Annihilation and Creation

118

“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.”

 

A Disease Worse Than Death: A Review of “It Comes at Night”

245670

The modern horror genre often does not leave much up to the imagination when it comes to stirring up fear in its viewers. Whether it be a crazed killer with a machete, a grotesque demonic figure, or a flesh-craving alien, most pop-horror films leave you only a short amount of time until you can see in vivid detail what is wrong and who or what is committing that wrong. Unlike most of these films, Trey Edward Shults’ “It Comes at Night” leaves almost everything up to the imagination, and it is every bit as terrifying  as most pop-horror films without relying on jump-scares to rattle its audience.

The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic world with a disease which is left intentionally vague besides a few details: it is spread through touch and it comes at night. The opening sequences involve the main protagonistsa husband and wife and their sonpreparing to euthanize the plagued grandfather of their family. We are told there are probably only a handful of people left in the world, and that those remaining have turned violent and desperate for survival. This family does not take any extra risks of their own survival as evidenced by there only being one way in and out of their carefully boarded-up home. It’s not long before there’s a bump in the night, and something is found lurking in their house. It turns out to be a reasonable and likable man trying to find water for his family. The intruder tells them that his family is 50 miles away and in desperate need of food and water, but something still seems off. Something always seems off in this filmjust *off* enough to get under your skin.

From the very beginning til the very end of the film, the fear of the unknown is at the center. There are no ghosts or demons to buffer this fundamentally human fear instead we are left to experience each aching moment of paranoia that these protagonists must deal with in their frightening world.

Many techniques are utilized throughout the film to help produce an atmosphere just haunting enough to leave you emotionally shaken and deeply confused: eerie lighting, visual illusions, maddening dream sequences, oddly-paced dialogue, and claustrophobic, alternating aspect ratios . This is not your normal pop-horror film. You do not get jump-scaresyou get dread. You do not get a wholly evil villainyou get people like yourself. You do not get a disturbing answer as much as you get a horrifying silence.

This fear of the unknown is everywhere in this film and in so much of our world today: in strangers, in the dark, in the disease, and in death. There is a real threat though, and it is not a film that pretends there is an easy solution. Distrust, fear, anxiety, and paranoia are understandable responses to the worlds in which we and these protagonists live, but this horror film does not let you naively assume that “survival of the fittest” is an easy pill to swallow. Instead it makes you slowly choke on it. You can board up your house and live in defensive isolation hoping for the extinction of everyone else, but what happens when those inside start to show signs of not only an external disease but of an internal and even more heinous disease?

Self-preservation may get you an extra day or month or year in a diseased world, but it is hard to imagine a life without hospitality, trust, vulnerability, or friendshiphowever costly these things may be. Is it the length or quality of our lives that matter? “It Comes at Night” simultaneously rejects a sentimental altruism or a glorified egoism. Each character’s decisions come at the expense of their physical life or their own soul. Hospitality may bring a disease inside your home, but Xenophobia may reveal an even more serious disease emerging from within your own house.

There is very little redemption within the universe of this film. In a diseased world, everything dies, and that darkness is coming for each and every one of us. Thankfully from a Christian perspective, the disease doesn’t have the final say. The words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew have been ringing in my head since I watched the film’s sober ending, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” I realize this must bear eternity in mind with the temporal, yet this film has no sense of eternity or afterlife. All that is is what will be and nothing else. Bodies are burned, and no funerals are given.  Death is the end of all things in this film, and it’s everywhere. Without a promise of a resurrection or a world fully restored in the life to come, open doors, open tables, or even open hearts are a risk many may deem not worthy of being taken in light of death’s creeping imminence. 

This film doesn’t pull any punches in revealing the deep fear and anxiety many of us have in making the most of our fragile, little lives especially as it is expressed through humanity’s neurotic control-issues and distrust of the unknown. But in turning in on ourselves and turning toward our own individual survival, we see that these characters are perhaps just as sick as those outside their house despite having much more than most in their world. Ironically, in pursuit of a full life, they had been losing theirs all along. 

“It Comes at Night” is a despairing film but uses that despair to tell us something. Its observations on humanity, survival, and inhospitality hit deeply. And seems to pound its audience with a question repeatedly from beginning til end and even on the car ride home:

Is avoiding what is in the darkness for more life and less love better than embracing what is in the darkness for more love and less life?