Annihilation: Two Philosophical Readings

Annihilation is likely my favorite movie of the year, so in this essay, I explore two possible readings of the film through a philosophical lens.

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I will not “explain” the plot of Annihilation.

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Okay, fine, I will, but only to show how unnecessary “explaining” the movie is in the first place. SPOILER WARNING:Lena is a biologist whose husband has been missing for a year. He suddenly turns up, but something is wrong with him. On their way to the hospital, Lena and her husband are picked up by a paramilitary group. Lena joins an all-girls band and goes on tour in a mystical place called The Shimmer (or Area X? not sure which is proper). The Shimmer is a place where mutation has gone wild. Each member of the group slowly dies as they traverse the zone, leaving Lena alone as she makes her way to the source: a lighthouse. In the lighthouse, she finds evidence that the man she thought was her husband is, in fact, a doppelganger since her actual husband killed himself. She finds the group leader, Dr. Ventress, or possibly her doppelgänger, who is atomized and then reconfigured in front of Lena into a Mandelbrot-esque cancer cell, which proceeds to absorb a drop of her blood and morphs into a humanoid shaped oil slick. Lena and the Alien proceed to dance/fight, with it copying her every movement, until Lena puts a grenade in its hand and runs away, leaving it to burn to death. The Shimmer is destroyed along with it, and Lena escapes. Cut back to the present (the whole movie is a framed narrative), and Lena is reunited with her not-husband Kane, where she reveals that she might not be the same person who went in.

There. That’s the plot. Not very helpful, huh? For some reason, there is a penchant for believing that movies need to be explainable. Explaining a film is often the fastest way to destroy the magic of what is on display. So, now that I’ve ruined the magic of Annihilation, I’d like to spend this essay doing what I planned to do in the first place: presenting two different readings of the film through the lens of the only thing I’m qualified to talk about: philosophy.

Reading 1 – Übermensch

There is perhaps no philosophical concept more controversial and misunderstood than that of the Übermensch (Super-man, Beyond- Human). Wilhelm Frederick Nietzsche created the idea, but like much of his philosophy, it was co-opted and bastardized by the Nazis. While most people are familiar with the concept, the subtleties and purpose of the Übermensch aren’t often talked about. Nor is the manner in which the Übermensch is supposed to come about. That manner is evolution. I realize, given the recent return of Nazis and the rise of the alt-right, that talking about the concept of the Ubermensch is tantamount to playing hot potato with a grenade, but I hope that this section can be read with at least measured openness.

Assuming the theory of evolution is correct (it is; don’t argue) Nietzsche supposed that human beings were merely a transitional stage between one form and another. He thought that, eventually, there would be a member of humanity that would appear, a mutation set apart from the herd, and that this inevitable Super-man (Nietzsche was quite sexist, unfortunately, so for him it was a man) would be the person capable of leading humankind. For Nietzsche, this leadership was tied to the ability to create and impose a new morality, and while this aspect is indeed interesting, it’s not entirely applicable for my purposes here.

Now, you’re probably wondering “okay, thanks for the little philosophy lesson, but what about Annihilation?” Alright, let’s do this. During the first act of Annihilation, Lena presents two ideas. One, that a cancer cell is only different from other cells because it continues to divide when it shouldn’t, and, two, that mortality is actually a result of our cells being defective. These two concepts, taken together, offer a simple picture: cancer and human death are the results of a discrepancy on the cellular level. This idea is then actualized with The Shimmer.

The Shimmer can be read in two different ways: a literal manifestation of cancer itself, or, as a speeding up of evolution itself. The primary tool by which evolution works is mutation. When a new species, or a variation on one, emerges, if it’s a better fit to its environment, it will survive, reproduce, and influence the population as a whole. This is an incredibly simplified version of evolutionary theory, but the main point I wish to illustrate is that evolution hums along to the tune of mutation. There’s only one problem, mutation and variation is an awfully slow process. It took millions of years for human beings to come into existence. If like Nietzsche assumes, we are merely a step in the evolutionary process between one thing and another, then it will likely take thousands, or millions, of years before we mutate enough to reach that new phase. But what if it didn’t take that long?

The Shimmer offers the possibility of speeding up the process of evolution to breakneck speeds. Merely residing within the area causes people’s intestines to become living creatures, their skin to literally crawl, and flowers to grow from their cuts. The Shimmer is mutation gone mad, and like real mutation, it destroys more often than it creates; but it can still create. This capacity ties into the dueling definitions of the word Annihilation. Annihilation’s most common meaning is “complete destruction or obliteration.” While this definition certainly holds for aspects of the film, the second definition is far more relevant. In physics, the Annihilation principle is “the conversion of matter into energy, especially the mutual conversion of a particle and an antiparticle into electromagnetic radiation.” To phrase it differently, annihilation is creation through destruction, a principle visualized by the Ouroboros tattoo on Lena’s arm (interesting detail: the tattoo can be seen on both Anya and a soldier from Kane’s unit). The Shimmer is evolution through annihilation.

This is where we come to a synthesis. Back at the beginning of this essay, I suggested that Lena returned from The Shimmer changed. While this is most certainly true on a psychical level – after all, she has literally just defeated her “self,” and accepted the change she has avoided until now – it is, I posit, also true on a physical level. Lena is in Area X longer than anyone, and she manages to make it all the way to its heart and back out again. The final moment of the film, of Lena, hugging Kane, while on one level is a moment of emotional catharsis – she, who has accepted change, now accepts the man who has rejected change – it is on another level a kind of ascension. Lena and Kane are most likely immortal. They are the pinnacle of their species if they can even be called that anymore (it’s also worth noting that Lena suggests that life could have come from another planet since all it takes is one cell – i.e., the alien could be of the same thing that made us). A new, alien Adam and Eve, cast out from Eden. Through the collision of particle and antiparticle, they have become a perfect pair. After all, “they are one person, they are two alone, they are three together, they are four for each other.”

