction genres were set to keep expanding and changing. Rosemary's Baby (1968) is probably the most ubiquitous of these modern stories thanks to a tense, semi-ambiguous runtime that leads the audience to question whether the title character was impregnated as part of a Satanic ritual. It ends in a predictable fashion (yes, she did give birth to the Antichrist), but the psychological impact of the ordeal has already been done. Rosemary longs to be there for her child, even if it isn't human because it is hers and she went through the pains of a stressful pregnancy for it.


Credit: Paramount Pictures

Likewise, in the 1986 remake of The Fly, Veronica (Geena Davis) lives out her worst fear after discovering the transformation of her lover Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) into the titular fly. She has a nightmare where she gives birth to their child, only instead of a human one, it takes the form of a giant fly larva. The Fly, directed by David Cronenberg, is famous for its grotesque body horror sequences, somehow managing to top watching Goldblum's skin fall off with the image of a woman giving birth to something that is clearly not hers, not natural, no human. Buffy, Angel, Charmed, The Brood, and a number of other examples utilize this trope, which is effective as shorthand for power and control.

It's a trope that continues to gain steam. The 2017 horror film Prevenge tells the story of a woman whose fetus tells her to kill as a symbol for a woman's loss of control during pregnancy. In many of these cases, the woman is used as a vessel, controlled by a higher power for a purpose not her own. Films like Rosemary's Baby and Prevenge are noteworthy since they tell the story from the woman's point of view. The latter is especially obvious about this loss of control, with both the protagonist and the audience in on the joke about evil fetuses.

However, Annihilation manages to sidestep this completely. A story explicitly about birth avoids the pregnancy body horror trope in favor of other forms of creation. In the film, along with the book series by Jeff VanderMeer, the extraterrestrial force behind the Shimmer acts opposite of humanity, which engages in self-destruction.

In Annihilation, body horror reflects different forms of creation, whether it's the growth of flowers or in the formation of a new species, rather than the normalized human destruction.

This is all a precursor to the ending, where the force inside the Shimmer uses Lena to replicate itself. Lena makes it to the epicenter — a lighthouse — and has an encounter with a faceless humanoid that starts to replicate her every move. It eventually morphs and becomes her, taking her place in the human world. It's the worst possible outcome for a body horror scenario, where you're entirely erased and replaced. However, director Alex Garland is able to do this without evoking tired imagery about pregnancy or an extreme focus on the body itself. For a film that stars five women, that's a huge feat.


Credit: Paramount Pictures

That's because the horror doesn't simply focus on the body. In Annihilation, the body is a means to an end and any changes to it are almost inconsequential. If your intestines turn into slithering eels or branches start growing out of your arms, it's not as a way to destroy the body. Rather, it's just another way to keep life going, which is what your body is meant to do in the first place. The Shimmer is only changing the means at which this is done in nature, and is that really so horrifying?

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