ANNIHILATION: The Dependent Origination Of Terror

Full spoilers for Annihilation follow.

Studies have found male DNA in the brains of women who bore male children. Cells from the fetus made their way into the mother’s body and then became a part of the mother; it’s called microchimerism. It’s not clear if that sharing of cells does anything to the mother, but this fact lays bare the intense mutability of our existence as solid beings.

Annihilation finds terror in that concept. Loosely based on the first book in a scifi trilogy, Annihilation is Alex Garland’s unique and personal vision of a world unmoored from certainty and stability, both emotionally and physically. It’s a world where love, trust and flesh itself can be molded and changed… often without our permission, or without our conscious understanding of the causes that led to these effects.

Natalie Portman is Lena, a former soldier turned biologist whose life has been abruptly interrupted after her still-soldiering husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) went on a mission and never returned. She did not get an official burial for him or the word that he was KIA – Kane simply ceased to exist. That is until the day, a year later, that he walked back into their house. He’s strangely distant and confused, and is soon coughing up blood. As the two head to the hospital they’re waylaid by a veritable MIB convoy and Lena begins learning the truth.

There is a place called Area X, which is enveloped in something called The Shimmer. It’s centered on a lighthouse, and The Shimmer is growing. It’s an energy field of some sort, and no communication from within is possible. Satellites can’t see through it, radios don’t transmit out of it. Teams have walked in, never to return. Only Kane has come back from The Shimmer, a year after walking in, and it’s unclear what happened to him in there. Now he lays dying, and Lena volunteers to join the next mission in, hoping to figure out a way to help her husband.

What happens within The Shimmer is weird, in that old Lovecraftian sense. It acts as a refractor, scrambling everything within it, from radio waves to DNA and, possibly, brain waves. In doing so it points out the lie with which we comfort ourselves – the lie that everything is solid, unchanging, knowable. The truth – moreso inside The Shimmer, but also outside – is that everything is constantly changing, morphing, mutating. Nothing is the same from moment to moment. It just happens to be a lot more extreme inside The Shimmer.

Annihilation is the rarest of films, the existential horror movie. The fears that underlie the film aren’t about modern life or the darkness and the unknown – it’s about the very condition of life itself, that it never holds still and that our bodies are constantly, moment by moment, changing and aging and becoming something we don’t recognize. And beyond the solid, there’s the fear that the things that anchor us emotionally – our loves and relationships – are just as tenuous, just as changing, just as likely to be mutated and destroyed in a heartbeat.

As a movie Annihilation is a wild ride, a kind of Apocalypse Now meets 2001 meets The Thing. Garland, who started as a novelist with complex genre stories (The Beach, The Tesseract), moved into screenplays and has now become a director. Over the course of that journey he’s maintained a remarkable consistency, with only one major misstep (I really think Dredd is terrible and misses the whole point of the character, but I also recognize that a lot of people really like the film), and his journey to the director’s chair began with a small scale scifi masterpiece, Ex Machina. He now goes bigger, and with Annihilation he proves that the style and smarts he exhibited in that more contained setting can be applied to a story that is much larger. Annihilation is GORGEOUS, its swampy settings bathed in iridescent rainbow light, like the reflection off a soap bubble. It’s also tense and scary; scenes in this movie rival any horror film I’ve seen in years. There’s imagery that’s profoundly disturbing – we’re going to spend years obsessing over the exploded fungal pool man – and imagery that’s absolutely terrifying – people will be recreating the skull-faced bear for years as well. But there’s also a sense of awe and wonder suffusing it all.

The swamp is the perfect setting for what Garland is doing here. It’s a place of decay and life, a cycle that is happening constantly and quickly everywhere within its biome. Things rot, and from that rot new things grow, new forms and new expressions of life. It’s disgusting and beautiful, scary and inspiring. It’s the process happening within ourselves sped up, just as the chimerical changes happening to organisms within The Shimmer are like evolution, all sped up. There are lots of malignancies – a by-product of evolutionary trial and error in regular life – but every now and again there are astonishing new things that boggle the imagination. The snakes in the soldier’s guts are horrible… but the humanoid flowers are perhaps one of the most stunning images put to film in a decade.

