Over the last few years there has been something of a renewal of science fiction, but science fiction of a very particular and distinctive kind. In films like Arrival, Ex Machina, Gravity and Alien: Covenant, directors have moved away from the elaborate and comprehensive world-building of an older generation of science fiction films and instead focused on complexity as a spectacle in and of itself. Ironically, this focus on complexity has often resulted in films oriented around perceptual horizons, and the limits to human perception, frequently figured in terms of luminous, pregnant voids, an equation of vacancy with complexity, and a kind of cosmic simplicity that works beautifully alongside CGI. Revolving around the vast emptiness of the universe, these films have also domesticated and feminised that emptiness as well, unfolding a kind of fecund ambience, or stillness, that has tended to place women at the centre of this new and emergent vision of the physical world. From the serene pods of Arrival, to the tropical paradise of Alien: Covenant, and from the ecocentric architecture of Ex Machina, to the primeval version of Earth we glimpse at the end of Gravity, this universe often seems to present vacancy itself as the most fertile of possibilities, if only because of the way it stimulates the human mind to acknowledge its inadequacy in conceptualizing the invisible and indiscernible complexity that subtends it.
In many ways, Alex Garland’s Annihilation – based on the first part of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy – takes this aesthetic orientation to the cosmos to its very limit, eventually gesturing towards a form of aesthetic experience that exceeds the audiovisual parameters of digital cinema, Netflix movie, or whatever platform you happen to watch it on. At the heart of it is the relationship between cellular oncologist Lena (Natalie Portman) and her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), a special forces soldier who suddenly returns into her life after being presumed dead, only to collapse shortly afterwards. This opening part of the film is hard to describe, since while it does introduce Lena and Kane to some extent, it’s also suffused with the notional and provisional sense of spacetime characteristic of VanderMeer, and New Weird writing generally, obeying an ostensible continuity but actually feeling as if the characters have arrived in each new mise-en-scene from a more amorphous and viscous spatiotemporal continuum that only just permits the film to display a semblance of narrative linearity. Much of that oddness is textured by the end of the film, but it’s more immediately contextualised by Lena’s discovery that her husband was involved in investigating a classified area in southern Florida known as “the shimmer,” where she is taken by special forces after he collapses in her home, and held for study and questioning.
Once there, she discovers that the shimmer emerged several years ago, and has been expanding gradually ever since, despite being kept secret from the American public. As psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) explains to her, nobody knows much about what the shimmer entails, except that it is an unprecedented event of some kind. From a distance, it looks like an iridescent distortion of the landscape, and emits a low, ambient murmur. It’s harder to say, however, what it looks like from the inside, since it repels all digital communication, and has swallowed up every party that investigated it, with the exception of Kane, the first person to return. Unfortunately, Kane himself is not cogent or conscious at this point, inducing Lena to join Ventress, paramedic Anya (Gina Rodgriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) and linguistic anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) for the first all-female expedition to the heart of the shimmer – the St. Marks Lighthouse on the Florida coast. With “no compass, no comms, no coordinates and no landmarks,” the team sets about to prepare for an event or entity that they can’t even conceptualise or visualise, entering the shimmer much more abruptly than would occur in a regular film, and losing any conscious sense of the threshold at all to wake up, three days later, with three days worth of food gone, in a series of tents that they don’t remember pitching, let alone sleeping in.
From there, the shimmer becomes the whole world of the film, exuding a fecund iridescence that emphasises and denatures the texture and surface of every object and organism. As soon as the team awaken, it’s clear that this event has radically changed the ecosystem and biological organisation of the Florida landscape, introducing a vast number of news species, and a heightened rainfall pattern, to produce what appears to be a rich tropical or subtropical landscape. As they proceed, however, it becomes clear that this isn’t merely a change in climate, or in ecosystem, but a continuous mutation that defies any conventional classification of species, replacing it with an emergent and ongoing despeciation that collapses all life into a single, shimmering continuum. Plants are sprouting flowers previously assigned to different species, and animals are borrowing and mirroring each other’s attributes, as Garland evokes an inherently feminine lifeworld and universe that is unapproachable by way of the linear, teleological and correlationist narrative typically framed as the province of a more classical, male-oriented science fiction aesthetic. At first, Lena, as a cellular oncologist, frames this as a pervasive deformity – “corruptions of form, duplicates of form, echoes” – but gradually comes to conceive of it as a new life-principle in and of itself, rather than a conventionally destructive or death-driven event.
