starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Oscar Isaac
written by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer
directed by Alex Garland
by Walter Chaw
'But when we sit together, close,' said Bernard, 'we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory.'
--Virginia Woolf, The Waves
This is what I said. I said, "If you survive, you are this rare thing. We are members of an endangered species, you and I, born with this romance for self-destruction. Most of us don't survive, or survive as something else. But if you do survive, in thirty years, maybe you find yourself across from someone your age now, telling them that there's more to their story if they choose to read on. And it's the most wonderful thing and it's worth the pain of getting there."
The daughter of close friends of mine tried to kill herself a couple of weeks ago at exactly the same age I was when I tried to kill myself. I don't know how to describe depression to people who don't experience it. I don't really have the language to express how most attempts to get at it get it wrong. Alex Garland's new film, Annihilation, gets it right. Suicide isn't the coward's way out--it's hard, an act of courage and sacrifice. You do it because you want to spare the people in your life the corruption that is you. In your mind, it's a noble thing. They don't know that, but they don't know what you know. The people who love you don't know how much you'll hurt them. That's why you have to go. I look at the world and for the most part it's dampened by this knowledge, seen through a pale green scrim, thin as air and so heavy you wouldn't believe it. I carry it around with me, and it puts one finger on everything. It closes over my heart. I'm afraid you'll find out before I can do something about it. It destroys everything that is good. That's depression. It's the only immutable thing in my life. That's how I know it's a lie.
They asked me, my friends did, to speak with their daughter, and so I did. I don't know if I helped. I do know that it took a toll on me. It made me consider the instability of everything. In the Kilgore Trout of it, I came unstuck in time, if just for a moment. I was 16 and I was 44 and I was writing a book about being 16 when I was 40 and I was talking to a 16-year-old who was where I used to be and maybe will be again and maybe still am. The first shot of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker is of large double doors, shot in sepia. They're open a crack. You can see a bed through them--white sheets, metal frame. Some figures. The Stalker, his young daughter, and his Wife. The Stalker's job is to lead explorers into the Zone: a place created maybe by an asteroid impacting with Earth and seeding there a Room in which, it's rumoured, you're granted a wish. The last person who made it there got what he wanted in his heart of hearts and hung himself as a consequence. Stalker, though it's seldom discussed as such, is a film about suicide. At one point in Annihilation, the cellular biologist, Lena (Natalie Portman), speculates that the reason she made it out of the Zone--here rebranded "the Shimmer"--is that unlike her fellow sojourners, she had a reason to. I'm acting like Stalker is a prequel to Annihilation because it is. So is The Waves. BRIGHT WALL/DARK ROOM writer Zach Vasquez reminded me of its debt to Andrzej Zulawski's unfinished On a Silver Globe. I thought of Herzog's hallucinogenic Heart of Glass as well. I don't know if these strings are intentional. It doesn't matter.
The Stalker says to his charges, a Writer and a Professor:
Safe ways become impassable. The way becomes now easy, now confused beyond words. This is the Zone. It might seem capricious. But at each moment, it's as if we construct it with our minds. But everything that happens here happens because of us... I think it lets through those who have lost all hope. Not the good or the bad, but the unhappy. But even the most unhappy will perish if they don't know how to behave here.
Early on in Annihilation, Lena wakes in her tent just inside the Shimmer, a zone created by a meteorite striking a lighthouse along some southern coast, and asks her fellow travellers--Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny), and Josie (Tessa Thompson)--how long she's been sleeping. They don't know. An inventory of their provisions indicates they've been in the Shimmer for six days. None of them remember it. Ventress interrupts by telling them to pack up because they've already lost most of the day. They've already lost most of a week. Depression is like this, too. Sometimes, I've girded myself for the day and suddenly it's the next week of days and I have no concept of how I got there from here. In Stalker, someone complains that outside the Zone "iron laws control the world and it's intolerably boring." Inside the Zone, there aren't any rules. Josie tells Lena that if she were to put some of the cells of their zone's trees under a microscope, Lena would see hox genes--the group of related genes that determine the body plan of animals. Josie wears long-sleeved shirts because she cuts. Cass speculates that she does it to feel something. That's pat and dismissive. I think that people cut as a progressive addiction to the endorphins that self-harm releases as surcease, however temporary, of sorrow. I borrow that turn of phrase from Edgar Allan Poe, of course, who spoke elegantly once in an essay called "Philosophy of Composition" about how the purest of poetical tones is "melancholy," the result of the sadness that arises from the expression of extreme beauty. Anyway, I'm drifting off topic.
