And so begins the task
I have dreaded the coming of
For so long
- Stephen Stills
SPOILERS CAVEAT: This piece assumes the reader has seen 'Annihilation,' so there isn't too much in terms of linear plot discussion or analysis, and details of the film arise only as needed in relation to ideas at hand.
All of us want an easy life. Right turns all the way home. Few get it, and in the end that’s probably for the better, because it is through the fire we are tested and, hopefully, grow. What is life without compliments? Bitter and sweet, joy and sadness, life and death. Our existence itself and the universe when you zoom way out only make sense when you fully realize what the necessary negation of a good thing actually means. How precious everything is from moment to moment. I think all of us want to live somewhere in that middle though, so we seek a balance to our existence. We know there will be pain despite attempts at avoidance. Even joy sometimes, at least for me, takes real effort, and most times isn't a product of my hard work. I think a truly good life is one where you are somewhere in that middle between joy and pain. This isn't to say you shouldn't pursue joy, you should, but recognizing that all of us at some point will have to face very dark things.
Get this: In physics and celestial mechanics there are things called Lagrange points. Places in the cosmos where the gravitational pull of a large body equals the gravitational point of a small body. This means that something parked at a Lagrange point will stay there. It won't drift toward the larger OR the smaller body. It is in stasis. There are 5 Lagrangian points for every major body in the cosmos. So there are more of these points around revolving bodies in the universe than there are stars, planets, moons and galaxies. Whoa. This means that you can shuttle large pieces of cargo to a point between the Earth and the moon or the Earth and the Sun, dump it, return to Earth to pick up more and when you head back your original deposit of stuff WOULD STILL BE THERE. In our lives most of us hope we can eke forward to a good emotional spot like that, where we can sit for a bit and breathe. We bring the stuff we need and have learned along with us, then we return to get some more stuff for the journey ahead. But more often than not when we return to the well we forget to dump the bad stuff, or we force it to come with us because our pasts are like that. The past is a comfort that tricks us into thinking that if we cling to it it will help keep us whole.
But that gravity is very hard to escape. All you want to do is get to the moon, man, but it is SO HARD sometimes once you are back going through your things.
The film opens on a hard cut to Natalie Portman's character, Lena, sitting in a room surrounded by people in Hazmat suits who want to know what happened. She's confused. Thinking. "How did you get out," a man asks her, and you can see her response in her eyes and face before she answers: "I don't know." She can't remember how she even got into the room.
Then we flashback to see Lena lecturing students about metastatic cell divisions and how cancer spreads. We learn from a scene where a another professor invites Lena to a barbecue that her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year. Lena has no idea what happened to him. Then quickly and gracefully Alex Garland lets us know without words two things by simply showing us photo's in the house, and Lena alone in her home. That Lena and Kane were in love, and that Lena and Kane were both soldiers. Lena paints the bedroom she shared with her husband in a physical act of moving on. Trauma can make you feel crazy. It ignites your fight or flight response, it confuses you and oftentimes causes you to lash out. I tried to deal with it the same way Lena does. Doing something physical or writing or creating art can help break the thought patterns and help you cope. But then. Always and then...
Emotional trauma and regret in real life does the same thing it does to Lena in the film. Suddenly, her husband is there and she is in shock. The greatest source of her pain is suddenly revived, ALIVE, in her home in front of her and she wraps herself around him and covers him with kisses. Almost immediately, however, she can tell Kane is confused. He isn't the same.
She questions him. "Was it covert?" "Pakistan again?" "How long have you been back?" "You must be able to tell me SOMETHING." "I deserve a better explanation than no explanation." Her mind reels with love but also with anger, and she needs answers Kane confusedly cannot provide. He even says it when she asks him how he got there. "I was outside the room. The room with the bed," he says not mentioning and seemingly having no memory of how he got into the house or even how he arrived at the house in the first place. "Does it matter?" he asks. Life is always thus, maybe: The mystery of finding yourself in the shit trying to make sense of it. Like Kane and Lena, I made it through though for a bit and reasoned with it. The worst of it is in that confusion. Trying to figure out how you got there.
