What does it mean to be human in an age of ecological destruction?

Liam Taft /
Mar 22, 2018 / Film & TV

Annihilation was released on Netflix earlier this week to critical praise, but a severe lack of audience engagement.

Fears that the film was ‘too intelligent’ for mainstream audiences, as well as a mediocre performance at the US box office (it took just $8m in its first weekend, struggling to compete with the all-conquering Black Panther) led Paramount to back out of a UK cinema release. With the success of Arrival a few years back, Annihilation could quite easily have become a modest hit. However, without the same awards buzz surrounding its lead, Paramount got cold feet. What a shame. The studio’s lack of faith in its audience’s intelligence has prevented Annihilation from becoming an instant sci-fi classic.

Adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation is Alex Garland’s gorgeous take on the first book in the series. Lena, played by Natalie Portman, is a biologist drafted in to investigate an intriguing ecological phenomenon: a translucent, bubble-like ‘shimmer’ that has descended over a small area of coastal swampland. Several military units, including Lena’s husband (Oscar Isaac), have attempted to travel to its source –  but none have made it back alive. Therefore, Lena and a team of three other scientists embark on a mission to trace the shimmer’s starting point and unravel its various mysteries.

Initially, the shimmer is depicted as an alien and destructive force, but Annihilation is no Independence Day. The shimmer is not an aggressive colonial attack, nor a direct affront on the human species. Rather, it’s a mutation expanding at a slow but uncontrollable pace. The local citizens are convinced it’s an oil spill and this unsettling sense of familiarity reveals a lot about how desensitised we’ve become to ecological destruction in recent times. Yet still, Lena and the military base find room for concern and begin their journey into the shimmer equipped with enough ammo to take down an etire army of Xenomorphs.

Moving between scenes of wonder and horror, the team meander through the landscape as their paranoia escalates. Luscious strands of beautiful flowers have covered the swampland, but Lena quickly identifies them as a genetic mutation. Just around the corner, an alligator-shark hybrid almost takes its first victim. In all of this, the team are constantly on the defence, their weapons firmly in hand, ready to take out the enemy as the binary between non-human antagonist and human victim remains firmly in place.

Working within the Alien tradition of sci-fi horror, it’s no surprise that the team perish one by one – there’s even room for some body horror, à la John Hurt. But as the narrative progresses, Annihilation starts to take an interesting turn. Slowly, the human and the non-human become increasingly entangled. A video recording shows a previous military group slicing open a team member’s body revealing squirming eels inside his stomach and, perhaps predictably, one of Lena’s comrades begins to succumb to the same fate. Less gruesomely, the physicist of the group becomes enchanted by the shimmer’s powers, as flowers begin to germinate out of the scars on her forearms and she dissolves into the body of the earth. Trees grow out of the ground and take on the human form, as the translucent bubble that surrounds them refracts their DNA onto the non-human lifeforms.

In the final act, Lena travels towards the lighthouse that’s remained an intangible yardstick throughout the rest of the film. There, she meets an alien lifeform that merges to replicate her features and movement. She finds a video recording of her husband taken minutes before he sets off a grenade, and discovers that the husband she thought had returned was, too, a mere replication. However, unlike Ripley in the Alien franchise, Lena doesn’t continue her onslaught against the alien species all guns blazing. Her final moments at the lighthouse are spent in reflection observing the creature, and she detonates the grenade with a deeper understanding of its motivations. During an interrogation after she miraculously returns, she responds: “It wasn’t destroying, it was changing everything. It was making something new.”

Annihilation narrates the Anthropocene by asking us to re-evaluate our relationship with the environment. The barrier between the human and the non-human collapses and nature ceases to become the antagonist. Still, the shimmer is a tumour, tearing the natural landscape apart – it needs to be prevented from spreading, but Lena comes to understand that it contains the same urge that we, as humans, have on a cellular level to self-destruct.

When Lena returns to the replica of her husband, his eyes glimmer with the same rainbow tones of the shimmer’s enclosure and, as she embraces him, her eyes faintly glow too. In this final image, their post-human status becomes clear: Garland destabilises our human-centred approach to the world around us, and calls for us to approach nature, in all of its destructive forms, with greater understanding and acceptance.

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Words by Liam Taft

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