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Annihilation Is a Brilliant Splicing of Woolf With Cronenberg

Natalie Portman journeys into an strange substance known as the Shimmer—and stumbles on a new understanding of the human heart.

Peter Mountain / Paramount

“Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects ... don’t have politics.” That’s a line from David Cronenberg’s 1986 sci-fi classic The Fly, but it would not have been out of place in the new sci-fi blockbuster Annihilation, of which this is a spoiler-heavy review. In both movies, chaotic recombinant genes wreak havoc on a very good-looking protagonist, troubling the lines between identity, species, and body-knowledge. Unlike The Fly, however, Annihilation extends that troubling to the broader category of environment, bringing flowers and crocodiles and fungus into the equation.

As the movie begins, we see a flaming ball hit a lighthouse. Then we meet Lena (Natalie Portman), a professor of biology at Johns Hopkins whose research specialty is the single cell: its genes and its lifespan. Her military husband Kane has been gone for a year without explanation. All of a sudden, Kane reappears. He seems changed. We see their hands entwine uncertainly. Their hands are shown refracted through a water glass, which will turn out to be an important symbol.

Kane starts throwing up blood. They get in an ambulance, which is then diverted. The couple are now in a place called Area X, announced by a title card. Kane is kept in isolation under a clear plastic tent. The tent is a sort of symbolic replica of the Shimmer, which we soon discover is a phenomenon like a giant dishsoap bubble that has radiated outward from the afflicted lighthouse. Kane’s mission had been to enter the Shimmer. He is the only person from various missions yet to return from it. Does the cure for his mysterious condition lie within its soapy walls? Lena volunteers for a team to go in search of answers. Just as she unzipped Kane’s isolation tent to be with her husband, she approaches the Shimmer’s wall and steps right through.

Her companions on the mission are the dour and creepy-voiced psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), and physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson). They are the first all-female team to enter the Shimmer, and the implication is that they have been chosen because they are less likely to go insane and kill one another. The group has memory problems and their compass breaks: Lena’s line “I’m disoriented” covers both. As they traverse this dreamy landscape, Lena learns about each woman’s individual griefs. (They’re all a bit of a mess.)

The environment inside the Shimmer is gorgeous and terrifying in equal measure, like a cross between Jurassic Park and Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The team find extraordinarily varied plants growing from a single stem. “Looks like’s someone’s about to have a wedding,” Josie says, looking at a strange bouquet. Something strange is going on with these flower arrangements, but Josie’s line nudges the movie towards a biological parable of the human heart, some kind of connection between human love and this bizarre forest. Then a massive crocodile attacks her.

The crocodile has shark’s teeth, just as the daisy grew an orchid. These are genetic “corruptions of form,” explains Lena. “Duplicates of form.” In some places a weird fungus is growing that looks to Lena like cancer. Biological life has become inexplicably mutated. In places it is malignant. In others, simply marvelous. It’s Josie who figures it out. Remember the water glass? “The shimmer is a prism, and it refracts everything”—including genes.

As in Stalker, Jurassic Park, and The Fly, things get dark. But as Lena makes it to the lighthouse, the Virginia Woolf novel by the same name comes into the story and leavens it with psychological sophistication. As the medical tent and the waterglass explain, the Shimmer’s prismatic refractions are an allegory, at least in part, for the perceptive warping of human subjectivity. As in Woolf’s novel, “Lighthouse” is the third section of Annihilation, introduced by a title card. In To The Lighthouse, the building represents an always-out-of-reach object for human desire—that thing that propels us through life and toward each other. You are never in the lighthouse, only moving towards it. Like Annihilation, the novel is deeply concerned with human relationships and the fractal complexity of the way that we perceive each other.

The lighthouse is surrounded by crystal trees that resemble the synapses of the brain. This lighthouse is desire, as with Woolf, and also the frontier that separates our own minds from others’. Here we see an embodied meditation on subjectivity and trauma. Lena finds the meteor that has punched through the lighthouse’s wall, and climbs down the wound it created, into the subconscious. There, she finds Dr. Ventress, who explodes into a kind of primordial cell-manufacturer. As in the repeated scenes of cell observation that weave through the movie, here Lena witnesses life itself. The cells split, and split, and split, and create a new being. That being itself represents a splitting, since it takes on a human form: Lena’s.