Kane feels sick and suddenly he and Lena are immediately in the back of an ambulance rushing to the hospital, and Kane is violently seizing and coughing up blood. The ambulance is surrounded by black SUVs and forced to pull over. A military SWAT team pulls Lena and Kane from the ambulance and knocks Lena out with a sedative.
Several have written far better than me on the film's obvious metaphoric relation to dealing with cancer, or depression and self-destruction, or suicidal thoughts and actions. The best sci-fi stories do this: take our human pains and experiences and place them in wondrous and frightening contexts. We all experience art as we are in the moment. Stories move us one way or another based on our experiences. When I saw 'Annihilation' I was blown away by its ability to capture so deeply the feelings I was having after coming out of 3 years of emotional trauma. As the lights came up I just sat in stunned silence while the end credits rolled.
The details of my personal trauma aren't important. Like most personal tragedies it has been a confluence of personal mistakes which lead to incredible personal suffering. Some of it is of course my fault. Much of it isn't. Maybe one day I'll be brave enough to write more about the details but I do know this much: It is and was painful, and it is and was very real. To me. To the others affected. I was never suicidal, but I wasn't sure I'd ever come out of it. Now I'm emerging. I'm dealing, but things were fundamentally broken, and it's always hard to come out clean. Something changed, and I am a different person.
Area X and the Journey Inside The Shimmer
The journey inside. Most of us hate doing this. Days are easier if we just plow through. The work and the introspection to determine why we are where we are in life remains undone. This happens with relationships, with careers, and especially with emotional states. So often I'm just there reacting.
Just after the first scene of the film we are suddenly in space above the Earth, watching an alien meteorite slam into the Earth, cut through a light house. In the film, this is the heart of what those studying it call "The Shimmer." A strange alien bubble that expands and encompasses everything around it. Changing completely everything under its rainbow-hued boundary.
After Kane and Lena are captured by the military, Lena is debriefed, and quickly volunteers to go with a group of women into the Shimmer. She learns her husband was part of a team that went in, and he was the sole soldier to return. Armed only with basic supplies and semi-automatic rifles, the women proceed beyond the swirling border. We learn each woman including Lena has a past that has left them alone and needing answers. None of them have anything to lose but themselves.
Lena awakens in shock and emerges from a tent she can't remember pitching to find the rest of the women counting rations. By their calculations, they've already been inside 3 days. The recurring theme for Garland is the trauma these women have already been through and brought with them into the shimmer as well as what lies ahead of them manifests suddenly in their lives with a disorienting shock.
People talk often of breaking the cycle. Of violence. Of family mistakes. Of emotional abuse. Of drug abuse. Pick one. It's an incredibly accurate way to frame these things. They are a looping circle impossibly hard to get out of, and when you are in the midst of pain, you get disoriented like Lena. "How did I get here?" you think. "What is this is even about? Why are we here again?" I blamed myself and others constantly. You are you, after all, who else could have possibly put you here? Denial is incredibly counterproductive. We burden ourselves so often with things that are out of our control because letting go is just as hard. I have a close friend who, in the midst of my pain said something very helpful to me. "Yes, some of your decisions probably led you here. But what is happening now in its wake isn't your fault. Not anymore. You have to be able to pull these things apart and look at it from the outside if you want to make it through." He was right.
For Lena, her journey through the Shimmer is a journey into herself. Throughout the film we are shown flashbacks to what has led Lena here. She was unfaithful to Kane with her professor colleague. She questions and then comes to understand her actions led Kane–for he had discovered the infidelity–to volunteer for a mission he might not come back from. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) confronts Lena's questioning with a simple statement "...I'd say you're confusing suicide with self-destruction."
The gravity of trauma and regret has incredible pull, whether it is self-imposed or not. It is the sun in your life's solar system, and you are Mercury. So close to the fire you become burned and uninhabitable. If only you were an Earth's distance from it, a habitable zone where the heat is bearable. Not too far, though, because then you over compensate and become too cold. The Earth of your life is the Lagrange point in the gravity of trauma and regret. You need to recognize it, deal with it, and learn from it. But that is where we get so scared.
Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) realizes the Shimmer is in the process of attempting to create a reflection of everything inside it. But it is manifesting both beautifully and horribly. The plant life is stunning, but when the Shimmer interacts with animal life it tends to blend DNA with horrible consequences. They even realize it is beginning to affect their minds. Lena's force of regret is so strong it commands the surroundings to bend to her outside life. The house in which they billet where everything really falls apart is a grown-over reflection of Lena's home in the outside world. Lena is the main character after all, so her issues surround everyone and remake the world. Her reality becomes the refracted reality of the Shimmer. Life's outer walls are there, but it is just the edifice. Inside it is rotten and cobbled together. It is a mere attempt at wholeness, patched together from scraps, empty and screaming from the inside with the pain of memories.
I've also come to realize that in certain ways each of the women of this film represents a piece of my own psyche. Radek is the logical side of me, trying to assess and observe quietly what's happening. Dr. Ventress is the leader part of me that attempts to control the circumstances, but knows also in the end we all die and must face that mortality with either bravery or fear. Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) is the part of me that grieves the loss of the way things were and the way I once was. Anya (Gina Rodriguez) is the go-getter in me who succumbed to panic and fear a LOT.
The Lighthouse , The End, and Creating Something New
I suppose in the end life is just that: always creating something new. The day ahead of us is always a tabula rasa. We can make choices that make things better, but often we don't. How often do we ignore the source of a problem? For me, that's the lighthouse. The source. The root of the problem is were you must dig to solve it and try to cobble together something out of the pain that will make us better.
Here's the rub, though. You have to dance with it.
Lena enters the lighthouse to find the remnants of a person. She watches the video on the camera facing the body. The video shows Kane self-immolate, and Lena watches in horror as an ersatz version of him walks into frame. She realized an alien came home to her, a man that was both her husband and very much NOT her husband. He was changed completely despite his skin.
Lena goes further under the light house into a literal black hole, and emerges in a dark cave, a pit in which she finds both the mystery of the Shimmer incarnate in an undulating Mandelbrot being, but also the horror of facing the truth about herself. The Shimmer takes a single drop of her blood, and as its mode, quite literally begins to manifest herself to herself. It reflects to the people who enter the lighthouse the darkest parts of themselves, or rather, in an attempt to manifest what it comes in contact with, the Shimmer only seems to be capable of recreating the worst of its inhabitants. Their fears, or their weaknesses, or their angers, or their regrets. But it doesn't do this with malice. It can only show back what it has seen. Maybe the Shimmer could reflect their joys, but we're never shown that perhaps because that's the human condition. We are capable of amazing things, yet more often than not we can only see the worst in ourselves. As a species. As individuals assessing our own lives. We project strength, but most of us are so, so frail.
Unlike the teams of scientists and soldiers who went in before her, however, Lena is able to dance with the Shimmer's version of herself. Then it hits her and makes her bleed. Then it nearly suffocates her. But then she knows it can be beaten, and she quite literally ignites it with a phosphorus grenade and puts it to death. She destroys its reach. She beats it. She puts heat to the pain, and she watches it burn away in a holy and clensing fire. In this moment I was in tears. Thinking about my own life. Thinking about humanity. Thinking simply about this film. Without saying a word in the last minutes, 'Annihilation' was able to give voice to a problem we all face: How to be ourselves. I wept most of the way home.
We have an incredible ability to adapt. Look at us.
'Annihilation' is pure cinema. In the last 15 minutes with nothing more than incredible visuals, dance, and composition Garland, Portman, and team were able to put in front of me all the feelings I had buried deep inside me for three years. Like Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' it is a visual treat that left me breathless. It is everything I want when I experience art, and it changed me in a deep and profound way. My hope is like Lena you hug dear ones around you, open your eyes, and realize with a shimmer in them that you, quite literally, have become something new in this moment. Now in this one. At the very least you have today.
Please also read these amazing pieces about 'Annihilation.'
Annihilation and the Horrors Of Change by FilmCritHulk
The Transformative Dream of Annihilation by Priscilla Page
Annihilation and the Art of Self Destruction by Lindsey Romain
Annihilation: 2 Philosophical Readings by Malik Vallo