For me, [Annihilation] was a film about the nature of self-destruction… it was about an observation I made, which is that everybody appears to be self-destructive. Some people are very obviously self-destructive because they’re addicted to heroin or alcohol… Other people are very comfortable in their own skin, and they’ve got a fantastic job and a fantastic life and everything seems to be bulletproof. They feel like they’ve sort of cracked something about life. But then when you get to know them, you discover odd bits of self-destruction, which then become significant bits of self-destruction. It was the universality of it, that even the people who’d cracked it all had not cracked it all. And then I started trying to think… Where does it come from? Why is it that you have a really good marriage and you dismantle it? Why do you have a really good friendship and you dismantle it? Why do you have a really good job and you dismantle it? Whatever it happens to be. And the film essentially presents that question and an answer to that question by inference. To me, that is what it’s about.
The film begins in a rather strange manner, but immensely important for the ongoing narration. A lighthouse is hit by an object from the sky. Then, we see a video of a single cell. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a teacher at a medical school and the film opens with her lecture on biology and the advent of life by cell division. She says: The rhythm of the dividing pair which becomes the structure of every microbe, blade of grass, sea creature, land creature, and human. The structure of everything that lives… and everything that dies. Looking at the screen, they are observing the cell from a tumor. The film begins on this bleak note, announcing that we are entering into the realm of the Freudian death drive, or “thanatos”, using a more popular term (which Freud himself never used).
Lena suffered through a traumatic loss, her husband is missing for a year, after going on a mysterious mission (he was in the military) The song “Helplessly Hoping” is playing and we observe her sorrow and recollections of their happiest moments. Abruptly, he arrives and while she is asking him questions about his whereabouts during the time he was missing, he starts bleeding internally. While they are transporting him in the ambulance, the special forces take him and soon, Lena finds herself waking up in a room and talking to a psychologist. She finds out that the mysterious area called The Shimmer is absorbing its surroundings. The psychologist Dr. Ventress tells Lena: In a few months, this area will have grown to where we are right now. And then we’re talking cities… states… and so on. This is the first of the possible meanings of “annihilation”, foretold in the film’s title.
Lena, as a former member of the military and a biologist, joins the team of women who are preparing to enter The Shimmer in the quest for truth. So far, no one has come back except her husband. As Dr. Ventress states the missions’s objective, that is, reaching the lighthouse and acquiring data, Lena taunts her and asks her what her mission statement is. Dr. Ventress explains that she profiled everyone who entered The Shimmer and sent them there. In a way, she resembles a military officer who sends the troops into a certain death. At the moment, we are in the X zone, a zone of uncertainties, and the next chapter of the film revolves around entering the mysterious, glowing Shimmer.
Soon after they enter the Shimmer, we see a flashback showing Lena having an affair with her colleague from the university and in the next shot we see her waking up from a dream. In this sequence it seems that Lena was dreaming the exact thing that happened in her own past. The preconscious material, which consists of our memories thus happens in the realm of the unconscious, i.e. dreams. We can observe the team’s lack of orientation, absence of memories which should be readily accesible since the events happened no more than a day ago. Time-space continuum is in a flux, it is bending according to its own logic. As if in a dream. In other words, the Shimmer operates according to the laws of the unconscious, and can be identified with it.
The flowers, as well as animals, are mutating; the psychologist calls it a pathology. Lena says: You’d sure as hell call it a pathology if you saw this in a human. Psychoanalitically speaking, the flowers and animals which are mutating are representing symptoms, which Freud defines as follows “A symptom is a sign of, and a substitute for an instinctual gratification which has remained in abeyance”. While describing the Shimmer to an officer who interrogates her after she leaves the Shimmer she says: It was dreamlike. – Nightmarish? – the officer asks. She responds: Not always. Sometimes it was beautiful.
As they are rowing down the river, one of the women, Sheppard, asks Lena if she had lost someone. Lena, without revealing her husband’s identity, says that she lost him in war. Sheppard says that it had to be something since voluntueering for this mission is not something you would do if your life was in perfect harmony. She explains that she lost a child due to leukemia, Anya was an addict, Josie cut herself to feel alive and, as we learn later, Dr. Ventress has cancer.
All these women, as we can see, are in a state of severe distress, have experienced a trauma, or are terminally ill. The question is, why they didn’t dedicate themselves to the process of healing or decided to spend the rest of their lives striving for the possibility of harmony. Why did Lena destroy a good marriage by having an affair and thus drove her husband to go into the Shimmer? This is the main question behind the film, as Garland himself emphasized. The answer is revealed to us soon, when Dr. Ventress and Lena are having a conversation while being on guard. Dr. Ventress says: I’d say you are confusing suicide with self-destruction. Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct. In some way, in some part of our lives. We drink, or we smoke. We destabilize the good job. Or the happy marriage. These aren’t decisions, they are impulses.”. She tells Lena that she is better equipped to explain this, since she is a biologist.
