The following article contains spoilers for ANNIHILATION.

“They are one person,

They are two alone,

They are three together,

They are four for each other.”

– “Helplessly Hoping” Crosby, Stills, and Nash

The greatest horror often comes from the things we cannot see. The human mind is capable of imagining terrors that can never truly be brought to life. 

When discussing Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Annihilation, the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy, critics often use some variation of the word “Lovecraftian” to describe the book’s tone. Vandermeer’s eco-horror certainly uses many of Lovecraft’s favorite motifs, mind-bending monstrosities, unspeakable hidden evil, while removing many of Lovecraft’s less palatable elements.

It’s through these techniques that Vandermeer manages to craft Annihilation into a story about the uncontrollable nature of Mother Earth and just how outmatched we are against her fury. It is equal parts of the beauty and the horror of the unchecked natural world.

However, Garland recognizes that a great adaptation does not require fealty to text, but rather faithfulness to tone and ideas. If you are a die-hard fan of the novel, this film will likely annoy you. Much of the text is altered or discarded completely, but Garland manages to capture the key emotional content of the text beautifully.

These changes don’t make it a bad adaptation. Instead, Garland is able to effectively explore how the fear of discovery, of the self and of the secrets that we keep, can free us and destroy us. In ANNIHILATION, contradictions are not impossibilities; they are the foundation of who we are.  

Wordlessly Watching

Annihilation

The first of many striking, repeated images within ANNIHILATION is of a cell dividing itself, over and over. The phenomenon is mundane but rarely seen. Garland confronts us with this miraculous act of growth and renewal, reminding us of the strange biological events occurring around us at all times.

As the cells divide, cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) explains the process of division to her students. Specifically, how this miracle of nature can be a death sentence for humans in the form of cancer. Here we see our first illustration of this creator/destroyer dichotomy. All living things possess the ability to create and destroy, even on a cellular level.

Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) disappeared nearly a year earlier. Kane was a soldier who left on a mysterious mission. On a seemingly ordinary day, Kane returns. Lena asks him questions, but Kane only gives vague and deliberately obtuse answers. Kane is rushed to the hospital after suddenly falling ill, but on the way there he and Lena are abducted by a government agency known as the Southern Reach.

It’s here that Lena learns the truth behind Kane’s year-long absence. Kane was sent into a quarantined zone known as Area X, a location that was once a state park. When an extraterrestrial object fell into the park and crashed into a lighthouse, it created a small barrier that began to grow outward. It was Kane’s mission to discover what created the barrier and stop it.

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What’s Inside

One of Garland’s major diversions from the novel is revealing all of this information to the audience right away. In the novel, Lena referred to only as “the biologist” for most of the book, enters Area X for scientific discovery. Garland gives the film a ticking clock narrative to give Lena a reason to push forward into Area X despite all the horrors she encounters.

Within Area X is an out of control ecosystem. The plant life is allowed to grow untouched by humanity. In addition, the various species of plant and animal life are combining and creating new hybrids. It is a biological cancer, but like cancer, it is not malicious. It spreads because it doesn’t know any better. The environment of Area X seems destructive: everything that goes in doesn’t come out. However, it balances this destruction with the creation of impossible hybrids across species.

As Lena and her team journey through Area X, they discover records from Kane’s mission. They learn that the members of Kane’s team seemingly went insane. A video shows Kane cutting open one of his fellow soldiers to reveal his internal organs moving like an anaconda.

The strange effect of Area X on the bodies of Lena and her team reveal the internal conflict made into literal flesh. Around this time the audience learns that Lena cheated on her husband with a colleague. Lena’s mission is more than a desire to save her husband; she wants to atone for her infidelities. Even within Lena the balance of creator/destroyer exists. She built a loving relationship with her husband but also destroyed it with her affair. It’s this self-doubt that manifests in the film’s startling conclusion.

The Shadow and the Self

“You don’t hate me; you hate yourself,” says Lena’s lover when she ends their dalliance. It’s this self-loathing for her infidelities that keeps pushing Lena forward. When she finally reaches the lighthouse, she discovers a video camera and a charred corpse. The video reveals that the charred corpse belonged to Kane, who self-immolated while rambling about questions regarding his own identity. The person behind the camera? Kane.

Or not Kane exactly. The Kane that returned home was actually a doppelganger created by Area X. When Lena crawls into the crater of the lighthouse, she discovers the glowing, smoky object that created Area X. A drop of her blood is sucked into the core, and it creates a human body made of a reflective, sheer metal.

From a Jungian perspective, this is her shadow self. The part of Lena that, like Area X, controls her creative and destructive desires. Lena’s initial reaction is to flee, but the body follows her every move. It copies her and stops her from leaving the lighthouse. Eventually, Lena picks up a grenade, a final gift left behind by the man she loves. The body metamorphosizes to copy Lena exactly. The true Lena tricks the doppelganger into pulling the pin on the grenade, setting it aflame.

Lena destroys the shadow self, the personification of her guilt, and returns to the world outside Area X.

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ANNIHILATION and Answers That Don’t Matter

The frame story of the film shows Lena after the events in Area X being interviewed by the Southern Reach. In some ways, these scenes feel like Garland ribbing the types of movie fans who need an explanation for every detail in a story (those people will certainly hate this movie).

The film throws away any attempts to explain what the hell happened. What was it? A scientist asks Lena. “I don’t know,” is all she can reply. All she wants to know is what happened to the man she thought was her husband.

When they are reunited, Lena is hesitant at first. Kane asks if she is Lena. She says yes, and they embrace. They are left with two incomplete halves. Portman without the real Kane, the doppelganger without the environment of Area X.

Earlier in the film, Garland inserts a brief shot of the hands of Lena and Kane through a glass filled with water. The hands appeared misshapen and warped due to the water. This ends up becoming a perfect representation of the final embrace. These characters don’t fit together; they are two alone. You can’t crossbreed different species, Lena has reminded us in Area X.

But at that moment, what else can they do but reach out and hold something. Someone.

The final shot of the film shows the eyes of both Lena and Kane, shifting in color and size. What does this mean? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything. Both of these people have changed. They are not who they thought they were. Now they face the only question that matters to all living things: create or destroy?

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