Annihilation sticks with you. The film has certainly added new horrors to the thriller’s lexicon. But it has some major problems. Other, better critics have pointed out the film’s faux wokeness; a diversely cast all-female team somehow manages to be entirely devoid of personality or dimension. Or its faux seriousness; the film purports to engage with profound issues like the human drive toward self-destruction, but only touches lightly on these issues (“suicide and self-destruction are actually different!”). Or some weak writing; Natalie Portman’s character’s motivation to go on a self-proclaimed suicide mission is…that she had an affair once? Tessa Thompson’s character’s motivation to let herself die is that she “wants to feel more alive”?
These issues could almost be redeemed by the real skill with which the film maintains a sense of dreadful suspense throughout, the deftness by which it keeps viewers haunted through its original climax, the creative terrors it unleashes and thought it provokes. Unfortunately, it possesses one irredeemable problem: the film is nihilistic as hell.
Annihilation lives up to its title, a word derived from a 14th century adjective meaning “to reduce to nothing,” and possessing a root with the Latin nihil, meaning “nothing.” Story can deploy nihilism to make an earnest point. This one doesn’t, it just seems to be devoid of values or meaning. Whether this was the result of the screenwriter’s choices or Paramount Pictures’ corporate bureaucracy probably composed of nihilists, who knows. But it’s worth calling out.
The film’s cynicism comes out in a few ways. For example, the relationships are mostly cold and distant. Short of one moment of connection (a flashback), the marriage between Portman’s character and Oscar Isaac’s character is superficial. All of their intimate moments apparently take place in bed. The individuals in the teams sent into the “Shimmer” – the expanding alien bubble that has warped the fecund life in a Florida state park – mostly either turn on each other or leave each other behind. They’re so atomized I began to wonder if the Shimmer world was a parable for neoliberal capitalism’s project of atomization, malignant expansionism, and distorting annihilation of life.
Even the relationship to oneself becomes corrupted. The film’s denouement horror depicts the alien’s final form: a mirror copy of the protagonist. Natalie Portman’s own cells are co-opted by the alien. When she’s finally reunited with her husband, neither of them are the people they had been—instead a bastardized facsimile in Isaac’s case and a refracted, corrupted original in Portman’s. The final scene features the two of them joining in a loveless embrace while their deadened irises shift colors, suggesting the alien will-to-nothing remains floating in their reconstituted DNA.
The alien antagonist cancer-mind is described as having no motivation, no desire, no agenda; it simply consumes. Like metastasizing cells, it deconstructs, distorts, and fabricates into something new. At one point, when the characters are arguing and Natalie Portman’s character remains neutral, the Latina character angrily asks her for support. Portman’s character says with contempt, “There are sides?” Indeed. The film seems to dismiss outright the value of making some meaningful statement, taking a side. With a growing sense of meaninglessness pervading our own socially fractured world, with a political class bent on gaining or retaining power for no reason other than their own enrichment or status, and with the rise of violent fascist groups around the world, art that refuses to take a side, assert some moral stance, is worthless and cowardly.
But the most egregious form of nihilism depicted in the film is its treatment of life. Within this alien bubble, light, radio waves, and even DNA are “refracted.” The mechanism by which DNA is refracted is unclear. It seems to resemble a cancer cell, perpetually dividing, and in its division creating a warped version of itself, or splicing itself with other DNA it normally wouldn’t be able to conjoin with. For instance, Portman’s character spies a pair of white stags in the forest, with blooming flowers growing from their antlers. Instead of a beautiful scene of wonder and mystery, the bizarre, simultaneous motion of the stags renders them perverse; their plant-animal hybridization feels like an aberrant, despoiling mutation.
I found myself comparing this ecological horror show to another: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Both stories are unsettling and haunting. But, ultimately, the ways in which they disquiet are opposite. Whereas The Road vividly depicts the ugliness of death, Annihilation renders life ugly. Somehow the film takes a verdant wilderness and wields it to disgust. There’s no wonder in Portman’s character – a biologist – discovering these new life forms, only distaste and disbelief. Her curiosity seems pathological rather than instructive. The film’s culmination involves a burning of the Shimmer, the collapse into ash of the twisted life that it fostered. It’s a relief.
Whereas reading The Road leaves one feeling absolute reverence for the life that remains, one leaves Annihilation feeling the reverse: that life itself is a cancer worthy of annihilation. The title seems not to refer to the act this alien bubble is inflicting upon earth, but rather the only means by which life might find salvation. By subverting the fundamental infrastructure of life – DNA, cell division – the film’s pervading unease slips under one’s skin, leaving the awful sensation that life is an unstable, all-consuming force that is, above all, out to get us.
The film hasn’t done well in US theaters, going straight to Netflix internationally instead of theaters as the studio had planned. Some have suggested that maybe US audiences are just too dumb to appreciate the “brain-scramblingly idea-driven” thriller that is Annihilation. Instead of an elitist explanation maybe a better one is that people don’t want to watch horrific scenes whose ultimate effect is not to enlighten or shake us out of comfortable torpor, but to degrade our already tenuous connection to the wild world. Maybe now is not the time to indulge in the perversion of life.
We’re all living in the midst of the world’s sixth mass extinction – humans are directly responsible for it – and we’re everyday moving toward a reality of ash and grey, either by nuclear conflict or, more likely, climate collapse. We’re responsible for our own self-destruction. Had the film made good on its promise to explore our self-destructive drive, it would have made humans the antagonists. If it possessed intellectual integrity, it would have made humans the cause of the Shimmer, rather than some inscrutable alien riding an asteroid. That could have said something valuable. If the film’s nihilism had been deployed to critique our own nihilistic perversion of the natural world, it might have redeemed itself. Instead, it lets us off the hook.
Maybe audiences have generally shied away from the film because they acknowledge our responsibility for our self-destruction, and are smart enough to reject the idea that we are victims to some foreign, alien nihilism. They know that our own is the enemy. Maybe audiences understand that now is the time for art to reaffirm the supreme preciousness of life on our sole oasis in a dark, cold desert, not make spectacles of the perversion of that oasis. Someone needs to tell Paramount Pictures that while we stare our own annihilation in its barren face, nihilism just isn’t cool.