Josie is unbearably fragile, delicate, sad. We know she's going to die. She's an endangered species and she's too beautiful for this world. Thompson's performance is painfully spot-on. Garland captures her introduction and the instant she looks down and away as someone characterizes her as brilliant. When you compliment someone who's depressed, she wonders how she's fooled you. She compares what you've said against what she knows of herself. She starts counting down the minutes until you discover the truth. She's the first of the group threatened in the Shimmer, attacked by a mutated thing. (In Stalker, the Zone mutates the offspring of its survivors, too.) She becomes a Cassandra figure, solving the puzzle to the extent that it wants to be solved and having no one believe her. It wouldn't matter if they did. Depression is a liar. It whispers in your ear. Flowers begin to grow out of the scars on her arms and Josie makes a decision to let the weight of the green absorb her into itself. In To The Lighthouse (its title also the mission presented to these women while in the Shimmer), Virginia Woolf writes about a formerly brilliant artist and mind now reduced to bland anodyne:
His eyes blinked, as if he would have liked to reply kindly to these blandishments (she was seductive but a little nervous) but could not, sunk as he was in a grey-green somnolence which embraced them all, without need of words, in a vast and benevolent lethargy of well-wishing.
And so Josie is gone. I cried when Lena asks Cass if Josie had tried to kill herself. I have wounds that don't seem to want to close. Annihilation suggests that should you survive, something productive may grow from them. I think that's a lovely thing to suggest. I think it's probably true.
Lena is married to a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac), who left one day on a secret mission only to return without explanation a year later. He says that he saw her from outside the door of the bedroom they share and one day decided to walk into it. He doesn't remember much else. He's dying. We're all dying. His organs are failing. Annihilation talks about how cells are immortal and how their self-destruction is a genetic defect. In a quick flash, we see Lena reading Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Ventress is dying of cancer--it's why she's in the Shimmer, perhaps. She wants to confront whatever's in the Lighthouse; she wants to get to the source. She asks Lena to consider that the suicide pill embedded in our cells at a genetic level possibly affects the way we approach the world: it's why we sometimes sabotage good jobs, good relationships, why we squander brief moments, give ourselves over to despairing of our mortality, grooving to our storylines, all alight with oppressive melancholia. Maybe we only appreciate beauty in its death. There's a finality to death outside the Zone. The horror inside it is just the beginning. Indeed, in feel, Annihilation also reminds of Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, his tale of sadness and the transmutation of all things. The closer this team in Annihilation get to the centre of their mystery, the less substantial they become as individuals. All experience is shared experience.
Month by month things are losing their hardness; even my body now lets the light through; my spine is soft like wax near the flame of the candle. I dream; I dream.
--Virginia Woolf, The Waves
Lena finds Ventress in what Stalker calls "someone's idiotic invention." It's a hole that looks like a rectum rendered in white by Geiger in a light moment. Lena descends. Ventress is there. She has a monologue much like the Writer's from Stalker, who bemoans writing at the end: "I used to think that my books helped others...if I die, they will devour someone else. They've changed me to fit their image." A double is created in Lena's image. It mirrors what she does. I was reminded of Natalie Portman in a similar quandary in Black Swan. Lena is crushed almost to death by her desire to escape this simulacra of herself. It's not violent, it's...what is it? Inevitable? Inexorable, too. It's one of the finest scenes in a very fine picture, an interplay that locates the horror in the Marx Brothers' legendary mirror gag. How does Pinky know what Firefly is going to do? What sort of existential agility allows for the breaking of that plane when the two switch aspects, from before to behind the mirror? Here, Annihilation says there are two Lenas, just as there are two Kanes, just as there are two of everyone in constant mimic motion: echoes, after-impressions, breaking planes. There is no distinction that matters; it's a worm that swallows itself. Mental illness as something hardwired into us at a genetic level. Mental illness as a Cronenbergian metaphor. The Professor in Stalker brings a bomb to destroy the Zone. Lena kind of has one, too. Neither, I would argue, succeed in their task, because the Zone, the Shimmer, they're metaphors, after all, for this disease of temporariness that afflicts you and me.
