Like Alex Garland’s first film, Ex Machina, Annihilation is a tense, well-paced story set in an oppressive environment and haunted by an uncanny terror. The score is dissonant and unsettling, the rules that govern the world are mysterious yet coherent, and its horror scenes are truly chilling. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a former soldier turned biologist who joins a team venturing into the Shimmer—an alien fog that mixes the genes of animals and humans to produce horrifying combinations (turning human limbs into branches, human intestines into snakes, and melding a woman’s scream with a bear’s growl). Her husband previously ventured in with another team before her and was the only one to make it out alive. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a psychologist and the equivalent of Lena’s commanding officer. A team member tells Lena that Ventress has “no friends, no family, no partner, no children. No concession in her at all.” That word concession, with its denotation of submission, is especially intriguing. Ventress doesn’t want to submit to the archetypes and relationships (mother, daughter, sister, wife, etc.) which typically define women. She’s a highly skilled, self-sufficient “badass” and the other members are portrayed in a similar way.
When Lena first meets the team she’s mildly surprised. “All women,” she says. “Scientists,” another corrects. Along with praising the film for its “mind-bending” themes of evolution, alien life, and so on, many reviewers applauded this portrayal of an elite, all-female cast and not making a big deal out of it. As one reviewer wrote, “Garland has little time for gender, imagining a future where such distinctions don’t warrant recognition.” There’s obviously nothing wrong with creating exceptional female characters, but such distinctions based on gender and other archetypes do warrant recognition; they provide the contours necessary for distinguishing individual characters, yet Annihilation ignores them and ends up producing flat characters. Each character is given a personality and a back story, but they’re external ornaments used to create a pretense of dimensionality; they’re glossed over with a few lines of dialogue, and provide very little insight into inner motivations.
Compare Annihilation to another sci-fi film, Arrival. Louise (Amy Adams) learns an alien language and is given the ability to see the future. She discovers that she’ll have a daughter who will die at an early age because of a rare cancer. Fully aware she will never be able to beat the disease, Louise still chooses to give birth. According to Brett McCracken’s review, she’s “a woman who chooses to pursue love and sacrifice even though she can see the pain that lies ahead. Surely this is a dim picture of the agony Jesus knew: seeing in advance the suffering he would endure, but choosing it anyway ‘for the joy set before him’ (Heb. 12:2)” Her archetype (one of many) as a mother makes her weak, but it doesn’t limit her at all. Her strength is revealed not through her triumph over cancer but through her quiet endurance of it.
Many of Annihilation’s themes, such as self-destruction—while not as vaguely sketched as its characters—are still dim. After several days in the Shimmer, Lena talks to Ventress about why her husband volunteered for the suicide mission. Ventress suggests a self-destructive compulsion drove him. “We drink, or take drugs, or destabilize the happy job, or happy marriage. But these aren’t decisions. They’re impulses…Isn’t the self-destruction coded into us? Imprinted into each cell?” In flashbacks, it’s revealed that Lena had an affair and destabilized her own “happy marriage.” Ventress’s words—while being little more than a secularist’s cop out for why we make mistakes—disturb Lena by suggesting that she and her husband wanted to end the pain of betrayal by seeking self-destruction.
Lena eventually makes it to the epicenter of the fog and finds a recording of her husband. He talks to the camera in a southern accent (something he didn’t have before) and says, “Was I you? Or were you me?” And then he proceeds to blow himself up. It seems that he’s asking this question because his DNA has been so scrambled and interchanged with other DNA in the Shimmer that he’s at the brink of losing his entire identity. Whereas previously, the movie apparently resisted the impulse to categorize people (remember the line about not being women, but being scientists?), it now seems to claim that humans need distinctions among themselves lest they become so lost that the only way to escape the confusion is to destroy themselves.
In the most intriguing part of the film, Lena comes face to face with the alien. She tries to run away, but it traps her and then mimics her movements and appearance. Once she realizes she can’t flee, she offers the alien a grenade and tricks it into destroying itself. This scene consists of only visuals and sound which opens it up to numerous interpretations. It appears that the theme of self-destruction has been inverted from a bad thing to a good thing because the human tendency to destroy oneself is weaponized against the alien, and humanity is saved. Additionally, perhaps this confrontation resolves the guilt Lena felt over her infidelity, which caused her to seek self-destruction. Rather than run away, she literally has to confront herself in order to resolve the problem. Yet the question remains, why was Lena able to succeed when others couldn’t? Perhaps a more fully defined character could have developed the theme of self-destruction. Consider this quote from Joseph Campbell about the female archetype.
“She is a personification of the primal elements named in the second verse of Genesis, where we read that ‘the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ In the Hindu myth, she is the female figure through whom the Self begot all creatures… she is the world bounding frame.”
According to Campbell, the archetypical female possesses intimate understanding about life and how it’s created, in ways that the male archetypes cannot comprehend. By understanding the character of Lena through this powerful lens, one could begin to understand how she succeeded where others failed.
Despite this lack, the film offers its own reason for why she succeeded. Lena is asked how she was able to survive when others failed, and she answers by saying that she had someone to get back to. Unlike Ventress and the other women, Lena doesn’t think of herself as utterly autonomous. Lena understands that she drew strength from someone other than herself. Knowing she had someone to return to gave her endurance when others were too weak to continue on. It’s not the deepest or most compelling theme, but it’s the most humane and coherent. The film’s greatest weakness is that it vacillates between wanting to throw off distinctions and needing them; between providing boundaries to guide the viewer and dispensing with them entirely. Art shouldn’t explain everything it does, but when Annihilation ventures into far reaching, heady themes, it loses its way and becomes uninteresting. Ultimately, it feels like a conversation partner who refuses (or really struggles) to define any of their terms.