There are certain kinds of movies that literally make me salivate. Like, drool down my face, levels of salivation. Like geeking out, brain unhinged levels of excitement. And Annihilation falls squarely in the middle of THiNC. levels of venn diagrammed nirvana. Let’s see, amazing VanderMeer source material, check. Alex Garland on the screenplay? Check. Garland at the director helm? Check. An allstar cast, check, check, and check. Annihilation had to be the most perfect sci-fi mind-job gloriousness THiNC. had ever seen.
And I was right. Last night I had the privilege of conscripting a few great friends to unwittingly jump into the movie Annihilation, completely unaware of what they were about to walk into. I felt a little bad for them (Jake, Spence, Matt – thanks for not leaving me hanging and making me go alone!) But in the end, they survived, maybe not unscathed, but they survived. Why? Well, Annihilation is a tour de force. A mind #%$! of epic proportions. And oh by the way, the movie happens to be so unrelentingly smart, and unforgiving to the viewer that the executives of Paramount are afraid of it. How do I figure that, you ask? Well, Paramount sold the movie to Netflix. The movie releases domestically for 17 days, and then voila, Annihilation will be released all over the world on Netflix. WAh? Why? Well, because, Paramount realized that they could instantly make their money back on by selling it to Netflix, and that anything they made in the theater was guaranteed profit.
All that to say? Hollywood doesn’t trust audiences with a smart movie. Grr.
So we have an über smart movie on our hands, that much goes without saying. Maybe we should walk through it and see if we can parse it out and wrap our brains around it.
FROM HERE ON OUT – BE DRAGONS – DEEP DEEP SPOILERS AHEAD FOR BOTH THE BOOKS AND THE MOVIES
“Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dimlit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been. In the black water with the sun shining at midnight, those fruit shall come ripe and in the darkness of that which is golden shall split open to reveal the revelation of the fatal softness in the earth. The shadows of the abyss are like the petals of a monstrous flower that shall blossom within the skull and expand the mind beyond what any man can bear, but whether it decays under the earth or above on green fields, or out to sea or in the very air, all shall come to revelation, and to revel, in the knowledge of the strangling fruit—and the hand of the sinner shall rejoice, for there is no sin in shadow or in light that the seeds of the dead cannot forgive. And there shall be in the planting in the shadows a grace and a mercy from which shall blossom dark flowers, and their teeth shall devour and sustain and herald the passing of an age. That which dies shall still know life in death for all that decays is not forgotten and reanimated it shall walk the world in the bliss of not-knowing. And then there shall be a fire that knows the naming of you, and in the presence of the strangling fruit, its dark flame shall acquire every part of you that remains.”
For the readers of the books the Southern Reach trilogy, this quote will be familiar to even the most clueless of individuals. It is a quote that was doled out, teasingly, refrain by refrain, as the over 900 pages of books paged by. To the readers of the books, to see this quote, in one, long, single thought… is almost therapeutic. VanderMeer used it like a heartbeat throughout all three novels. I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead. It was like Stephen king’s Red Rum in the Shining, a pulse and a tremor, running through everything. It was a poisoning, a portent of evil of unknown meaning or significance. The words struck deep into the heart of the novels and bore forth a mighty shuttering each time VanderMeer slid them in front of the reader. It was if the secret of the novels were embedded right there in those few pulsing and reoccurring words.
But these words, this refrain, and this explanation, are completely absent in the movie. Then if it isn’t about the strangling fruit… then what is it about?
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner
The best way to understand what happened is to start by doing a super high level walk through of the plot details. Quick note, I will walk you through it in chronological order, not in the movie’s sliced and diced, out of order craziness. In that way, hopefully it’ll make more sense to you if you had trouble following it. And I will pull from the books a little to flesh out some of the narrative that may have been a bit thin.
HIGH LEVEL ANNIHILATION PLOT WALK THROUGH
The movie began with the Lighthouse. The lighthouse and a comet. Something struck the earth at the base of the lighthouse and then expanded, radiated outwards. And from then on, the area would be called Area X. And attempting to contain it, the US Military setup an oversight and study facility on the outer boundary of the affected zone called the Southern Reach. The boundary continued to expand and grow, eventually overtaking the original Southern Reach facility. And in an attempt to understand what this Area X really was, the Southern Reach team began sending in expeditions to learn what they could. People, animals, hundreds of rabbits, were all sent into the shimmer. And the experts would stay behind with their spectrometers and their myriads of scientific gear, all attempting to understand what this threatening shimmer was all about.
