Click here to support the Daily Grail for as little as $US1 per month on Patreon
Lena's alien encounter in Annihilation

The Primal Terror at the Heart of Alex Garland’s ‘Annihilation’

While sci-fi fans are no doubt disappointed at the extremely limited cinema release of Annihilation, Alex Garland’s much-anticipated next movie after the well-received Ex Machina, the fact that it’s been released via Netflix in many countries at least gives us the chance to watch and rewatch the film as many times as we like. And it’s certainly a film that is worth coming back to repeatedly, as there’s plenty of depth to it.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, then I recommend stopping reading now and rectifying that as soon as possible, as I’m going to discuss some core parts of the film. If you want a capsule review for guidance on whether you’ll enjoy it: if you like logical, standard structure movies that resolve clearly, it’s probably not for you. If you like deep explorations of weirdness, accompanied by beautiful visuals and a wonderful soundtrack, this is for you. If you’re a regular reader of this site, I’m guessing you’re in the latter group…so go watch it now!

I wouldn’t even recommend you watch the trailer or any descriptions of the movie – but in case you need it, here’s the teaser:

Spoilers for Annihilation follow

Reviewers of the film, and Garland himself, have already pointed out that the film very much as a core theme of change, in particular deleterious change. At the film’s outset, Lena (Natalie Portman) discusses cancer cells; in the middle Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress talks about how humans self-destruct; and all the characters suffer somewhat at the changes brought upon them from being in ‘the Shimmer’. Garland explained to The Verge that he wanted to tell a story about the way the literal, molecular process of self-destruction in organic life mirrors the psychological one in humans, in which we’re always rewriting our own personalities and resisting, or failing to resist, self-destructive choices.

What I haven’t seen much discussion about, though, is the horror that arises out of the characters not understanding the changes that are happening to them, physically and psychologically. And that is very much a primal horror: in the modern world we are extremely protected from nature, and understand a lot of the processes impacting us from a scientific viewpoint, and as such can often predict (and protect against) what might come next. Annihilation takes us back to a conscious state of confusion and terror that must have been ever-present for early humans: what is happening, why is it happening, what the hell is going to happen next? This extends to one of the central ideas in Annihilation — found in other classic sci-fi films such as Arrival and Solaris –  that alien life might truly be alien to us, and not be recognizable or understandable to our 20th century ‘rational’ minds.

And while this element of the movie makes it disconcerting enough, I would have liked to have seen a deeper exploration of another type of horror: the ungrounding of perception, memory and understanding. This is touched on early in the expedition, when the team suffer from a period of ‘lost time’ – and watching it one can’t help but feel how terrifying this would be, to wonder what happened to you during that time, and if it is going to happen again. I very much equated it with, as one character puts it, a type of dementia (and as someone whose father suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s, the loss of trust in your own mind is something that equally fascinates and horrifies me). Garland could really have gone deep into this psychological horror by fragmenting the audience’s understanding of what was happening through his characters (skipping time, making reference to things that haven’t been seen), and the result I’m sure would have been absolutely terrifying…though not perhaps as terrifying as it would have been to his studio backers, considering they already blanched at a world-wide cinema release for the movie due to feeling it was too complex and arty.

Garland finally touches on this in the final act, when the character(s) bodies and identities become explicitly malleable, and we as the audience are left to ponder questions such as who am “I”, how am I separate from the environment around me, and how do I know I am who I think I am. It’s a fantastic movie, and I’m sure I’ll find much more to ponder, and discuss, as I return to it for much-needed rewatches.

  1. I’m really ticked at Netflix, which released the film only in theaters in the U.S. I’d love to re-watch it because I’m sure there are nuances I missed, but I won’t pay the over-priced cost of a U.S. movie ticket for a second time. Being ripped off once was enough.

    Annihilation had a very dreamlike quality for me. When I left the theater I felt as if I’d just been woken from a very strange dream, one that I would be pondering for days in an effort to uncover what its imagery meant to me. This is one of those films where audiences will project their own psyches onto it because there is no expository dialogue or action. The characters are as baffled and overwhelmed as the audience.

    This is the type of science fiction I truly love (spare me from super heroes with super weapons or aliens that behave like members of a drug cartel or an Esalen workshop). Alien means just that – strange, mystical, unfamiliar, mystifying, frightening, confusing, magical, horrific, unfathomable – completely outside of all human experience and maybe even beyond our ability to fully perceive. Much like Arrival, the film takes us far outside our comfort zone of what we want to believe an encounter with alien “life” might be like based on 20th century science fiction memes.

    Spoiler alert there’s nary a UFO, bug-eyed Grey, nor crashed saucer in sight.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Mobile menu - fractal