The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The villain in ‘Annihilation’ is a hallmark of American society

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Natalie Portman in a scene from "Annihilation."
This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Natalie Portman in a scene from "Annihilation." (AP)

This column discusses details of the of the film “Annihilation.”

Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” is a dark, atmospheric film haunted by a malignance about which little is known, though its presence is ubiquitous and its expressions profuse. As my colleague Alyssa Rosenberg has pointed out, the story’s central drama concerns the protagonists’ efforts to come to terms with something they can’t, as mere humans, understand. It certainly leaves a confusing impression: It was only a few days after seeing “Annihilation” that its curious moral logic began to creep, fungus-like, across my conscience. I’ve begun to think that the particular character of that formless, nameless danger — its eerie, morbid bounty — makes it an excellent villain for our moment. 

“Annihilation” concerns a biologist named Lena (portrayed by Natalie Portman) whose husband, Sgt. Kane (Oscar Isaac) disappears on a mysterious year-long deployment only to reappear, changed somehow, outside the couple’s bedroom. But the good news ends there. This Kane isn’t quite the one who departed 12 months before; he’s different, somehow, and not put together quite right: Moments after they reunite, his organs begin to fail, blood bubbles from his mouth, and husband and wife are hauled off to a secretive government facility situated near the frontier of an ominous, gradually expanding iridescence called the Shimmer. Many expeditions (among them Kane’s) have ventured into the Shimmer (formerly a national park) to try to understand what it is, but — save Kane — nobody has reemerged. Lena, desperate to understand what happened to her husband, volunteers to join a team of scientists headed inside. 

In your average sci-fi-horror tale, the villain must be opposed because it is destructive: Consider the metropole-crushing wrath of the “Cloverfield” monster, for example, or the civilization-ending ravages of a typical zombie-virus outbreak. In those cases, the moral imperatives are clear. If the heroes — and perhaps all of humanity — are to survive, then the alien or pathogen or interdimensional being in question must be stopped. The options are life and death, and it’s obvious to both audiences and characters which choice is right. 

But “Annihilation” goes out of its way to make the decision a little more ambiguous. What Lena and her team find inside the Shimmer is not destruction, but life — vast, flowering, superabundant life. Grass grows supple and high. Wildlife roams free and unafraid among former outposts of human occupation. Blossoms of every conceivable shape and color bejewel the foliage, orchids alongside roses alongside ranunculi. There are terrible things, too: a crocodile with shark’s teeth, a bear with the cry of a dying woman, the corpse of a former explorer evidently vivisected by Kane himself. But there are also beautiful things: cascades of high climbing ivy, ivory-colored deer with delicately blooming antlers, flowering organic topiaries in the graceful shape of the human body. As Lena herself reports, the Shimmer isn’t destroying anything — it’s making something new, including doubles of its intrepid visitors. 

It would be easy to read an Edenic metaphor into Annihilation: Here is new growth, new creation, a new man and, it turns out, a new woman. Lena doesn’t remember eating while inside the Shimmer; it would appear that one doesn’t need to, that the Shimmer itself sustains life by its very nature. Thus there is no scarcity within its opaline borders. You could presumably live a long time there, in some form or another, if you could bear it.

Which is perhaps the clever remark “Annihilation” makes about our current moment. Bounty and abundance are everywhere around us, and are usually adduced as positive indicators for society. Look at all the things we have, and all the new things being produced and circulated every day — more than we could ever use, more than we could ever want. Media showcases the kind of excess the United States is world-famous for, from the gold-plated interiors of Trump properties to the breezy white opulence of the Kardashians’ West Coast digs. Between the cheap and ever-changing commodities lining store shelves and landfills and the less attainable but still enviable products displayed among the likes of the Rich Kids of Instagram, it’s hard to escape the feeling that our world is overflowing with plenty. 

Yet not all plenitude fosters a sense of peaceful ease. There’s a point at which overproduction and the constant generation of novel things begins to induce a feeling of deep disorder, chaos and unease. Flourishing is a good thing — human flourishing, that is — but disease, too, can flourish. The profuse growth of something can come at the expense of humankind.

Read more about this topic:

Alyssa Rosenberg: ‘Annihilation’ will make you feel small and terrified. You should rush to see it.