I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead…
There have been countless expeditions sent into Area X. The Southern Reach has been using a naming convention that numerates through Expedition 9a, 9b, 9c and so on, until we finally reached the last of the 11th numerated expeditions – which sent in Lena’s husband, Kane. Kane had gone in, and then disappeared. And a year later Lena had given up hope on him. But suddenly, and without warning, he shows up at home, acting strangely. (In the book he was there in the kitchen out of the blue, guzzling milk til it streamed down his face.) Soon after his arrival, he begins convulsing and coughing up blood. When the Southern Reach realized he was back, they captured him and brought him back to their facilities near Area X. It is then that Lena is courted by Dr. Ventress, the psychologist to join the first 12th expedition to go into the Shimmer, one made entirely of women. Lena agrees because she assumes she’ll never be released back into society again anyway.
The group of five women then headed into the shimmer, and they begin making their way through as best they could. All around them strange animals, strange plants, and just weird fluctuations throughout Area X accost them on all sides. And as they traverse ever deeper, the Biologist (oh, sorry, in the book, no names were given, they referred to each other by their role), Lena begins to notice strange changes at a cellular level of the samples she is taking along the way. There is a shimmer in the samples as they reproduce. And it isn’t normal. Not only that, but they begin to find human shaped plants that really seems strange to the group. Then, when they are about 2 days out from the lighthouse, and are a woman down due to a bear attack (Cass was the team member killed), Ventress and Lena convince Josie, and Anya that the lighthouse is the fatest way out of Area X.
…to share with the worms that gather in the darkness…
When they awake from sleeping, Anya has gone mad and tied the other three women up, and she’s about to cut Lena open to see if, like the guy on the video they found – if she would be full of writhing – eel like tentacles, a bear attacks and kills Anya. Ventress leaves, and heads off to get to the lighthouse. (The movie doesn’t cover this, but Ventress grew up around the lighthouse, and has a an attachment to that location and the lighthouse specifically, and she’ll be damned if she isn’t going to get back there again. To investigate the lighthouse herself after sending so many people to their deaths. Oh, and did I mention that she’s been to Area X before? Oh, sorry, dipping into the book too far. My bad.) And then Josie (or Radek if you prefer) decides she isn’t going to be leaving the human shapped plants, and we start noticing that plant vines are beginning to sprout out of her arms.
Which leaves Lena alone to head towards the lighthouse. As she steps into the lighthouse, she notices a corps surrounded by scorch marks. And when she plays back the video that recorded the event, she sees that it was Kane committing suicide as he spoke with a doppelgänger duplicate of himself. Before he pops the white phosphorous grenade he tells his double to find Lena. Lena sees a dark hole in the base of the lighthouse and heads down into the shaft as she hears the noises of Ventress yelling. And when Lena approaches her, we see that she is shifting and changing into a shibboleth type structure, a tesseract if you will. When a drop of blood from Lena drips into the shibboleth that Ventress has become a vague copy of her self, which then dances and struggles with her. Eventually Lena pops a wp grenade that explodes in her doppelgänger’s hands. And that fire ignites and spreads throughout the lighthouse, and continues to spread to everything within Area X.
…forms that never were and never could be writhe…
Back at the Southern Reach, when Lena returns, a band of scientists begins questioning her about everything that happened while she was gone in Area X as she was the only one of the expedition to return. After answering some of the questions about how the other members of the expedition died, the let Lena know that after she destroyed the shibboleth, Kane began to recover. So Lena goes and sees “Kane”, and as they are hugging, Lena asks if he is really Kane, and it responds with, “No, I don’t think so.” And as they continue hugging both their eyes shimmer in the light.
A FEW KEY DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE MOVIE AND THE BOOKS
When Alex Garland wrote the screenplay he told press that he 100% adapted it to work solely from book one, Annihilation, as the source material. Which, seems a bit funny, because the expedition basically follows more accurately Lena’s second entrance into Area X at the end of book 3 than it matches with book 1. And much of the flashbacks to the Southern Reach seem to come directly from book 2. But regardless, the scale of the movie is very constrained and the scope is tunnel focused.
