Garland Trophies and Weeping Brooks: "Annihilation" (Part 1 of 2)
“I don’t know.” We hear an admission of insolubility as if it were a mantra in Alex Garland’s Annihilation, a film that, like his first feature Ex Machina (2015), augers the end of one world and the beginning of a strange new one. In Annihilation, Genesis and Revelation meet in an ouroboros without answers, while the key biblical antecedent is the Old Testament’s “Genesis Redux,” the Book of Job, not only for the appearance of two awesome beasts (Leviathan of the water, Behemoth of the land), but more focally the rebuke to the question of suffering, an inquiry Yahweh discards because it’s built on inappropriate assumptions, reducing the creation’s awe (which Yahweh treats at times in Job like an artist to his work) to a verbal answer. Like its hero, the reader of Job is left without words and only with what they behold in constructing a reaction to suffering, which is to wonder why one bothers enduring anyway. Garland’s speculative horror film sends five bereaved women into a new Eden—“the Shimmer”—that has supernatural or extra-terrestrial properties. The sole survivor is Lena (Natalie Portman), who tells her story in a subsequent interrogation conducted by the scientist Lomax (Benedict Wong). Like her interrogators, Lena was originally hungry for answers. But on her forearm is a tattoo of a serpentine Figure 8 loop, the ouroboros eating its tail with looped coils suggesting the lacunae of infinity. The audience joins the interrogators in disseminating Lena’s memories, but questions of purpose or reasoning posed to a scenario that doesn’t care to explain itself, any more than Job’s God, wander through amazement towards, if not silence, the inscrutable but conscious roar from the Deep—the belly of the leviathan whose mouth presents the toothy Hellgate beneath the illuminating Point of Epiphany.
The Point of Epiphany is a lighthouse, into which we see some space debris collide at the story’s beginning. This collision begins a metamorphosis dually terrestrial and psychological. The land around the lighthouse changes into the Shimmer, an ethereal expanse bordered by a gaseous opaque wall. The government is interested in the Shimmer because what goes into it doesn’t come back out, being either killed or “erased.” Of the military personnel that have entered, there emerges one survivor, Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). Suspected dead for a year, Kane mysteriously returns home. Lena—who’s been grieving like a war widow while carrying on cancer research at a university—explodes with joy on seeing him. But Kane is different, recognizing the surrounding environment but lacking much affectation, affection, or articulation. After sipping some water, he convulses and bleeds; the ambulance taking him to a hospital is pulled over by armed federal agents who take Lena and Kane into custody, the latter put on life support as Lena meets the rather lethargic Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). There’s no accounting for Kane’s survival or present behavior. Ventress, quietly obsessed with understanding the Shimmer’s riddle, is leading an all-female expedition (everyone else thus far has been male), and agrees to take Lena with.
Their colleagues, all innocent to the truth of Lena’s relationship to the mystery survivor, all have distinctions of bereavement: Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez), a former paramedic who’s seen her share of corpses; Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), a physicist who compulsively cuts herself, presumably a method for coping with psychological numbness and depression; Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist grieving the death of her daughter; and Ventress herself, who we’ll come to discover is terminally ill from cancer, and that the Shimmer’s bizarre self-replication parallels cancer—indeed growing as a malignant tumor on the planet—presents the environment as a doppelganger or adversary, the immersion into this space presenting a means by which Ventress—or any of the expedition’s members—can confront or absorb the meaning of their loss.
Specialists in science and nature, though, are scrambling in the Shimmer. Natural’s not in it. The flow of perspective is subjected, upon entry, to the experience of literature, as memory becomes paratactic, the construction of a motion picture or novel such as we’re familiar—one scene cutting to another, arranged side by side instead of an absolute continuum—invading the characters’ psychologies. They’re going to enter the Shimmer and then, with a flash of a title card (“The Shimmer”), they’re in, perplexed that they can’t remember actually going in, or why their rations are sensibly depleted as would be expected. The “plot holes,” about which an ever-watchful audience nowadays gratingly whines, are part of lived experience. The forest touches an Edenic nerve by how its florally arranged “like a wedding,” as one character puts it, different species growing together on the same vine as if the vegetation was guided by an aesthetic. Elsewhere, trees are shaped as human beings, uncanny presences statically existing alongside the explorers less as sculptures than as ghosts. Then there are the monsters, the “Leviathan” being a prodigious crocodilian, the “Behemoth” a horripilatious amalgamation of bear and boar, though their ferocity excludes Nature’s circle of life and death, being that they do not eat their victims.
