Annihilation: The Alienation of Desire
With a strong cast and a fascinating premise, the adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation has made waves in the science-fiction community. Though the film was given a limited theatrical release before widespread distribution to Netflix (now available) it has nonetheless been considered a successful, if unorthodox, adaptation.
There are remarkable differences between the novel and the movie. Both, however, pose subtle questions about the nature of desire, motivation, and drive. This question lies at the center of both the movie and the book: what does the alien want?
The movie stars Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist suffering from crippling depression after the disappearance of her husband (a special forces soldier) a year before. When he inexplicably shows up at their home, she is ecstatic. When he begins convulsing and coughing up blood, she is terrified. And when the government forces the ambulance they are in to a stop and jams a tranquilizer syringe into her neck- well, then she knows nothing at all.
Lena wakes up in a room so stark and clinical that she wonders if she’s in a mental hospital. There, she is interviewed by a psychologist named Ventress; a key character in both the novel and the movie, though in different ways. Ventress lets Lena in on a secret known to a select few; that an existential threat creeps toward them a few inches a day, swallowing anything that enters. They call it the Shimmer.
The Shimmer radiates out from a lighthouse that was struck by a meteor several years earlier. From the outside, it looks like a wall of twisted rainbow, swirling and shifting. Teams of researchers, soldiers, and scientists have been entering for years, but only one man has returned: Lena’s husband Kane. Lena asks to see him. He’s held in an on-facility ICU unit with massive internal bleeding. Then Lena learns of another expedition preparing to enter the Shimmer, led by Ventress herself, and decides she wants in. Later, when asked why, she says only, “I owed him. So I went in.”
The new expedition consist of five volunteers, all women: Lena herself, the quiet biologist; Ventress, a blunt psychologist; Sheppard, an introspective anthropologis;. Radek, a young and brilliant astrophysicist; Thorensson, a mistrustful paramedic. They enter the Shimmer and instantly everything goes wrong. They are losing track of time, being attacked by hostile animals, and watching their unity begin to break apart. Eventually, with the anthropologist and paramedic dead, the astrophysicist disappeared, and the psychologist pushing on to the lighthouse, Lena finds herself alone. She follows Ventress to the lighthouse, descending into the cavern created by the meteor’s impact.
There, Lena finds Ventress, and comes face-to-face with the cause of the Shimmer and the deaths of so many; an alien intelligence. It breaks Ventress into her smallest cellular components, using Lena’s blood to create something new- a clone of Lena herself. It first appears as strange as the Shimmer in which it was born, soon taking on her traits and appearance.
Lena runs, and the creature appears before her. From here it copies her every movement with impossible precision. She punches it, and it returns the blow. She runs for the door, and it follows. The creature doesn’t seem to want anything. It moves only when Lena does.
Eventually, Lena’s panic is replaced with a sense of wary curiosity; after all, she is a scientist before all else. She outsmarts the mimic, pulling the pin on a phosphorus grenade and leaving it in the mimic’s hand. As Lena dives for the door and escapes, the mimic stares at the grenade in its hand and, in a key moment, accepts it.
The grenade ignites and burns both the mimic and the alien infestation in the lighthouse, the Shimmer collapses, and our heroine lives on, forever changed by the nightmarish experiences she has endured.
But the ambiguous ending left viewers asking a seemingly simple question: “What happened?”
Throughout the movie there is ample evidence- and discussion- of the effect the Shimmer has on life within. It blends traits together from vastly different species, literally refracting DNA within its sphere of influence. While this effect is certainly shown in a physical capacity, there is a more subtle aspect to it. The refraction also affects the cognitive functions of the organisms within. When the Shimmer created Lena’s clone, it also copied her mental state; the tendency all humans have to “self-destruct” as Ventress put it.
A major revelation comes in the form of a flashback roughly halfway through the movie: Lena is cheating on Kane with a coworker whenever he is on deployment. The initial image of a loving, idyllic marriage is soon shattered as the cracks begin to show. Why Lena is cheating is less important than the very fact that she is engaging in one of the most human of traits, a major facet of both the movie and the novel: self-destruction.
This is critical. Lena has already destroyed her marriage, entered a dangerous, alien environment, and engaged in a reckless compulsion to reach the lighthouse. She attacked the mimic, wallowing in anger and violence. Self-destruction is written across her entire being.
And it is for this reason that the mimic becomes an accomplice in it’s own destruction. What Lena has done metaphorically, the mimc does in reality: it destroys itself and everything it holds sacred.
The novel version of Annihilation is both entirely different, and incredibly similar. In tone, both versions depict a slow, subtle depression that seeps into the soul of the viewer; a desolate and haunting journey. However, while the plot and ending are somewhat dissimilar, the ultimate message is quite comparable. Annihilation is the first book in a trilogy that is truly stunning.
Both versions display the human tendency to self-destruct. In the novel, the expedition into Area X, (as the Shimmer is called) is much smaller. It consists of only four women, and they are never named; referred to only as “the biologist” (again the main protagonist) the psychologist (who leads the expedition) the anthropologist, and the surveyor. A fifth member, a linguist, was left behind before the expedition entered Area X. It is also shown early on that the psychologist has programmed the other members with hypnotic suggestions, though the biologist is revealed to be immune.
The expedition is given only a few guns (which are locked in a case) journals to record their thoughts, food, tents, and a small black box with a bulb that will blink red under certain mysterious circumstances. The group is not told what causes the box to activate, only that if it does they have a limited time to remove themselves from the area. The rest of the tech they are given is all completely outdated.