One of the core teachings of the Buddha is dependent origination. It’s a law of cause and effect: all phenomena, inner and outer, have a cause. It seems simple, but its implications are vast. Dependent origination means that nothing arises spontaneously, but rather that everything that arises – forms, thoughts, etc – are the result of long chains of causality. On one level there’s a hippie-dippie thing to it – “We’re all connected, man!” – but on the other there’s a liberating understanding of the nature of the universe (the Buddha said that the Four Noble Truths and Dependent Origination were the things you needed to fully understand before you could attain nirvana).

Dependent origination is a concept that explodes our view of ourselves as contained systems, just as Annihilation does. In Buddhism there is comfort here, in Annihilation terror. But the principal is the same, and we are introduced to it at the beginning of the film, as Lena explains the origins of life from a single cell that split and multiplied and eventually became everything organic. That cell also had to start somewhere, and so on and so forth through infinities and, if you’re a certain kind of Buddhist (or physicist) repeated cycles of universal death and rebirth, but what the movie is getting at is the connectedness of all things. We all spring from monocellular Adam, who split off into monocellular Eve, who begat monocellular Cain and Abel.

That connection becomes less intellectual and more practical as the team heads into The Shimmer. DNA mixes and matches freely, and things become other things. But all the changes have causation, and I believe that intention impacts the outcomes, much as it does in karma. When Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) is killed by the skull bear her voice becomes part of the bear. There’s a physical aspect of this – the bear, we see, has eaten her throat, which contains her vocal chords – but also a less obvious, more ephemeral one. She dies screaming, and it’s her fear and screams that live on, we are told.

This literalizes aspects of the cycle of life – the idea that we can be buried in the ground and a tree can spring from our remains. There’s an advanced reincarnation thing happening here; it isn’t that the aggregated aspects of personality that make up Sheppard are reincarnated in the skull bear, but rather than an essence of her is, just as an essence of you would be reborn in the tree above your grave. Karma continues to play in the third act, as Lena realizes that the humanoid never attacked her, it just mirrored her moves. Her causes have effects, and the intention of how she behaves colors the responses she gets from the humanoid.

It’s interesting to see how the effects of The Shimmer impact the others. Sheppard and Anya (Gina Rodriguez) find bad ends within The Shimmer, impacted by their fear and anger, but Radek (Tessa Thompson) ends up a plant person. She doesn’t look to understand or fight The Shimmer, but rather accepts it, and finds a beautiful peace. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) seeks understanding, and ends up… well, destroyed is a weird word to use here. She’s transformed into a light bloom, transcending to another level. To say that Radek or Ventress are killed is to show just how much we value our current experience, and how much we fear other experiences of existence. Both of them, it seems to me, become new things. Their intentions play into the effects served to their causalities. It’s karma in action.

Another Buddhist concept in which Annihilation finds existential terror is the idea of impermanence. All is changing, all the time. That which has the nature of arising has the nature of ceasing. The Kane that returns home isn’t the Kane that left… but that would have been the case no matter what. The experiences that Kane would have had would have changed him, even minor ones. The food he ate, the air he breathed, the people he touched – all of these things would have wrought tiny changes on Kane in the months he was away. This is a scifi/horror movie, so the changes as presented are way more drastic – he’s a new being of some sort, quite literally – but it’s just an extrapolation of what really occurs.

You never step into the same river twice, after all. And you never meet the same person twice.

In the end, after processing all of this, Lena comes to an understanding and a peace with what The Shimmer does, and with the being at the heart of it. It does not want anything – a truly enlightened perspective. It just changes things without bias, as evolution does. And she’s changed, although perhaps not in the way Kane is, but close enough, and she accepts it, and him.

All of this said… I’m not really sure I understand Annihilation. This interpretation arises from my own spiritual interests, and quite likely Garland never considered any of this stuff. And my interpretation doesn’t even begin to touch on some of the mysteries, like the body-hopping tattoo. I look forward to watching this film again and again, each time with new eyes changed by intervening experiences, and finding that new things reveal themselves within it.