[With Annihilation now available on Hulu, we've decided to repost this article.]
Spoilers ahead for Annihilation.
Movies are not mystery boxes. There is no “answer” because art isn’t a game or a puzzle to be solved. It’s subjective, so it’s open to interpretation. Great art invites interpretation, not by being needlessly obtuse, but by encouraging the viewers to explore certain ideas and concepts that are presented in a unique way.
Alex Garland’s new sci-fi film, Annihilation, is great art. It’s also a movie that’s bound to frustrate and infuriate some viewers who believed they were getting a sci-fi action movie and instead got Tessa Thompson sprouting leaves and people getting attacked by a bear with human screams. It’s horrifying, but in a specific way. However, like last year’s mother!, Annihilation exists largely in the realm of metaphor. It’s meant to put you in the same dreamlike state of the characters, offering explanations for what’s happening, but also never announcing its themes as it tries to weave subtext into the text.
So what’s exactly happening with Annihilation? It’s a movie about cancer.
No one in the movie says, “It’s about cancer,” but it’s clear within the first fifteen minutes that the premise of Garland’s movie is basically, “What if the Earth—that is, the planet itself—got cancer?” And then the movie moves forward from that premise. The “plot” may be about a biologist, Lena (Natalie Portman), who, along with fellow scientists Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Radek (Tessa Thompson), heads into The Shimmer, an unexplained phenomenon, and searching for answers. But the movie is about is cancer, and you can see that consistently throughout.
We immediately get it right from Lena’s first lecture at Johns Hopkins where she talks about cell division, and how cells rapidly divide and mutate. We then cut back three years ago when something struck a lighthouse in the Southern Reach and then it started expanding. The unexplained phenomenon makes a good stand-in for how cancer strikes. Everything is normal, and then it’s not, and in its place is something that’s mutating and, like The Shimmer, expanding. Yes, we can talk about risk factors, but there are perfectly healthy people who still get cancer. It’s not that cancer is inexplicable, but rather our understanding of it is still evolving.
Once Lena and the team are inside the Shimmer, they start noticing mutations, and those mutations stand in for the cancer (the tumor at the heart of the Shimmer) affecting other cells. Garland is basically taking a biological phenomenon and staging something similar to Fantastic Voyage, except instead of the scientists shrinking down to go inside someone’s body, the body they’re investigating is the Earth. Everything gets messed up because of mutations, and as Radek later explains to the group, they’re basically inside of a prism, so everything is refracting. Minds, bodies—everything gets screwed up because that’s what cancer does to a healthy body.
But Garland presents this in a very specific way. It’s not like The Cloverfield Paradox, where anything can happen and nothing is explained so one dude is filled with worms and another dude has a severed arm that offers hints when you’re stuck. Annihilation remains consistent, constantly showing mutations, but mutations as they would occur on a body. Garland wisely abstains from presenting everything as simply gross or beautiful. There’s a calculated indifference. Life grows and mutates, and sometimes you might see something beautiful like the white, skeletal deer with branches for antlers, and sometimes you get ScreamBear, the Bear Made of Screams.
Although Garland loosely adapted Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, certain details bolster the cancer metaphor. For example, the expedition team is all women. From a plot perspective, this is explained by pointing out that previous teams were men, and this could change the results of the expedition. However, it’s also worth noting that the most common form of cancer is breast cancer, which largely affects women.
Additionally, even though all the characters are doctors (admittedly, Thorensen is in kind of a grey area because she’s an EMT) of some kind, the only character referred to repeated as “Doctor” is Dr. Ventress. Although she’s a psychologist by trade, her function in the story has little to do with psychology and more with seeing people go inside The Shimmer and not come out. That wouldn’t be too different from an oncologist who loses a lot of patients. Of course, knowledge is no defense against cancer, and Ventress literally has cancer in the movie.
So how does cancer relate to any of Lena’s flashbacks? In the way that Lena’s self-destruction creates a cancer in her marriage. Lena’s story is basically the heart of the movie. If you cut out her strained relationship with her husband, her guilt over cheating on him, and her desperation to find something that might be able to save him, then you have a movie that’s still fascinating, but also cold. There’s no emotional center to it because you just have five people walking through cancer. Everything in the flashbacks is the humanity that’s tied to each individual—our regrets, our hopes, our dreams. For Lena, her story is about trying to find redemption. That’s why when she talks about trying to rescue Kane (Oscar Isaac), she doesn’t say “I love him.” She says, “I owe him.”