The focus of the expedition soon becomes a “Tower” as the biologist calls it, a reverse spiral staircase that burrows deep into the ground. The rest of the group calls it a “tunnel”, but the narrator mentions several times that she is incapable of imagining it as anything other than a Tower.
When the group enters the tower, they discover an endless run-on sentence scrawled into the wall as it spirals down, the content of which is, again, haunting. An example:
“In as calm a voice as I could manage, aware of the importance of that moment, I read from the beginning, aloud: ‘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…’ Then the darkness took it. ‘Words? Words?’ the anthropologist said. Yes, words. ‘What are they made of?’ the surveyor asked. Did they need to be made of anything? The illumination cast on the continuing sentence quavered and shook. Where lies the strangling fruit became bathed in shadow and in light, as if a battle raged for its meaning. ‘Give me a moment. I need to get closer.’ Did I? Yes, I needed to get closer.”
The group leaves after the biologist inadvertently inhales some strange spores from the vegetation the words are formed from, though the rest of the group is unaware she has done so.
Before long, the surveyor is dead, the psychologist vanished to journey alone toward the lighthouse. The biologist journeys deep into the tower, discovering the body of the surveyor, and realizes that whatever creature is creating the words is extremely dangerous. She calls it “the Crawler”. Trust between the anthropologist and the biologist is shattered after a failed attempt by the biologist to use a hypnotic command on the anthropologist.
By the climax of the novel, the biologist is alone. All other members of the expedition lie dead, one by the biologist’s own hand. She has pushed on to the lighthouse to find immense numbers of journals left by prior expeditions (one of which belonged to her husband) and the psychologist, who somehow fell from the top of the lighthouse and dies shortly after.
Alone, the biologist returns to the Tower and descends until she comes face to face with the Crawler, and the climax of the novel occurs.
Both versions of the story deal with this flaw of human nature, this drive to self-destruct in our lives. Each version of the protagonist are incredibly complex, simultaneously faithful to the other and unique to themselves.
The Question of Desire
As humans, we think we understand abstract concepts like love, fear, and hate. Envy. Desire. But do we truly understand the myriad of subtleties that make these concepts up? There is strong evidence that our views are tainted by the lens of humanity through which we see everything else.
Extrapolate this inherent belief to the stories we create. Take a personal favorite; Battle: Los Angeles. In many ways it is a standard action movie; aliens invade, a small, heroic team goes above and beyond the call of duty, and Los Angelos is saved. A nearly two hour long shoot-em-up fest that is great for melting into the couch and enjoying some mind numbing cinema.
But at no point is the film intellectually stimulating. Nothing lies beneath the surface. Almost immediately, it is heavily implied, (and therefore certain) that the aliens are invading for the purpose of stealing Earth’s water. Snooze. Seen that play out a million times. The film portrays the classic example of an alien menace with motivations that are completely, predictably, human. While the film is still enjoyable, it lacks a deeper meaning.
Now that we have seen the standard method in modern cinema, let’s return to an exception to the rule.
In Annihilation, novel author Jeff VanderMeer and film director Alex Garland both took special pains to avoid falling into this trope. Both the Crawler and the mimic are utterly and truly alien in the respect that they lack a projection of human desire; as the viewer, we don’t know what they want. This is a major plot point in both the movie and the film, as the ambiguity of the alien is a major piece of the immersive whole.
In the movie, the hub of the alien presence itself is confined to the cavern beneath the lighthouse. Sure, its effects are far reaching, and the mimics it creates are seen throughout the Shimmer, (Kane and Lena’s mimics; the white deer) but the true “consciousness” of the alien is fixed in place. At no point does it seem to do anything other than exist. In order for a mimic to be created, the subject must come to the alien, and as often as not this seems to be a random occurrence.
Then there are the mimics themselves. Kane, (who, ironically, seems more pacifistic than his wife) develops a rapport with his mimic, even giving it a message to relay to Lena. The mimic agrees and indeed finds Lena, the event that becomes the catalyst for the entire film. But that desire is not the alien’s, its Kane’s .
When Lena’s mimic first appears, it follows her movements. It shows no goal or motivation of its own. Only after she attacks does it reciprocate. Only because it inherits her nature does it submit to self-destruction.
What sentient creature could evolve to behave in this way? This is a bug, not a feature. It seems to serve little purpose; indeed, it is actually detrimental. This leaves only two possible explanations; one, that the alien is playing a far larger game, and that it’s desires are beyond our comprehension, or two, that it simply lacks desire. The latter is also beyond human comprehension, interestingly enough.
In the novel, the bottom line is quite similar. Why is the Crawler descending ever deeper into the tower? Why is it writing endlessly on the walls? There seems to be no motivation.
The rabbit hole has led this far already; why not finish it out?
In most fiction- scratch that- all fiction, there must be an antagonist. These crucial elements can take many forms, but they must always be present. However, in most fiction they are personified in a way that is relatable to the viewer; after all, without something that sucks us in to root against, why watch? Annihilation presents a rare, foreign type of antagonist, one that is far less relatable than the average baddie. To many (myself included) this makes the antagonist more interesting and compelling. Something never before seen commands curiosity from novelty alone.
And it isn’t only about us. We are just observers; calculating, uninvolved. It’s the characters who actually have to struggle against this unfathomable entity. How does an antagonist without desire affect a character and their decisions? Such a situation could lead to a myriad of vastly different scenarios, any one of which could make for a fascinating tale.
In the end, the question created by these types of films always seems to be the same. What do we really know?
What do you think? Leave a comment.