Along the way, that life-principle imbues the shimmer with an almost unbelievable texture that frequently makes the tableaux look hand-drawn or hand-painted, as every surface is overlaid with a feathery, tendrilly, reticulated filigree fractallation that intensifies with every moment. Fecundity here is associated first and foremost with this continuous complication of texture, as each organism exponentially adumbrates its surface arrangement, growing ever more involuted on its own terms but also ever more intertwined with the world around it. The result may be the first film that is really true to the intensive textures of New Weird fiction – and New Weird itself as a texturology above all else – along with their defiant refusal to be fully visualised or conceptualised. Watching it, I wondered if this was also the aesthetic that the “upside down” of Stranger Things was going for, albeit in a much less adventurous register, and in a much more self-consciously cinematic register as well. For part of the paradox of Annihilation is that, despite all the disappointment around its lack of a global cinematic release, it actually works brilliantly with the high-def sublimity of Netflix, even as it defies and softens it into a hazy, ambient sheen, a sheen that’s naturally attuned to a laptop screen, embodying the shimmer more than it might have done on the big screen.
In any case, the distinction between destruction and creation, and between a destructive and creative venue, is blurred by the film itself, as Lena gradually comes to reconceptualise tumours – her main area of study – as an expansion and reticulation of cellular surface texture rather than a destructive principle per se. Similarly, the shimmer itself is presented as a tumour in the landscape, but not in the typical environmentalist sense of a pollutant or blight, but more as a creative principle that refashions the very idea of what life might be. In one of her earliest scenes, Lena is presented contemplating the moment at which the first cell emerged out of inorganic matter, but the shimmer now forces her to retrospectively conceive of that creative moment as the first tumour, collapsing fecundity and malignancy into a flux that exceeds the human dichotomy between world-building and world-destroying. By extension, the shimmer becomes a biological event on the level of that first cell – an evolution of life so radical that it is as different from life as we know it as that first cell was different from the ostensibly inorganic universe that preceded it. Ostensibly, because the very nature of this life-event is to question the supposed distinction between the living and non-living parts of the universe, a question that in turn renders life as we know it – life centred on human perception and congition – unbelievably alien and othered.
No surprise, then, that the iconography of the shimmer often appears to be operating at both a cosmic and cellular level at the same time, nor that the mutated and emergent organisms that it produces possess both prehistoric and futuristic attributes. As the women converge on the lighthouse, they become more continuous with this continuum as well, passing through one discursive zone after another – militaristic, scientific, navigational – that have been overwhelmed and subsumed into the shimmer in turn. These are some of the eeriest moments in the film, but also, at first glance, some of the most recognisable, since it’s not all that unusual in horror films for characters to come across an abandoned outpost and find themselves forced to devise a linear or cohesive narrative for what happened there. The difference here, however, is that the abandoned spaces that the team encounter were themselves explicitly invested in perpetuating these linear discourses – some of them are actually shimmer observation posts absorbed into the shimmer as it expanded – and that were set up to monitor, gather and organise the data that the shimmer itself blocks from reaching the outside world. In other words, then, these scenes take on the additional eeriness of coming across spaces whose very abandonment in and of itself speaks to the inability of ever providing a linear or cohesive account of what led to that abandonment – ruins of a discursive possibility that grows more disrupted and awry as we move closer and closer to the centre of the shimmer, and the team grow more disoriented.
