Annihilation is the last movie that I’ve gone to see multiple times in the theater in over a decade*. I watched video essays about it, read articles and reviews, and even read Jeff VanderMeer’s book trilogy which the movie was loosely based on. I ate it up. I saw the movie the first time just letting myself be taken in by the spectacle of the visuals, the sound design and the curiosity of what happens next, but in the following viewings I found myself diving into the director/writer’s (Alex Garland) authorial intent. I thought I knew what Garland’s intent was before I saw the movie (thanks, anonymous twitter user**). However, I read an interview with him later and learned that I was wrong. But I still like my theory.
*When I was 17 I was ALL ABOUT Pirates of the Caribbean. Saw the 2nd one three times in the theater.
** This interpretation initially came from a comment I now can’t find on Twitter before I saw the movie.
The story in Annihilation is pure allegory. It is Lena’s attempt to articulate her experience in overcoming trauma/depression at a rehab center which uses LSD or another psychotropic drug.
It’s important to note, that my take is technically & objectively not correct. Alex Garland stated that his version of Annihilation is about self-destruction. But there’s always more to a piece of art than what the author intends- there’s also what they didn’t intend. Sometimes a work of art says more about the author than about what they’re trying to say. I think Garland accidentally or purposefully ignored the allegory to rehab and trauma that fits so perfectly, and I’m going to try, in vain, to prove that he missed what he actually ended up saying. More seriously, I think it’s an interesting way to watch the film.
If you haven’t seen the movie, much of this will not make sense. And at points it might sound like I’m complaining about this movie, but I’m not- I truly love it.
Summary Confusingly Interwoven with the Allegory (Spoilers)
Even within this fictional world, none of this really happened. The meteor shown striking the lighthouse in the beginning of the movie is a personal metaphor, the act of self destruction that Lena takes when she cheats on her husband, which is revealed later in the film. The self destruction of her own “lighthouse”, a common symbolic representation of morality and guidance*, has left her confused and dejected- probably depressed.
*Specifically referenced in this source from Brave New World, on of the most famous Sci-Fi novels of the 20th century discussing the perils of gaining short term happiness at the cost of one’s purpose
We learn after seeing the meteor hit the lighthouse that Lena is a young post-doctorate professor teaching med students at John-f***ing-Hopkins, so you know she’s smart as hell.
This is a cell.
WOMAN (O.S.) (CONT’D)
Like all cells, it derived from an existing cell.
Her focus here, the scene that is setting the stage for the movie, is the division of cells, the growth from a single source through mitosis. But it’s important where that initial cell comes from. In humans, when discussing tumors and cancerous cells, it comes from an internal source, a mistake or alteration in genetic programming. But that’s not how the movie portrays the introduction of the meteor, the lighthouse and the resulting shimmer. The initial cell is alien. It results from an outside action or circumstance- being in the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place at the right time. Panspermia believers must have been psyched. Self-destruction (Garland’s self-described theme) doesn’t pop up out of nowhere, it is introduced. It can’t be programmed into us, like it is mentioned by the characters in the movie and by Garland in interviews.
After rebuffing an awkward barbecue invite from her male mistress*, Lena decides she will feel better after a year of her husband missing if she guzzles down a generous glass of wine and covers up the memory of her missing husband by painting over the room where most of their flashbacks are set while listening to “their song”**. And just before she mixes some Ambien with that bottle of red, Lena is reunited with a shell of her husband, Kane, who can’t answer the simplest of questions, bleeds and starts convulsing. They are picked up by an ambulance and taken to the hospital. She wakes up with a terrible headache, talking to a psychologist, who then adds her to a group therapy session with a few other persons with similar tendencies. I believe the painting episode with wine just before Kane came back ordeal is a very flowery coverup of a suicide attempt. Either that or her husband escaped from a top secret military/government area while unable to speak or walk faster than a zombie, came home to have 1 sip of water and then pass out. Then they brought Lena back to the base with them and just added her to an expedition because it just so happens to fit her expertise- biology and military training.
*Would it be mister? Holy hell, it is.