In the black water with the sun shining at midnight…
In the book Annihilation, the Biologist sloughs her other team members almost immediately after exploring the tower on the second and third days of the expedition. What’s the tower you ask? Great question. The tower was everything in the books. It was a downward spiraling staircase that burrowed down into the earth. Lena perceived it as a tower, and it was the landmark that everything else hung. And it is where Lena found the Crawler, the crawler who was scrawling the walls of the tower with growing and glowing plants that wrote out the words of the infamous paragraph that was missing from the movie. And the tower is where everything culminates in book three.
The other key difference is that over the course of the three books we learn that these human duplicates, the doppelgängers are being formed by something deep within the tower. And the original humans, which are never allowed to leave, wait for it,… begin to change and morph into the animals found in Area X. Did you catch that? The humans that entered Area X are becoming the strange animals that inhabit the landscape. Lena’s husband? And Kane, what happened to him throughout the novels? He’s become a wise old owl that protects Lena as takes up residence in X. And what ultimately happened to Lena in the book? The biologist became this enormous hulking whale that is capable of flying.
…to reveal the revelation of the fatal softness in the earth…
BUT WHAT DOES THIS CRAZY ANNIHALTION MOVIE MEAN!??!
The movie version of VanderMeer’s books are more slippery and a more elusive beast to pin down. But I think we can pull some ideas together to wrap our minds around the movie. But understand that the meanings of the books, the deeper message VanderMeer brings us in his pages, are totally different from the movie.
First – What Is Annihilation?
The concept of Annihilation within the book and also within the movie is a materially important concept to understand. The first most obvious definition of annihilation is that of the destruction of the earth as it becomes something different and new. The annihilation of Kane as he becomes Kane1. The destruction of Lena as she doubles into her doppelgänger. Etc. In this meaning, annihilation is a sort of chrysalaic type of destruction. A destruction of the former and the creation of the successor.
The shadows of the abyss are like the petals of a monstrous flower…
But it also echoes out another meaning. The movie discusses the fact that humans are prone to annihilation. They are prone to the destruction of everything we touch. Environmentally is the most obvious example of this. The world around us, trashed, by our selfishness and myopic vantage of the here and now above all else. Also though, we have a very important conversation between Ventress and Lena about suicide verses being self-destructive. Cigarettes, alcohol, etc etc. All speak to our own desire for self-destruction. Annihilation is core to everything this movie is all about.
The Literal View of Annihilation
The simplest perspective on the movie Annihilation and what it means is pretty simple. I think? A shard of alien life collides with earth and it begins to shift and move through the earth, metamorphosing anything it comes in contact with as it goes. And as the alien life infuses anything it touches it overcomes it and duplicates it, and in the process learns and changes it into something better, different, more alien-like. The humans, that stand and watch from afar, are powerless to stop it. And so they methodically send expeditionary force after expeditionary force over the edge of the waterfall in the hopes of finding that one weakness that will allow earth to be saved from this ever expanding danger.
…that shall blossom within the skull and expand the mind…
And as the movie heads towards the lighthouse Lena saves the world from the threat of the alien beach head, by tricking her doppelgänger, and lighting everything in Area X on fire. I dunno. Does that perspective do it for you? Seems dangerously simple to me.
The Second Wave View of Annihilation
But what about their Irises man?!? Remember that ending? Both Lena and Kane’s eyes glowed in the light. There was something there that wasn’t human! We know for a fact that the aliens are dead and that our Lena is the real Lena. Oh really? Do we now?
…but whether it decays under the earth or above on green fields…
What if the ending of Garland’s movie isn’t quite what it seems? Could it be that this “happy ending” that we’ve been given, the death of all the alien artifacts by fire ignited by Lena are just a way for the alien beach head to move into stage two? What if, instead of confining itself to a shimmer-walled protective zone… what if it had just freed itself to infuse itself into absolutely everything on earth? Could it be that our happy ending is the worst possible ending of all? Could it be? And so the Irises of Kane and Lena just reflect the truth that, like everyone else (soon anyway) on planet earth, that they are, and will be, infused with the alien overlord’s shimmer. I don’t know, could it be?
Mythic View of Annihilation
Just the other day, as I was digging deep on the meanings of the books, I stumbled upon a New York Times article that said that the Southern Reach Trilogy was a modern take on the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. And as soon as I read that, this sort of mythic view of the story sort of clicked. If you do not remember the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, it’s a simple enough story. Orpheus has the gift of beautiful music in song and voice, and no mortal could match him. And soon he fell in love with Eurydice, whom he wooed via his song, and they wed. But immediately after the wedding she was bitten by a viper and died.