Then again, who knows, maybe they’re not.

Reading 2 – Existentialism

Existentialism is another philosophy that is often misunderstood but in a different way. Existentialism is commonly associated with parables like The Myth of Sisyphus or with that 20-year-old college student favorite, Nihilism (an idea which 20-year-old college students often miss the point of). While these are certainly aspects of existentialism, I think the more useful understanding comes from a situation presented by Jean Paul Sartre in Existentialism and Humanism. The situation is this: it’s WWII, and a young man named Pierre is living in occupied France when he has to make a difficult choice. Pierre must choose whether he should leave his aging mother to join the Resistance, or if he should stay with his aging mother and not fight the enemy. There is no way for Pierre to test his choices empirically, he must choose which is right for him – to paraphrase Kierkegaard, Pierre must become himself.

In this case, regardless of what Pierre decides, he won’t know whether he picked “right” until far down the road, years removed from the decision. This belies the inherent paradox of existential decisions, best summed up this time with a direct quote from Kierkegaard “life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forward.” Decisions of the kind Pierre must make are not carefully deduced scientific steps, they are leaps into the void with the hope that out of the mercurial darkness some place for purchase will emerge. There is always the chance for free fall, however, and this is where the terror of the existential resides.

How does this relate to Annihilation? I will never know if Garland set out to make an existentialist film, but it doesn’t necessarily matter to me because he did. His characters are scientists: a biologist, a psychologist, a paramedic, a physicist, and a geologist. Despite the scientific backgrounds of all the characters, none of the critical decisions in the film are made from the position of informed science. Instead, the decisions of the film are defended with the facade of science, while in fact, they are really the desperate jumps of existential belief.

From entering The Shimmer to choosing to bunk in the military base to losing Cass to Anya’s mental decline to Ventress choosing to continue on to Anya choosing death to Lena choosing to kill her doppelganger: every decision in the film is made without a scientific basis. They are gut decisions. They are the only kind of decisions that the group can make because The Shimmer is existential dread actualized. It’s constantly changing, attacking where the team is most vulnerable. By the time Lena faces her doppelganger, she realizes The Shimmer is intelligent: it knows her, and its attacks are informed, malicious. Not only does it know her, but it is also her. This existential dread given physical form is perhaps the film’s most potent metaphor: the most dangerous threat to us as individuals is ourselves.

Lena’s journey in the film is one of change. She must choose whether to accept change (and possibly become the Übermensch, as I argued earlier), or she must decide to reject change (like her husband, Kane). The terror of choices like change is precisely what the Kierkegaard quote and the story of Pierre relay: we only know later whether we chose right, and even then, we can’t possibly know for sure. But the importance of these choices is to choose. To not choose is itself a choice, and to wait to choose, as Lena does at the beginning of the film, all the while living in such a way as if she has already chosen? That is itself the ultimate disservice we can do to ourselves. That is to live as if we had already died.

Which lands us back at the ending of the film – Lena’s decision. Lena is faced with a choice, much like Pierre. She can either choose suicide, like her husband, or she can choose life. She cannot know which outcome is better, whether the aftereffects of The Shimmer will make her wish she had died in that lighthouse, or if suicide would deprive her of a new and beautiful life. If she does nothing, she will die anyway, trapped in the lighthouse, the proverbial birth canal to her new life. She can only choose her path. In the words of Fritz James Stephen: “We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes… If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”

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Annihilation was a challenging movie to write about for me. I tried a variety of ways to talk about the film, but I kept feeling like my words were superfluous to the film itself. It’s all there in the movie, all one has to do is watch it. I can only hope that this method I have chosen offered something new, perhaps a new fractal through which to view the film, a prism of a different kind. I have elected to ignore discussing the acting (which is superb), the directing (which is taught filmmaking fully realized), and the cinematography (which is so lush and ethereal I would feel even worse trying to describe it.) I have also ignored the score, which is so mesmerizing and necessary to the experience that it seems downright cruel for me to do so. Besides those elements of the film itself, I’ve also ignored all the various other films it’s comparable to, so I’ll just list them out here without any defense of the comparisons: Stalker, Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine, Ex Machina, FMA: Brotherhood, Under the Skin, The Thing, The Fountain, Arrival, The Tree of Life, Upstream Color, The Descent, and Alien. There are more, but that should do for now.

I have a feeling that Annihilation will be a very personal film for many people. Each interpretation will feel true and right to that particular audience member, and the joy of a film like this is that all interpretations are valid. There is certainly a lot to be said about the way Annihilation reflects on the self-destructive behavior of humanity (read Film Crit Hulk’s article for the best exploration of this theme), the realities of depression and suicide, the urgency of mental health, the terror of death and cancer and the unknown, as well as a host of other metaphorical readings that I’ve likely missed. If I had to choose one of my two readings as the correct one, I’d choose the second. Annihilation is an affirmation of the existential choices we all get. Alex Garland knows just how terrifying that choice is, and he portrays it with a delicate hand and a gentle understanding.

Horror is a genre best suited for peeling back the barriers and presenting the raw human. Science Fiction is a genre best suited as a lens through which we can understand the present. Annihilation is a perfect synthesis of the two, a collision of genre’s spiraling out into something new: a terrifying, alien creation.

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One Comment

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  1. Great write up on a great film. Thank you.

    Annihilation works at the love story level too. It explores the lengths and tribulations that someone will subject their body and soul in search of their partner. Pushing past cellular and psychic changes might be a new record.

    The book was great but the movie is on a different level. It would be great it there is a sequel.

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