In an astonishing dance scene, this metallic shadow-Lena mirrors her every move. Lena hits shadow-Lena, and the shadow hits back. Lena runs towards the door and the shadow runs too. The shadow-Lena pins her to the door and crushes her under the weight of her own actions. When Lena falls, so does the shadow-Lena. Although this is a new alien life form, we must also read the humanoid as a subconscious shadow-self. 

Throughout Annihilation, the Shimmer phenomenon examines the spread of trauma and grief throughout a living being. When a bear kills one of the explorers, it returns with part of her voice incorporated into it. When one being causes suffering in another, the suffering fragments and embeds within the being that caused it. Lena must face and destroy the shadow-self, or it will, like the bear, continue to incorporate elements of her identity until she and her trauma are identical. She will become the grief that is her wounded marriage, and lose herself. The shadow-self is the id, the object that defines the subject, the dark mirror tethered to the self that must be faced if we are to escape it. When Lena destroys the humanoid, all its effects—the crystal trees, the mutations everywhere—burn away in a cleansing fire.

Annihilation’s great achievement is in exploring these themes through object embodiment, rather than in words. Lena returns to Area X but can only respond to her interrogator’s questions with, “I don’t know.” The self is an unknowable thing, in some ways, just as one can never truly reach the lighthouse. Lena goes back to the version of Kane who returned from the Shimmer, and they embrace. But they are left with an unanswerable question: “Who are you?”

One answer to this question is that we are all just beings made of cells, and therefore mortal. Just as cells split to create life, Lena observes, each cell also contains within it the fault that leads to senescence and death. Mortality is thus the defining feature of life’s basic unit: It’s in our genes. When genes are toyed with, as in the Shimmer, the problem of life and mortality comes into sharper focus. Each of the women on the mission contains within herself a drive for self-destruction: nobody enters the Shimmer without one, Dr. Ventress observes. And so each explorer heads inexorably towards the lighthouse—Woolf’s symbol for desire—but also towards death.

One of the most intriguing details in Annihilation is a tattoo that appears and disappears on Lena’s arm. It’s in a figure-eight shape, like an infinity symbol, but its details show an ouroboros—a snake eating its tail. The tattoo also appears on Anya the paramedic sometimes, and on Kane. The Shimmer seems to work like the patch tool in Photoshop, flinging little bits of self around, redistributing them. The ouroboros is a symbol for the continual flow of death into life into death into life, just as the cells which seed death inside us also split to create life.

Peter Mountain / Paramount

Unlike the source book, Annihilation plays out in a crescendo. Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name stutters slightly to its end, with a completely different plot tie-up. The title word means something different. There’s a spiral staircase and a cryptic message that have no place in the movie. Cass appears in the source book not at all. It’s not even called the Shimmer. The movie outperforms the book by a long, refracted mile. Director Alex Garland, whose screenwriting credits include 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and who made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, has produced an appropriately understated script, leaving most of the thematic good stuff to the action and art direction.

The performances are also exceptional. Both Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ventress and Tuva Novotny as Cass are almost menacingly low-key. Tessa Thompson (Westworld) brings a soft sadness to her role, while Gina Rodriguez brightens the otherwise gloomy timbre of the movie with physical power and charismatic youth. In one of the coolest bits of casting, Sonoya Mizuno (Ex Machina) plays both a young med student named Katie from an early scene and the humanoid shadow-Lena.

Natalie Portman is, of course, the movie’s big draw. She’s a little withholding and cipher-like, but that is the right way to play a protagonist whose repressed sadness is sublimated into the very earth. This is a story with a cosmic scope, stretching from the single cell to the sun and moon. But its biological terms feel extremely current. As interest grows in the role that microbiomes have played in our cognitive experience, our popular understanding of the human heart is decentering the mystical idea of a soul in favor of more atomized and detailed medical explanations.

Still, Annihilation’s commitment to older psychoanalytic (and deconstructionist) models for the self and its inexpressible shadows makes this a readily accessible drama of emotion. The final question, the question of who you are, will follow you out of the movie theater and into the future.