As the movie goes on and we get closer to the Shimmer, we lose Sheppard and Thorensen, and Garland wisely doesn’t make that surprising. He tells us in the opening minutes that those characters die, and then lets us wonder what exactly happened to Radek and Ventress. But the ending for all four characters is basically death of some kind. Radek notes that Ventress “wants to face it” and Lena “wants to fight it”, but she chooses to just accept it. Sometimes people go violently, and others slip away. There’s not a single kind of “cancer death.”
The reason why Annihilation doesn’t stand in for all death goes back to the imagery Garland hits us with throughout the movie. Everything in the movie metastasizes and changes. We get plenty of shots of cells diving. When we see the dead soldier in the swimming pool, his body has basically broken apart and expanded the way a cancer cell would destroy a healthy cell. The Lighthouse itself has a growth highly reminiscent of a tumor. If Garland simply wanted to show “death” in all its forms, he would have used different imagery like blood or ashes. It’s also telling that Ventress, the only character who literally has cancer, goes through the literal definition of annihilation as it relates to physics, “the conversion of matter into energy, especially the mutual conversion of a particle and an antiparticle into electromagnetic radiation.”
So why doesn’t the same thing that happens to Ventress happen to Lena? For the same reason cancer doesn’t kill everyone who gets it. But when we see Lena face off with her alien mirror, that’s a powerful visual representation for cancer. Cancer is both alien and it is in our cells. It’s not an infection or a virus. It’s our own bodies turned against us, which is what happens to Lena in the lighthouse. The only way she’s able to destroy it is with a phosphorous grenade, which may as well stand in for chemotherapy. It’s a destructive force meant to snuff out the alien being that’s also a part of us.
For his part, in an interview at Google, Garland said the movie is about “self-destruction,” and on a metaphysical level, Annihilation certainly has that. Ventress and Lena even have a conversation saying how self-destruction and suicide aren’t the same thing. But if you look at Annihilation as a movie about cancer, then that self-destruction becomes, in a sense, literal. Cancer is a destruction of the self by biological means, and Annihilation shows that self-destruction reflected in the environment. When we think “self-destruction”, we usually think of someone trashing their apartment or drinking heavily. In Annihilation, we see it on a biological level.
The last scene of the movie is the most cryptic where we see Kane, who has recovered, and Lena, back together. She recognizes that this Kane is not her Kane, but likely the copy that was created inside the lighthouse. They’re both “survivors” and he is permanently changed by his experience. When we see The Shimmer in both of their eyes, it’s a reminder that cancer is really never truly exterminated. As this XKCD comic eloquently explains, cancer is always kind of with you no matter what even if you’re “cancer-free.” It also ties back into the nature of their marriage where the basis of their marriage has mutated. They’re different people now, and even if you removed all the sci-fi stuff and simply had a wife reuniting with her husband after cheating on him, and he knew about the infidelity, which is what caused him to leave in the first place, they would be forever changed.
So why not just make a movie about cancer? And why go so broad with “self-destruction”? Perhaps because we tend to get only one kind of cancer movie, which is about the individual cancer patient. And that makes sense because it’s dramatic and its tear-jerking and, sadly, relatable to many people who have seen friends and family stricken with the disease. But what makes Annihilation special is that it wants to confront the cold, uncaring horror of it all. ScreamBear isn’t just a horrifying creation that can rip you apart; it also stands in for the fear of how people will remember your dying moments. The fear of a cancer patient that they’ll be remembered not for who they were, but for their final moments of agony. Yes, there’s a sense of “self-destruction” in that one’s identity is destroyed, but it’s also a specific form of death.
That’s why when Lomax (Benedict Wong), the scientist debriefing Lena, says, “So it was alien,” the line lands with such a thud. Yes, on a literal level, the whole thing is “aliens”, but that term is so broad as to be rendered meaningless, and Garland didn’t make a movie about extraterrestrials. He made a movie about us and the most horrifying thing many of us will confront in some way during our lifetimes.
Of course, this isn’t the only way to read Annihilation. Talking about the movie with friends afterwards, some felt it was about self-destruction while another friend said he thought it was about marriage. My interpretation of Annihilation isn’t to shut out other interpretations, but rather to invite more discussion, which is what makes the movie such great sci-fi. There’s not a single, “This is the answer. Let’s all go home.” It’s a movie that worms its way into your brain and will continue to haunt you long after the Shimmer fades.
You won't believe what got left out, including assassination attempts, Ronald Reagan, and Diana clubbing with Freddie Mercury.