…or out to sea or in the very air, all shall come to revelation,
Totally distraught, Orpheus heads to the underworld to find his love. And eventually, through the beauty of his song, he convinces the realm of the dead to give up Eurydice, but on one condition. He can’t look back at her at all as they travel up into the land of the living. And as Orpheus heads into the light he turns, but Eurydice is still in the shade of cave, and so she says “farewell” and is lost forever.
This myth perfectly mirrors the events spelled out in Annihilation. A lost love is chased after into the depths of hell. And hell says, sure, you can have him back. But, he might just be a little different. (And filled with writing worms too to boot!) And if that is the case, then this myth/movie is speaking to the transitoriness of life. That fleetingness of our chance together with our loves. It speaks of death and of mourning. And even in spite of our prowess, it tells of how it just doesn’t matter… we lose everyone in the end.
The Annihilation View of Annihilation
Stop for a moment and think with me. Why did Lena have an affair with her fellow professor, Daniel? Could it possibly be that Lena had a significant dose of that self-destructive impulse Dr. Ventress was referring to in the movie? Could it be that the reason that Kale went into Area X was simply because of the affair he knew was happening? Was it a suicidal impulse that lived and breathed deep inside Lena, in all of us, that caused Kane to go, and then caused Lena to follow?
… and to revel, in the knowledge of the strangling fruit…
And then, to take it one step further, is the answer to the solution of the destruction of Area X simply in Ventress’ decision to select these particular women with these specific annihilative impulses? Because what happens at the end? I’ll remind you. Lena hands her double the phosphorous grenade, and it lights the double on fire… which it then spreads to the light house and to all the plants within reach, etc. Why? Because her double is self destructive just like Lena is. Her dopplegänger is a double of herself anyway. And that destructive mentality ripples out through this double and across Area X. It is this annihilation impulse that dooms them, and yet, it is this Annihilation impulse that saves them in the end.
…and the hand of the sinner shall rejoice, for there is no sin in shadow or in light that the seeds of the dead cannot forgive.
This view is fairly well rooted in the book too. It is understood that the Biologist is special for some unsaid, unspoken reason. Her annihilative properties are important. Her connection to her lost husband. Her connection to these lost environments. All are important for some unexplained reason.
What is Your Take on Annihilation?
What is your take on it? What did you come away with? The ending, for me, Alex Garland’s ending anyway, is so vastly different than VanderMeer’s conclusion. Garland gives us two Lena’s struggling for survival, a veritable David and Goliath confrontation, and at risk? The entirety of earth. Our cells split, and reproduce, and then die… which, isn’t logical Lena posits. The destruction of self? Completely illogical. Death? Illogical. And I couldn’t agree more. The movie is an in depth deconstruction of the flawedness of life. The failedness of all that is.
Kane looked deep into this well of death, this flawed and failed life, deep into this well of loss, and committed the ultimate act of self annihilation, via suicide. Lena on the other hand? Her sense of annihilation caused her to destroy her dopplegänger, and give the world a chance at life once again. It is an act of sacrificial offering that restores the world at large. You know the idea of the Jewish sacrifice, the lamb on the altar, that stands in your place, takes your sin? For a moment anyway. Lena uses her double as a sacrificial lamb, and in so doing the alien in this world burns, and gives humanity a second chance. A redemption of sorts. A temporary salvation from our self-annihilation tendencies.
VanderMeer on the other hand? He gives us something entirely different. And his vision is found in the words of the poem written on the wall by the crawler. “The sinner shall rejoice, for there is no sin in shadow or in light that the seeds of the dead cannot forgive…” The Southern Reach trilogy tells the story of nature transforming itself under the watchful eye of the alien. Or of god. All that is, burns, and all that is becomes what will be through a ruinous reckoning. Humans become owls, alligators, and whales. And yet not. All is changed, everything is perfected. And this god-like creature that has brushed up against humanity? He may not have even noticed the encounter. It isn’t entirely clear. But we know we are all the smaller for the encounter. We are all the weaker for it. And that if we are lucky, we will be all the better for the encounter…
“And then there shall be a fire that knows the naming of you, and in the presence of the strangling fruit, its dark flame shall acquire every part of you that remains.”