“It’s destroying everything.”
“It’s not destroying, it’s making something new.”
Perhaps one of the most stunning and enigmatic films out in theaters this year is Alex Garland’s Annihilation. If you haven’t seen it yet, I should warn you that this post will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it already and you’re the sort of person that digs mind-bending Sci-Fi you should quit reading this and go see it before it leaves theaters. Honestly, I wish I could dedicate this whole post to describing how aesthetically stunning (and terrifying) the film is in the hopes that I will convince you to see it, but I will refrain. Anyways, here’s my shot at interpreting what is going on in Annihilation.
If it wasn’t made so obviously clear from the trailers, there is something seriously wrong in the world of Annihilation. But as the film begins, before we are even clued into the apocalyptic events that are currently unfolding, we are immediately thrust into considering that at a biological level we are constantly changing, mutating, and tearing ourselves apart. Both on a fundamental level and on the surface, humanity’s tendency towards self-destruction seems to be a steady theme within the story, whether it be the conscious decision of certain character or a more insidious sort of self-destruction. However, I don’t think that self-destruction is solely what this film is about.
The amount of times within the dialogue of this film that the words “I don’t know” are repeated is almost maddening, but don’t put it past the director, he knows exactly what he is doing in making this film so ambiguous and so frustratingly vague at certain points.
This film is not attempting to teach a lesson of how the world is birthed from chaos and will eventually return to chaos. It certainly wouldn’t disagree with the notion that part of the fabric of reality is chaotic, but I think it’s important to see that this film holds up a striking tension between the violent and destructive nature of reality and the beautiful and creative elements to our world. Like Kane and Lena’s conversation about God and the world we live in, the writer isn’t so confident to totally discredit Kane’s views that there is something good about the world, there is beauty, yes, but there is also (as Lena recognizes) tragedy seemingly written into the core of it.
The glimmer itself is mutating and horribly mangling things but at the same time it is revealed that it is not attempting to destroy our world but attempting to make something new out of it. Simultaneously there is destruction and creation at work. Within the glimmer is a nightmarish landscape of beauty, violence, and works of art birthed from destruction. Like the exploded corpse which created an oddly entrancing and kaleidoscopic array of fungi, this film attempts to persuade us that at the nature of reality is both a destruction which leads to creation and a creation which leads to destruction.
Unlike many other Science Fiction films, this film is not about alien life coming to destroy the Earth. It’s perhaps more haunting than that. As Lena (Natalie Portman) discovers after fighting to push forward to the center of the glimmer, there’s a strange creator at work who she comes face to face with. After discovering the video footage of her husband Kane committing suicide and talking to what seems to be a glimmer-produced clone of himself, Lena herself enters into the bowels of the glimmer’s nerve center. There she finds her team leader, Dr. Ventress, whose own annihilation releases a beautiful explosion of color and glimmer(?) as her old self decomposes and utterly decays. Lena herself then meets this other creator. As a part of Lena is fused with some other aspect of this creator, a duplicate is formed. While Lena attempts to escape her duplicate, she is forced to reckon with her duplicate as it suffocates, fights, and mimics her every movement. It is perhaps one of the most terrifying and troubling scenes in the whole film, and one in which most of us can relate: trying to flee from the destruction evident in our lives only to be forced back into it by none other than our own self.
After passing out for an undisclosed amount of time, Lena’s duplicate slowly moves her toward Kane’s old bag which contains another grenade of the same variety in which he used to kill himself. Here’s where things get confusing. The duplicate slowly begins to match Lena’s details. She becomes an exact replica of Lena not only matching her movements but her physical appearance and even her psychological attributes. The original Lena then gives the duplicate the grenade as she flees the scene.
Now here’s how I interpret it: upon matching the physicality, the appearance, and the psychology of Lena, this “other” Lena inherits her own self-destructive tendencies thus detonating the grenade, destroying the glimmer’s hub, and destroying itself. This other was attempting to create something new, but by fusing itself with what it was altering, it inherited its self-destructive traits thus destroying itself but preserving and restoring the original creation. Thus, humanity’s tendency towards self-destruction leads in a horribly enigmatic way to its own preservation. This whole film exists in tension with itself, especially considering the ending.
Lena and Kane, having been the only two to escape(?) the glimmer, proceed to reengage with each other. Lena asks, perhaps states, to Kane, “You’re not Kane, are you?” to which he quietly replies, “No, I don’t think so.” He then asks Lena the same question to which we get no response, but we do see a strange glimmer within both sets of their eyes.
I don’t think that this should lead us to believe that Lena’s duplicate is the one that escaped and that Lena was the one who self-destructed. To me, that doesn’t seem to lend itself to be cohesive with the rest of the film which is all about embracing the paradoxical nature of reality. It makes more sense to me to see the ending as Lena and Kane’s duplicate embracing each other to begin the start of a new relationship with remnants of the old one. Whereas Lena’s duplicate self-destructed and the original Kane self-destructed, the original Lena and the new Kane find new life and a new relationship.
Lena and (original) Kane’s relationship we see throughout the film was once beautiful, but was then sabotaged by Lena’s affair, and then began to unravel even more. As we see the team that enters into the glimmer slowly unravel, as we see the environment slowly unravel, and as we see even the glimmer itself unravel, it doesn’t unravel itself into nothingness but rather into something new. In this film, destruction does not lead to annihilation but to creation (and then back to destruction and so forth).
I don’t think we are supposed to come out of this film with much of a conclusion for what the glimmer represents. I don’t think it’s fair to even say this is a film about grief or cancer or working through trauma (although I admit much of it certainly addresses that). The glimmer may not represent anything at all but perhaps it is used as a means to expose us to a question about reality: how do we make sense of life when destruction and creation are fundamental to our world? Or rather, what do we do with our simultaneously beautiful and nightmarish condition? And are beauty and destruction dependent on one another? Rather than resigning to despair or presenting a sentimental answer to this sort of question, this film instead attempts to embrace that tension and comes to the humble but frustrating conclusion of: “I don’t know.”