Lena is in a super-secret government installation, but for some reason is allowed to stay? [No, she’s in a hospital]. She is allowed to roam around freely in this top secret government base and comes across a group of new friends- who are going out on expedition tomorrow. The last 11 or however many expeditions failed, so the super-secret government has assembled a crack team. They are announced as scientists, but we will soon learn that they have a core connection- trauma. One lost a child, one is a clearly unhinged paramedic (a profession which experience crazy amounts of trauma), one is suicidally depressed and the last, the psychologist who is in charge of their expedition, is terminally ill. Not exactly an all-star team who are physically and mentally fit to save the world from an invading alien species. But what the hell, let’s give it a whirl.
Inside the shimmer- or once they’re on LSD for treatment*- the team discovers that the shimmer is remaking everything on a cellular level, changing it from inside out, like a cancer- Lena’s specialty. Then Lena uses her big gun on a super crocodile- her other specialty**. The cancer, or change, is a theme which is mentioned from the beginning of the film as Lena teaches her class. She doesn’t talk about its ability to kill its host, but its ability to change the host at a cellular level. It duplicates and leaves behind the original host, but creates a wholly new entity. The cell division The cancerous cell. This change is what each character will have to accept as a first real step in overcoming their trauma or grief.
*Or maybe it isn’t LSD, they’re just in an experience where they’re losing the concept of time, seeing vivid colors, monsters, snake-like moving organs, melting skin and overall just having a Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds kind of day
**Doesn’t this adventure seem tailor made for someone who stumbled into it by chance at the last second?
The change, the mitosis of the cell is a visual queue of the central theme. From the original comes the mutated copy, forever changing the whole of the organism. The opening scene shows mitosis in the shape of the infinity symbol, which shows up again in Lena’s right arm tattoo, and in the remnants of the water glass at the end of the movie, which is a callback to the water glass she tried to share with her husband back and the beginning which he couldn’t yet swallow because Lena wasn’t dealing with her issues in the relationship.
This level of acceptance of change is hard to do, if you ask anyone who is battling themselves in their own minds. It is a very scary thing to face. To symbolize this fear, the group are attacked by a bear which roars in the sound of its victim’s screams. The bear is fear. Lena literally wrestles with the bear (fear) and survives, but it destroys the paramedic who was scared from the very beginning. As the movie continues, the demise of the others can be summarized as 1- taken by fear (bad trip?) 2- taken by fear (bad trip?) 3- acceptance of her newly changed self and 4- willing self-destruction.
Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wants answers before she dies from the terminal cancer which is revealed to the audience early on. But she is also still the group’s psychologist. She can’t be around all the time, therapy sessions don’t last forever, so she is often gone. But she is leading them through the change/trauma they are facing so they can get to the root cause of it. Ventress is obsessed with talking about self-destruction because she wants to destroy herself- she wants answers and doesn’t care if she dies in the process because she has resigned herself to that fate. She then, like a good psychologist, is projecting her situation onto everyone else who is there for their own, other reason.
The Paramedic is scared of getting to the lighthouse because she doesn’t want to relive her trauma/depression, and can’t move on, and the magnetologist is scared to get better because she feels guilty about moving on from the death of her child. The physicist actually understands and accepts her internal change before the lighthouse and embraces it as she is released from the therapy/rehab/detention, which is why she vanishes.
In the end, Lena makes it to the lighthouse with the Ventress, where she is given the last bit of advice that she can receive from the psychologist*. Lena is then on her own, and to conquer the cancer in her mind, in her consciousness, she has to face it. The alien takes the shape of one of her eyes as she gazes upon it, only to take a crude humanoid form impervious to Lena’s weapons. The ending scene with the silver humanoid alien creature is only alien to us because we see it through Lena’s perspective. What she sees is a reflection of herself, but one she doesn’t recognize because she doesn’t want to properly own up to her wrongdoing. She doesn’t believe this alien could really be her and fights the reflection, viewing it as alien. Over the course of her struggle she realizes that the alien is not fighting her, it is doing exactly the same thing she is doing- the alien is Lena’s shadow, her Dark Link. Only when she stops fighting and relaxes (on accident by passing out), does she realize that the figure is actually the new her, or that it may become the new her. Coming through the cheating experience and the guilt she felt changed Lena permanently, and she was still holding on to who she was in the past. Once she accepts the new Lena, she defeats the reflection, escaping the Shimmer as her new, changed self. She gets back together with Cain, who is also changed from the experience of being cheated on, and he accepts her.
