Annihilation — Destruction is another form of change

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said “Everything flows, nothing abides, everything gives way, and nothing stays fixed”, sounds reasonable to you, I presume? But what if the changes destroy everything we know and are rebuilt in some alien way? Annihilation, one of my favorite cerebral sci-fi movies of all time along with Arrival, Contact, etc. considers this possibility. Before I introduce Annihilation, let’s start with some lighter fare, like cell biology ;)

Why do we age? Biologically speaking, over time our cells divide and this constant division helps with regrowth and keeps us healthy, and when cells hit their Hayflick limit (the number of times a cell can divide before it enters senescence), it stops diving and we begin to see signs of aging such as wrinkled skin and malfunctioning organs. Every time a cell divides, the telomeres (these are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes) keep shortening, and over time the cell gets damaged and can’t divide anymore. Stem cells are not marred by the Hayflick limit because they have an enzyme called telomerase that stops the telomere shrinking, in other words, stem cells are immortal. There’s one other cell type that does not adhere to the Hayflick limit and is immortal…. the cancer cell, cancer cells never stop dividing, they consume everything in their path until there’s nothing left of us. (On a side note, I would be remiss if I didn’t introduce you to HeLa cells using this opportunity, HeLa is an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line. The line was derived from cervical cancer cells taken on February 8, 1951, from Henrietta Lacks, a patient who died of cancer on October 4, 1951. The cell line was found to be remarkably durable and prolific which warrants its extensive use in scientific research.)

Human beings tend to self-destruct, it is said that not only our DNA is programmed to self-destruct, but even our impulses as an individual and community are also somehow programmed to self-destruct… Why else would we jeopardize our health by eating terrible food, smoking, ruining a healthy relationship or even developing nuclear weapons? To paraphrase the Buddhist monk Pema Chodron, maybe “we are exposing ourselves again and again to annihilation so as to find that part of ourselves that is indestructible”

Just like an alien “program” enters our cells to make them cancerous thus starts dividing endlessly until nothing is left, what if an alien “program” enters our earth and starts consuming our ecosystem, plants, animals, and human in its path to create something utterly alien whose intentions and motivations are unknown to us?

Annihilation presents us with such a scenario, through an unexplained alien attack that hits a lighthouse on the southern seaboard of the USA, an entire area begins to transform, first, it creates a space which locals start calling “shimmer” that encompasses everything inside it, not just the biology, but light, radio waves, even time, and the shimmer keeps expanding outwards, and whoever goes in to investigate don’t return.

The film follows the journey of a group of scientists who enter the shimmer to investigate, their expedition is just the latest in a series of failed missions into the area from which no one returned except … one person. He is afflicted by an unknown illness and is dying, who also happens to be the husband of one of the scientists part of the latest expedition. Lena (excellently portrayed by Natalie Portman), a biologist and a former soldier volunteers for an apparent suicide mission because she feels she owes her husband to find the truth about what ails him. Her group curiously includes all women and all have similar self-destructive tendencies (revealed in a Johari Window-like conversation instead of flashbacks, the only person who apparently warrants some flashback episodes is our protagonist naturally:)). Once they enter the shimmer, they start noticing changes around them starting with time, the biology of plants, animals, and even within themselves, but they also notice beauty in the mutations of the desolate microcosm. As they venture closer to the lighthouse (the purported ground zero), they witness some extreme changes. What they figure out literally boggles their mind, whatever alien force that is affecting this change is like a prism that not only refracts light but time, space, and even DNA. Although they can’t understand what or if it event wants something, the alien force inevitably expanding to probably consume everything on earth, but in the process, it is making something new which mirrors our current ecosystem but retains its “otherness”, it’s probably treating our ecosystem like a giant experiment where our DNA is its clay to play with, but what would happen to us while it expands? To make something new, the old has to give way, leading to Annihilation.

Annihilation is based on the Nebula award winning novel by Jeff Vandermeer and is part of a trilogy called “Southern Reach” trilogy. Unlike other movies where the aliens are shown as “beings” from outer space, we are never shown aliens in any form other than the mutations and replication that occur on earth. Without giving too much away (I still want you to watch the movie and experience it), the movie is about what happens to the aforementioned scientific expedition and who, if anyone, returns at all? If they do return, are they still the same people who went in? It is an excellent treatise on the biology of nature and also the nature of human beings and how they tend to self-destruct.

The movie has a stellar cast that includes Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and others. It’s adapted to screen and directed by Alex Garland, who made the instant sci-fi classic Ex Machina. Annihilation is not a grandiose sci-fi movie like Gravity or Interstellar, rather it wants you to consider a paroxysm of an alien biological agent taking over our world rather than battling an alien spaceship in outer space. The production is very tight and the set design is very subtle, barely concentrating on the environs where we are forced to look around the scene instead of the camera drawing our attention with any clever blocking, in fact, most of the scenes are staged in wide angles. The background score similarly has an eerie feel to it, somehow incessant and alien simultaneously, and at times silent sharpening our focus to consider the visuals. There are some jump scares in the film but it comes across not as gimmicky but integral to our understanding of the extent of the shimmer’s mutations, specifically when you enter the shimmer, the shimmer enters you. If you watch the trailer, you might be tempted to think of the film as a horror flick but I assure you this is sci-fi at its purest.

When the film opens, we see Natalie Portman’s Lena recounting her experience in the Shimmer and her forearm bores a tattoo of the ouroboros (a serpent eating its own tail, an ancient Egyptian Mythical symbol that represents the rebirth of dead reaching immortality), but in the flashbacks her forearm is tattoo-free and during the journey, the tattoo slowly takes shape on her hand. If your entire being is ripped apart and rebuilt with something alien, your form and mind might remain intact while shimmer/otherness resides in you, when you are rebuilt, are you less than yourself or more? Sounds like another instance of Ship Of Theseus to me. Since the entire story is narrated homodiegetically, it’s obviously left to us and you have to watch Annihilation to find your answer.

Written on Sep 9, 2019

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Bhaskar Gandavabi

Bhaskar Gandavabi

I love to build software and write.

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