Of course, that’s a gradual process, but the gradual nature of it is what makes it so eerie, as Garland beautifully evokes a convergence of all biological activity, but also a destruction of clear biological categories – an annihilation of biology itself as a discrete mode of human enquiry, or as a field from which humans can conveniently abstract their own organic nature. In particular, Garland focuses this dispersal of Linnaean cladistics on the convergence of human and botanical life, as the group move through what Luce Irigaray has recently described as “vegetal being” to realise that the shimmer is acting as a refractive medium, indiscriminately redirecting and recombining radio signals, light waves and DNA out across the broader physical continuum that comprises the universe, here framed as a single, continuously shifting iridescence: “The shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything…not just light and plant waves, but animal DNA, plant DNA, all DNA.” In place of the focus on mediation so typical of science fiction, and recent film generally, this refractive aesthetic ensures that the CGI never feels obtrusive, just because the shimmer itself is so synthetic in nature, and distorts so much of what we might assume about the distinction between real and synthetic life. The uncanny naturalism of the CGI creatures is a particular highlight, partly because the physiognomy of the creatures themselves is somewhat fluid and emergent, taking the burden off the CGI to subsume itself into a single surface of unquestionable verisimilitude. Instead, as bundles of eludive textures, these creatures are already in some sense CGI, allowing the granularity and artifice of the CGI to become the spectacle itself, not unlike the matte prints, backdrops or cycloramas of classical Hollywood.
More pragmatically, perhaps, the shifting nature of this world means that the CGI never has to settle on any single texture for any great length of time, just as Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score is free to wander between electronic and acoustic cues without ever having to decide between them, but without ever congealing them into a performative or self-conscious fusion either. Both work brilliantly to evoke the refraction of the women through the broader gene pool as they approach the lighthouse, a process that completely annihilates some of them, and forces Lena and Ventress into odd, atonal, asubjective utterances and interactions (“My flesh moves like liquid, my mind is cut loose”) while also making Lena’s betrayal of Kane – his motivation for entering the shimmer in the first place – feel less clearcut in retrospect, even as progressing towards the lighthouse takes her closer to his trauma, with the affair playing as just another instance of the promiscuous contiguity connecting all living and non-living things. As the last vestiges of human sapience collapse back into a broader and more radical sentience, the landscape seems to exude the same sense of being and becoming that occurs in the colour sections of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, culminating with the beach in front of the lighthouse – a fertile, luminous, vacant space that seems to distill and condense the cosmos of Arrival, Gravity, Alien: Covenant and Ex Machina into a sublime opacity that leaves even the most residually human part of the film behind it in its wake, and brings the narrative to its own inexorable perceptual threshold.
No surprise, then, that it’s hard to describe or explain the last part of the film in any cohesive way, not least because the part of the book it draws from also focuses on the indescribable. At the same time, this is also where Garland departs most drastically from the book as well, as if to suggest something so alien that it can’t simply be translated from one medium to another – it can’t simply be mediated – but must be refracted in the course of its passage from page to screen. Most immediately, and literally, Lena enters the lighthouse to discover a charred corpse, and a video camera set up, which appears to show Kane blowing himself up, despite the fact that he returned from the shimmer earlier in the film, and despite the fact that his face appears from behind the camera once he has blown himself up. Interspersed with the footage from the camera, and centred on the supremely incongruous and atonal image of the camera itself in this fragmented space, this sequence plays largely as a series of discorrelated and disconnected images that suggest some fundamental and final severance of human subjectivity. Along with the camera, the lighthouse also contains what appears to be a portal at the centre of an organic-like growth on its northern reach, which Lena now crawls into and through, clambering through a narrow, dimly-lit space before emerging into a massive chamber where she encounters Ventress, who had gone on ahead, in the process of some transformation or transfiguration.
At this point, the action starts to quote Alien in quite a pointed and self-conscious way, but the effect is not exactly one of pastiche, or self-referentiality. Instead, it feels as if the only way to visualise VanderMeer’s unvisualisable conclusion is to do so negatively – that is, by invoking a classic science fiction moment and then gesturing towards its aesthetic and representational inadequacy in this particular context. While Ventress may have internalised whatever alien entity lies at the heart of the shimmer, then, this isn’t a situation of an entity emerging from its host and destroying its host, but instead merging and fusing itself with its host, and its host with the rest of the world. Of course, from one perspective that just represents a different and more radical kind of annihilation that occurred in the Alien franchise, where the bodies of the human hosts still remained, and in which Ripley’s confrontational stance couldn’t be more different from Ventress’ speculations, which seem to shift in and out of her voice and the voice of whatever is absorbing and dispersing her in the very act of being uttered: “It’s inside me now…it’s not like us, it’s unlike us…I don’t know what it wants, or if it wants, but it will grow, until it encompasses everything…our bodies and our minds will be fragmented into their smallest parts… until not one part remains.”