*Which is terrible advice about how Lena is doomed
WTF is going on?
What I pointed out above and will continue to mention below might seem like plot holes/bad writing, but luckily for Garland I think they were accidents to serve his allegory! For my theory, things don’t have to make sense in Lena’s mind, she’s creating a narrative to help her get over her situation. It’s the story she’s telling herself, the one where she is the hero.
The logic of this otherwise well thought out movie doesn’t make much sense, which struck me as strange. A meteor strikes the seaboard of the mainland United States, and from it an alien form emerges which is taking over a space the size of an entire county and is growing at an exceedingly quickening rate. How does nobody know about this? How is anybody talking about anything else?
Lena’s husband, who at the time wasn’t in the right mental state to make toast, let alone save the world, is chosen at the last second for a secret mission which has literal world-ending consequences. Maybe he is in a state of remission with some dormant battle PTSD being triggered by his wife’s infidelity?* He then returns from a top secret government facility, infected by an alien species. He is being monitored close enough that he is intercepted on his way to the hospital. Then I guess the government decides to let his wife come along for the ride?
The first dozen missions of military members going in failed with nobody returning. So, with the fate of the world as we know it on the line, the most top secret government agency in the world sends in a team of clearly emotionally damaged scientists and
a doctor, no a nurse, I mean- a paramedic, all who are noticeably unstable. At the last second, the team is allowed to add a biologist to the group, one who just so happens to be trained militarily. This is a team of people to go in and save the world. The elite of the elite of the military, 11 expeditions, were lost either by going crazy or being killed. Now lets send in this crack team?
This isn’t real. Lena is going into battle against her own demons and she can only do so under this program by attaching herself to this other unit.
One night, while taking refuge, this team sleeps in a tower for the night. Smart, right? Except their guard leaves the safety and vantage point of the highest tower around for miles so she can sit in a shack surrounded by tall grass while a lamp shines in her face, distorting her view of everything around her in the darkness. Why didn’t Lena say anything? Is she a terrible tactician?
So WTF is going on? None of this is going on, it’s a made up story. And of course, it’s fiction, but it’s Lena’s narrative. It’s her emotional/therapeutic journey. It makes sense where it can, but it’s more important to just push along to her realization.
Or does all of this add up to Alex Garland being a sloppy filmmaker? I don’t think so. Ex Machina, 28 days later, The Beach and his other novels are extremely well thought out stories without any glaring mistakes like the ones listed above. The film was written and directed by him, and his producers with final cut publicly rejected studio attempts to make the film more “accessible” to audiences. This was the movie that Garland wanted to make. He read the book Annihilation only partly, and never referred to it again during the making of the movie. He had his own vision of what the story meant for him and ran with the concept. He told VanderMeer that he was doing this and the author apparently approved it, saying he loved the film.
Cancer of the Mind
The main theme is cancer, in my eyes. But not cancer of the cells, but of thought. In her opening dialogue when giving a lecture on cancer, Lena says,
“I think it’s partly why cancer frightens us. It doesn’t just hurt us, and kill us. It changes us.”
Later, when talking to Dr. Ventress, she says,
“It makes me think of cancer. The invasion. The spread.”
The anger, fear, resentment, negativity is the cancer that is spreading through all of the characters. Through their therapy, they try to face their instincts, which through their trauma are fueled mostly by negative emotions.
Garland’s stories tend to be driven by personal narrative and an absolutely singular perspective. Ex Machina is from the protagonists point of view. His novels the Beach, Tesseract and The Coma are all first person perspectives- and they’re unreliable in terms of the facts. Not always in fantastical ways, but our understanding of the setting is limited by the character’s ability to witness reality accurately. This is Lena’s story, and more than that, a story about her experience.
This goes back to my point about it being the story Lena tells herself. That’s why the situation is so perfect for her. It’d be one thing if the government sought her out because she had the expertise they were looking for- combat military experience and a biology PhD. But the fact that she just so happens to be involved in a situation tailor-made to her specialties?
Lena invented the drama to articulate the experience, which is impressive because articulating inner anguish accurately is nearly impossible to do.
Well those a pretty much the highlights of my interpretation. Yes, the theory is a mess- but you know what? So is this movie. And I still enjoyed it so hopefully someone else can enjoy it the same way I did.
-Zeno J. Jones