In his essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud writes: “So through a long period of time a living substance may have been constantly created anew, and easily extinguished, until decisive external influences altered in such a way as to compel the still surviving substance to ever greater deviations from the original path of life, and to ever more complicated and circuitous routes to the attainment of the goal of death. These circuitous ways of death, faithfully retained by the conservative instincts would be neither more nor less than the phenomena of life as we know it.” Freud’s understanding of the circuitous routes that strive for the attainment of the goal of death are precisely those impulses which Ventress identifies as paths to self-destruction. A few moments after this conversation, a mutated bear comes and devours Sheppard.
After Sheppard’s death, the team is confronted with a decision whether they will strive to reach the lighthouse or they will turn back and go out of the Shimmer. Dr. Ventress decides to go on, and Lena wants the same as well, while the rest of the team is opposed to the idea. In the end, they agree to go forward. The lighthouse is a metaphor. On the one hand for truth and knowledge, and it can be argued that men seek knowledge to bring order and a sense of purpose in their lives; in Nietzsche’s words, because of the will to power as knowledge. The truth they are seeking for is, in other words, search for purpose and perseverance. In one of the aphorisms in his book The Will to Power, he writes: “What is truth? – Inertia. That hypothesis which gives rise to contentment; smallest expenditure of spiritual force etc.” Josie says: Ventress wants to face it. You want to fight it. But I don’t think I want either of these things. – and vanishes into the plants of humanoid structure.
The other interpretation can be that the lighthouse is representing a phallic object, which is “the symbol of the highest power” (Spielrein) and thus, life. At the beginning of the film, the lighthouse is damaged, i.e. life itself is in danger which is further emphasized with the spreading of the Shimmer and the destruction it brings. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan speaks of “enunciation in which the effects of metaphor and metonymy are constituted… the very mechanisms Freud described as those of the unconscious.” If the lighthouse is metaphorical in various ways, this further enhances our proposition that we are in the realm of the unconscious. Soon after their argument, we witness dreamlike, Tarkovskyan shots, which further emphasize the nature of the Shimmer and its topograhy.
As Lena is reaching the lighthouse, in a beautiful shot she is shown next to the glistening, yet ebbing sea. According to Sabina Spielrein, water “is a procreative, primal force”. The trees are turned into ice; according to the same author “the tree is a symbol of sexuality and of the life-giving phallus”, and since it is covered in ice, life itself is freezing unto death. We see the lighthouse, the metaphor of knowledge Lena is about to gain. In front of the lighthouse we see bones and skulls, whose symbolism is evident. Lena sees a human body scorched by fire.
Before Lena watches a video tape her husband made, frozen trees, the sea and skulls are seen again and this editing sequence is abundant in symbols of life that was and its destruction. In the video, her husband says: “I thought I was a man. I had a life. People called me Kane. Now I’m not so sure.” It is possible that due to Lena’s betrayal, his urge toward self-destruction intensified, and the experiences in the Shimmer further confused his understanding of himself, his identity. He commits suicide with a phosphorous grenade.
Lena enters a black tunnel, filled with bright light, reminiscent of the sewer scene from the Third Man. As he comes out, she sees Dr. Ventress who says: Unfathomable mind. And now beacon. Now sea… We spoke. What was it we said. That I needed to know what was inside the lighthouse. That moment has passed. Dr. Ventress’ words are line with Nietzsche’s understanding of truth, it is associated with inertia, satisfaction of the will to knowledge. The following scenes need to be seen rather than analysed, they are hypnotic, visually rich and captivating as the scenes from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Out of Lena’s drop of blood and by cell division, a new entity is formed, which starts to copy Lena’s movements and finally her looks.
When she destroys her doppelgänger with a grenade, a tree is shown burning and falling to the ground. In her article Destruction as the Cause of Becoming, Spielrein quotes the myth of the “The tree that gave life to mankind” and that “the fruit of the Tree of Life, or rather the water of life, are the symbols for life energy through which nature becomes rejuvenated each year.” In the film, as it was noted, the trees are frozen, and in northern legends, there are symbols for “nature suffering under winter’s force.”
In a Germanic saga, “Brünhilde, so to speak perishes in Siegrfried: Siegfried is the fire, the redeeming glow of the sun. In this primeval creator, Brünhilde is dissolved and becomes fire herself.” These examples from mythology are Spielrein’s arguments to support her thesis that destruction is the cause of being. Lena destroyed herself, since the doppelgänger came into existence out of her blood, but at the same time, we are witnessing a creation through destruction. As Lena returns back from the Shimmer, she says that the alien entity did not destroy, it tried to change. According to Spielrein, these two things are almost equivalent. In the end, we see that Lena’s eyes are glowing.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Vintage Books, New York, 1968
Jacques Lacan, Écrits, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2007
Sabina Spielrein, The Essential Writings of Sabina Spielrein, Routledge, New York, 2019
Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, International Psychoanalitical Library
Sigmund Freud, Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, Martino Publishing, USA, 2013