The closest the Alien franchise ever came to that possibility was probably the final scenes of Alien: Resurrection, when Ripley and the alien were so fused that their previous bodies seemed like a distant dream. Yet this reconceptualisation of alien invasion isn’t the only departure from Ridley Scott’s universe, with the Alien-esque architecture of the pod – so close it could almost have been recycled from Prometheus – pointedly contrasted with the end product of Ventress’ transfiguration, which isn’t a new creature, an alien, or even a discernible entity, but instead a continuously self-refracting and self-fractalling three-dimensional topology that takes the centrality of CGI texturology within the film to its aesthetic conclusion. In the final, elusive sequence, this topology condenses into a more recognisably alien creature that performs an odd dance with Lena, although, once again, this “alien” exists more as a space of negative possibility, and a representational horizon, recalling the clunkier and more mechanical interstellar robots of 1950s science fiction if only to gesture towards how utterly inadequate sci-fi, as we know it, is to this particular scenario.
To some extent, then, this final sequence is perhaps better described then analysed, since it often appears to embody the unrepresentable or unknowable complexity at the heart of the topology itself – the moment, in other words, at which Lena’s subjectivity, like that of Ventress’ before her, is finally annihilated in the sentient continuum of the film as a whole. At first, Lena and the alien appear to be engaged in a more traditional hand-to-hand combat, but after a while it becomes clear that the alien is actually mirroring Lena, possibly communing with her and, in one queasily sensuous moment, impressing itself on her. As the scene proceeds, Lena herself seems to gradually realise, as well, that her interaction with this entity is a form of duplication, contiguity and continuity rather than conventional conflict, observing to her interviewers, in the film’s framing device, that “I don’t think it wanted anything. It mirrored me, I attacked it.” That framing device, which has been present from the outset, now comes into the play for the film’s final scenes, as it emerges that Lena somehow managed to escape from the shimmer – or, rather, that the shimmer dissolved and disappeared around her in these final moments, during which time Kane also woke from his coma and appeared to return to good health as suddenly as he had collapsed.
The final note of the film, then, is one of inadequacy, with Lena finding herself unable to properly conceptualise, visualise, articulate, explain or describe the incident at the core of the shimmer. During these last moments, it becomes clearer than ever that the versions of the core that we saw – the space based on Alien and the alien based on 50s science fiction – are merely a visual shorthand and approximation for whatever it was that Lena saw and experienced, since when asked whether she can describe the experience, her simple response is “No.” If anything, the endless, filigreed, fractallated patterns that play over the closing credits seem closer to her experience than the compromises to human cognition and perception made by these science fiction archetypes, as Garland brilliantly, and beautifully, presents a genuinely discorrelated science fiction aesthetic, in which the audience’s experience, Lena’s experience, and the images used to convey them, all stand at a remove from one another. Not surprisingly, then, Annihilation ends with an ellipsis, with Lena asking Kane “You aren’t Kane, are you?” and Kane responding “I don’t think so,” before asking her “Are you Lena,” a question that hangs over the last few images before the final credits roll.
If I had to speculate about the meaning here, I guess I’d say that the versions of Lena and Kane that returned from the shimmer are, in some sense, the shimmer – that is, a refraction of the human form through all the DNA and materiality of the universe to produce two entities that look human, and sound human, but are not human in any fundamental way. Yet the point of the film, at some level, is that this continuity with the universe already exists, and that we are already not human, a revelation that begs the question of how much Lena and Kane have really changed, and how much it is merely their perception of themselves that has changed during their time in the shimmer. Whatever the reading, however, the one clear thing here is that the conclusion of the film radically exceeds the cognition and perception of the film itself, leaving us with an even more textured version of that looming and prescient void that has preoccupied so much recent science fiction. As Lena observes to Kane earlier in the narrative, “I know there’s something strange about this mission…the silence around it is louder than usual,” and that silence – how it sounds, looks, feels, tastes and smells – is the sublime subject matter of Annihilation, along with the way in which it forces us to disregard or discard our most residual humanism to even glimpse it.