Annihilation: A Breathtaking and Harrowing Look at Depression, Grief, Illness, and Trauma

annihilation movie film horror sci fi natalie portmanTo start off, if you haven’t seen Alex Garland’s Annihilation, I would recommend it, and I would also advise that you avoid the trailers. I went into the film with no knowledge beyond the fact that it’s a sci-fi horror story adapted from a Jeff VanderMeer novel. A strange essence called The Shimmer starts encasing nature and keeps extending its presence, threatening to envelop populated land. Lena (Natalie Portman) and a group of other women with various types of medical, scientific and military backgrounds go into The Shimmer to, on the outside, discover why The Shimmer is doing this. Internally, though, there is something more at stake with each character.

Annihilation is the sort of film I started off ambivalent about; the first act, despite some beautiful shots (a grim movie without a 10% opacity filter!), goes on a bit, and despite being one of four people in the entire theatre, some gentleman decided to sit right behind me and fall asleep, loudly snoring fifteen minutes into the film till I moved from my spot. However, despite the beginning going on and having some questionable underacting, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie to the point of internally gushing as I thought about it later at night. I have purchased the entire Southern Reach trilogy, as well as a book important to the narrative, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Anyhow, I’ll go more into the film below, but I would recommend seeing it before reading. I would also recommend proceeding with caution if you struggle with issues regarding mental illness, suicide, self-harm, grief, and cancer.

After the film ended, I was unsure how to feel, but since I watched it this past Friday, I can’t stop thinking about it. I spoke to a friend who didn’t care for it, and as someone ambivalent immediately after leaving the theatre, I saw why they weren’t into it, or at least how they could not become fully engaged. However, similar to how The Shimmer makes plants mutate and evolve, growing into each other, this film has grown considerably with me the more I think of it, to the point that I would say it’s one of my favorite films I’ve seen recently.

I’m unsure if I would say it surpasses how I felt about Gerald’s Game, which is my favorite recent film, but both films make me pretty emotional thinking about them. I would also recommend these two pieces, which encapsulate some of my other feelings about Annihilation. I also think this video gives some insight into the story.

While Annihilation often relies on great visual cues, it can be pretty on the nose; however, some of these themes are still not especially brought up in discussions about this movie. In one scene, Dr. Ventriss, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s psychologist character, talks to Lena about how all the group members have self-destructive habits. In another scene, Lena talks to a team member, Cass (Tuva Novotny), about all the members’ struggles:

  • Lena is not only selfish but feels guilty after cheating on her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac).
  • Kane, who went into The Shimmer and returned to Lena before going into organ failure, found out about her affair and essentially went on the mission not caring if he died.
  • Dr. Ventriss has terminal cancer.
  • Josie (Tessa Thompson) self-harms.
  • Anya (Gina Rodriguez) struggles with alcohol addiction.
  • Cass lost a daughter to leukemia and mourns both her daughter and her former self prior to her daughter’s passing.

These two scenes are pivotal to what I consider to be the crux of this film: how depression and self-destruction, or rather, self-annihilation, affect one’s identity. How it affects not just that person, but the world around them. The world in The Shimmer, an alien phenomenon, refracts other biological identities onto living organisms. For example, it combines plant and human DNA, or the DNA of two animals, or even a person with an animal’s, as shown by the horrifying bear creature who kills Cass and then takes on her dying screams.

Also, throughout the movie, various characters take on an ouroboros infinity tattoo on their left forearm, most notably on Lena while she relays her experiences in The Shimmer throughout the film as the sole survivor. The Shimmer alters everyone’s bodies on not just a physical level, but quite definitively a cellular one.

tessa thompson josie annihilation horror sci fi film movie
Tessa Thompson as Josie in Annihilation; petals and leaves sprout from her scarred arms

Essentially, during these traumatic events, the people take on aspects of those they lose, or eventually lose. Or they become something wholly different, as in the case of Josie, whose self-harm scars sprout petals and leaves till she becomes a flower person. This part was haunting to me because the audience only sees the beginning of her change before she disappears into the foliage, similar to how one with suicidal fantasies may think about disappearing into quiet, dark nature like the narrator in John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” who imagines disappearing into the deep woods as a means of escaping pain and depression. Both Annihilation and Keats, however, rely on uncertainty with regards to the characters’ fates in the face of trauma.

To me, the refraction within The Shimmer is a well-conceived parallel to the effects of grief and trauma, and how it essentially imprints on others and changes one’s identity in a deeply transformative way. One does not go into The Shimmer untouched, nor do they go in without affecting the world around them, right down to the flowers and rocks. Even out of The Shimmer, the water Lena touches starts to subtly change.

But what about the aliens?

Ultimately, the film’s climax culminates in a scene where Lena makes the dubious decision (again, self-annihilation) to go into an underground tunnel under a lighthouse. She finds “Dr. Ventriss,” who is really an alien becoming Dr. Ventriss’s form, with Ventriss’s fate going unknown. After Lena confronts the alien and “Dr. Ventriss” speaks for a time, Lena witnesses a phantasmagorical scene right out of the final moments of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where she sees a kaleidoscopic mitosis before a drop of her blood falls into the rainbow of cells, creating an alien mirror of her who replicates her every move.

She also learns that her husband, Kane, who returned from being MIA at the start of the film before growing deathly ill, is actually an alien mimicking his form. When Lena tries to escape the lighthouse after becoming truly alone, she is literally crushed by herself, her alien counterpart. She fights with herself and deals with the weight of her destructive actions that changed both herself and doomed her husband to go into The Shimmer to suffer and die by suicide.

Some of the people in the film, like Lena and Kane, after all the trauma and loss, are literally not the same people they were before the harrowing events they endured; in Kane’s case, he is actually an alien pretending to be Kane, and to me, as someone who has had periods of deep depression, this captures the feeling of dissociation one feels both when experiencing the worst patches of mental illness, as well as when coping with grief and PTSD. One starts to feels as if they’re performing themselves, rather than actually being a person. Even Lena, who is theoretically not an alien duplicate, has shimmering eyes and changes what she touches despite supposedly destroying The Shimmer, much like even after “recovery” or putting distance between a mental break, a suicide attempt, a devastating event, or a terrible loss does not mean the effects of those events cease to change the individual or their surroundings.

These events change one’s perception of the world and themselves, hence why episodes of dissociation or experiences with alters occur most often after horrific trauma where removing oneself from their traumatized self or the event as a coping mechanism culminates in massive changes in a person’s life. It all ties back into the changing of an identity after a crisis, and I want to particularly point to a quotation in Angelica Jade Bastién’s piece “Annihilation and How it Understands Depression,” which I linked above. After surviving a suicide attempt, Bastién writes:

This recovery — the hours of therapy, the conversations about medication — have led me to question the narrative I’ve written for myself. Who am I without my trauma, my guilt, my sorrows? This question has haunted me in the last few months. As I think about Annihilation, I keep coming back to that ending — Lena being crushed by the physical embodiment of her self-destructive nature and depression, yet somehow escaping — at least a part of her has. I will never be the young girl I once was, unmarked and unbound to the rigors of depression and the glorious highs of mania. Maybe, like Lena, I can become someone, something else. Not as easy categorizable, but perhaps more whole.

Annihilation captures aspects of trauma and mental illness poignantly and effectively, and the more I think about it, the more I love it.

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