This contains spoilers for Annihilation. Which you should all see you punks!!!
Annihilation is fractured. Just as I am, as we are. The film’s shots often focus on light splitting in water. They target Natalie Portman, her face alternating between past and present, reflecting in the surrounding and shifting landscape. The film’s cells, both literal and figurative, replicate. We see those cells in motion for the first time as Lena (Portman, in the performance of a lifetime) teaches a class of college students about mitosis. She refers to an original cell, one that spawned all the others. In this throwaway line, Annihilation sets up its thesis: the fracturing of the world, the things that make us suffer, the visions of humanity in the alien and animal, they are all part of us. They are a part of me. The only way forward is accepting ourselves in all the things that frighten us.
The film literalizes this through an elegant and evocative science fiction device: The Shimmer. A mysterious wall of matter that is growing, consuming everything that enters its borders. Except for Lena’s husband, Kane. Played by a wondrous and terse Oscar Isaac, Kane is the first to return from the Shimmer, lacking both his memory and health. Lena volunteers to go inside with a group of four other women to investigate what happened to her partner. Soon, they discover that the Shimmer refracts everything inside it: light, radio waves, and even DNA. Thus, our selves are recoded. Plants resemble humans and alligators have shark teeth. Everything within is not alien; it is just us re-contextualized. The Shimmer is terrifying, because it forces us to confront ourselves.
Thus, Annihilation is not about us learning to accept them, but learning to accept us. All of the women who enter the Shimmer, and the men who came before them, are running from themselves. “We’re all damaged goods” says Cass Shepard (played memorably by Tuva Novotny), before listing off all the group’s problems: a dead child, drug addiction, depression, and self-harm. These people are all familiar with self loathing, or as the film puts it: self destruction. They see the open wounds that await confronting their pain, so they run. They know they might die, but would rather perish, than face themselves.
I see myself in this running. It is part of what makes the film one of the most evocative and resonant depictions of mental illness in any form of media. Depression and anixiety force you to run. They force you to lay in bed rather than get up and perchance catch yourself in the mirror. The more you indulge it, the more self-loathing festers, the more appealing it becomes to hide. I too, would rather run from the mirror than look myself in the eye, rather self-destruct than self-realize.
But the irony of self-destruction is that it forces us to confront ourselves anyway. To stab a knife into our own body we have to look. The Shimmer is filled with this looking. We flash back with Lena to her extramarital affair. We watch as she wakes from nightmares. We gaze as her flesh begins to move and shift. The deeper she goes, the more she finds herself, fractured and broken. This plays out in ways that are more than physiological. The film’s most haunting images are of human bodies twisted into new shapes. Fungus and trees bloom into arms and legs and faces. The horror of ourselves is everywhere.
This imagery illustrates that self-hatred is both external and internal. In one flashback, Lena’s lover tells her that, “You don’t hate me, you hate yourself.” She replies, “No, I hate you too.” Like Lena, we hate ourselves for doing something and we hate the people we did it with for being like us. Self-hatred slips out into the world and twists others into our image. Fungus and tree people only show that twisting. At one point, Lena asks Ventriss, the mission leader, why her husband would go on a mission that would almost certainly result in his death. Ventriss replies, “You’re confusing suicide with self-destruction, and they’re very different. Almost none of us commit suicide, whereas almost all of us self-destruct. Somehow. In some part of our lives. We drink, or take drugs, or destabilize the happy job or happy marriage… Isn’t the self-destruction coded into us? Imprinted into each cell.” This teases at the questions Annihilation asks. If this self-destruction is everywhere, what do we do? How can we escape it?
The beginnings of an exit are found in Tessa Thompson’s character, Josie. Her body carries the most visible sign of self-destruction, the cuts along her arm. In a marvelous turn from Thompson, she is reserved, quiet, and the most visibly shaken by the violence they encounter in the Shimmer. In time, she shows herself to be the most brave. After two members of their group die, Josie reflects. Lena and Ventriss have decided to go further in. While discussing this with Lena, she says, “Ventriss wants to face it. You want to fight it. I don’t know if I want either of those things.” She turns and walks into the reflecting world of the Shimmer. She embraces the change, as flowers grow out of her scars. The damage she has done to herself becomes beautiful. She looks at herself, not with the intent of hurt, but in the spirit of finding truth. It is the acceptance of self, of difference and sameness, of mistakes and truth, that makes her leave. Without her self-destruction, she vanishes from the film. Lena never sees her again.
Lena’s need for confrontation culminates in facing the Shimmer’s source: a mysterious alien being that clones her, just as it cloned her husband. This shifting metal mirror mimics Lena’s every move, taking punishment, only to give it back. During this scene, I thought of times on my bedroom floor, unable to feel anything except crushing doubt. Times at the corners of parties, silenced by my imagined, frightening crowd. I think of standing before knives and cliff edges. I have faced my own metal mirror, shifting with me and pressing me down.
Her mirror is only stopped by Lena. She tricks the mirror into taking a white phosphorus grenade and runs out of the room. It explodes. Lena looks back and sees herself, terrified and burning. The rest of the Shimmer burns with her. Seeing Lena’s own terrible image just as scared and frightened as she is awakes something in her. Again, this image conjures moments with myself. Times when I saw how deep my hurt truly was and how much damage I did trying to run away from it. Implied in this moment of both relief and shock is Lena’s same realization.
The film ends with Lena embracing “Kane,” the new being that contains both her husband and her. He represents her opposite, Kane killed himself to let his clone leave. Lena killed her clone to let herself live. She asks him, “You’re not Kane, are you?” He replies, “I don’t think so. Are you Lena?” At this moment, the sign of her mistakes, of her self-destruction, becomes the possibility of new life. What Kane left behind was not his rage, it was his love. His clone is the sign that her husband still loved her. He is a chance to embrace the other she rejected, as well as accept the her own mistakes. Earlier in the film, the new “Kane” and Lena are split by door-frames and the mediation of cameras. Now, as a glass door closes, they embrace each other and themselves. Lena, once terrified by the herself and the other, now can look and face what she truly is.
Though the terror of The Shimmer, we only find things that meant no harm. When Lena is interrogated by scientists about her experience, they claim that the Shimmer was going to destroy everything. She replies, with a confused and wise expression, “It was just changing things.” The shimmer meant no harm, just as our hormones and natural selves do not. It is the way we grow to hate ourselves that causes the Shimmer’s destruction. Our own fear of change and our denial of self. For both Josie and Lena, the symbols of their sins become symbols of their strength. They embrace the world within themselves and carry it forward. Annihilation boldly proposes that we can only end our cycles of destruction by embracing ourselves and all we are.