Lena grows a tattoo on her arm. What starts as a bruise is by the end of the film an Ouroboros, the worm that eats its tail--an infinity symbol that echoes two cells side by side, fresh from the heat-sex of mitosis. While Lena is being interrogated in Annihilation's framing story, Garland catches her staring at it. She can't remember where it came from; she remembers very well where it came from. Mitosis describes a process in which a cell separates into two "daughter" cells, each with the same chromosomal makeup. It is the bottom, the cellar, the root of life, the seed of it and the light to the lie that there is anything unique about your experience. In her lecture to a classroom early on about cancer's metastasis and its hungry progression, Lena talks about mitosis as the beginning of life on the planet. In that construction, though she doesn't spend much time there, our bodies are the galaxy of possibility in and upon which mutation begins. Change is, as it has always been, our only constant. It is irresistible, so why resist it?
Look, the loop of the figure is beginning to fill with time; it holds the world in it. I begin to draw a figure and the world is looped in it, and I myself am outside the loop; which I now join--so--and seal up, and make entire. The world is entire, and I am outside of it, crying, "Oh save me, from being blown forever outside the loop of time!"
--Virginia Woolf, The Waves
Anya is the literalist of the party. She's a soldier who prides herself on her directness and ability to solve problems. She rejects evidence in favour of storylines that jibe with her sense of what's possible. When they discover a video made by a previous party (all men that time--it didn't turn out too well, so maybe all women this time?) that shows the human form disintegrating and reintegrating, Anya turns away from it and says she doesn't need to see it again. She knows it's a trick. Annihilation is at its weakest whenever it slows its stream of ideas to present a foil, this touchstone to a more tangible form of satire. Its other characters are down with the sickness. All save Anya, who tries, as too many people viewing this film (or reading The Waves, or watching Tarkovsky) will try, to "figure it out." I would argue that it's not all that difficult to figure out what's happening in the film, if you want to. There is a beginning and an end and none of that's terribly surprising. We've been on literal journeys like this a lot. The picture silences Anya with a creature that is itself learning to speak. This beast is the embodiment of Poe's Raven: ask it if your lover is due to return and the bird will simply say "nevermore." Whatever you ask this beast of Garland's, which has no corollary in the Jeff VanderMeer book on which Annihilation is based, it replies, "Help me." The act of asking is the poet's device for accessing melancholy. Reframe your questions however you want, the beast only has one answer.
What's impressive is Annihilation's willingness and ability to evoke the soul-sickness that leads to great moments of art, great moments of self-destruction, and an equation of the two. Its heroes suffer from cinematic time: years can pass and outside the theatre it's a mere two hours. They suffer, too, from this idea that you can enter into a space, experience something that is entirely alien, and then re-emerge struggling to articulate the crucible of your experience. How many versions of your old selves have you left behind in a museum, a theatre, a concert hall, a book? Is it a thousand? How many new versions have emerged into the uncanny bright of the day outside? And if the most beautiful thing an audience experiences is the recognition that what is beautiful will die, at what point does the audience understand that this is only an appreciation at last of their own romance with self-destruction? Yes, you will die. Good. Something more beautiful that still looks like you will take its place. The last shot of the film is an embrace, cells mutating against the edge of a glass cup as an echo of embracing. In that moment, Annihilation is most like the breathless romantic liebestraum of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
This is what I said. I said, "If you survive, it's a rare thing." And then: "I hope you do. I don't know you, but I'll miss you if you go." At the end of Stalker, the Wife delivers a soliloquy about making the choice to live with depression. She couches it in terms of marrying the Stalker, even though she knew it might cripple any offspring, might doom her to grief. She says she'd rather know a bittersweet happiness than a grey familiarity. She says she's never regretted her choice, despite the worst coming true. "It's life, it's us. If there were none of those things there would be no happiness, either--and no hope." Anyway, that's what I said.