To kill without purpose is curiously synonymous to a different kind of creation, being a bizarre refraction of unfallen Eden (with murderous deletion instead of Adam’s “naming” amidst a deathless calm), or the artist’s impulse to change reality through creating: Art Contra Nature, creativity as a transgression of natural law, superseding impulses to fuck, eat, sleep, and shit, none of which seem to have much of a role in the Shimmer, or for that matter, the world textually surrounding it within Lena’s memories and testimony (she mentions how she can't remember eating anything). As Oscar Wilde wrote, “What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition.” The Shimmer is too unfinished, but it’s definitely a work, however in-progress. Garland’s film is childless—“creationless”—as memories of marital bliss in bed between Lena and Kane are surrounded by the empty space that would be, conventionally, inhabited by children, if not a screenplay’s token exchange of the prospect of having them.
The only offspring mentioned is that of Sheppard, where the child’s death signals the additional death of the person Sheppard once was, the umbilicus cut from her own familiar identity much as she’s severed from her daughter. The science of procreation falls by the wayside much as the discernment of objective truth, as the expedition has no consistency in what they see (not everyone sees the Behemoth taking Sheppard, for example). Elsewhere in the film, a flashback of Lena’s infidelity with a married coworker (David Gyasi), along with the information of Kane’s knowledge of the affair, is a paratactic wedge splintering her identity as much as the text (or two marriages; two bodies to one flesh changed to a messy casserole of four bodies). The Shimmer’s “corruptions of form” are fantastical leaps infecting phenomena, insinuating the environment’s own “consciousness” or perspective, in fact doing its own imprinting on Lena’s arm as we take note of a wound on her forearm which later, presumably, becomes the tattoo we see during her interrogation. All DNA is made one, like the mythological resonance of the Leviathan (famously appropriated by Hobbes for political thought, where the Leviathan is the entire monarchy). The alligator, whose gullet has the teeth of a freshwater crocodilian and saltwater shark, highlights this theme as we see the team examining the dead creature from the point-of-view of its mouth, when earlier a shot of the chomping snout emphasized the depths within the creature, both angles replicated in the film’s lighthouse climax, emphatically drawing classic Hellgate imagery with which the biblical Leviathan—itself associated with the Edenic serpent, and so to the ouroboros—is related. (Viewers may remember Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, where a child’s birth is ethereally blended in montage with the camera entering the Bomarzo Ogre’s mouth; the Leviathan is intimated with the wounded plesiosaur on the beach, a gash on its side suggesting Christ’s crucifixion, while it’s on a similar beach that the film’s Agnus Dei “Paradiso” occurs). In biblical mythology, to live is to exist in the belly of this beast, having absorbed us in its gullet after the Fall, and in Christianity, Christ’s ultimate transgression of Nature—the Resurrection—symbolically ties to his apocryphal defeat of the dragon in the Harrowing of Hell (an image familiar to the final victory in the Book of Revelation), descending after the crucifixion and releasing the souls trapped there before ascending for the resurrection.
The Shimmer’s confluence of nature and art comes to the role of perspective therein, and a question of from whose point of view are things being “written.” Annihilation is noteworthy for its cast of women, its Point of Epiphany certainly suggesting no less than Virginia Woolf’s classic journey of blended perspectives to her own novelistic lighthouse, with characters arching towards the fulfillment of, to reference another Woolf classic, a room of their own. Yet just as Ex Machina, in which a female AI (Alicia Vikander) usurps and destroys the man holding her in captivity (Oscar Isaac) and in romantic attachment (Dohmnall Gleeson), a basic feminist reading could be too facile; in Ex Machina, the machine isn’t a woman but a simulation of femininity, the future not being female but something totally other than human. Annihilation expounds this theme, with particular regard to conspicuous camera props which have captured and preserved the heretofore unfathomable through their viewfinders: Ventress’ expedition sees recorded images of the original group holding down a certain member who appears very ill; Kane himself cuts the writhing man open to show something coiling and slithering through the innards. Thorenson insists that this is “a trick of the light” and that those were clearly intestines, whereas the others confirm what we have seen. Similarly, when the Behemoth attacks the camp and take Sheppard in its jaws, Thorenson’s point of view contradicts that of the others (and ours): she heard screams but didn’t see what they saw.
But then, Thorenson’s right. The Behemoth is a computer generated image, just as the coiling creature in the man’s flesh is. Later when we see the Behemoth malevolently hovering over the expedition, who’ve been tied up by a distraught Thorenson (offset by the discovery of Lena’s locket with a picture of Kane, framed images denoting duplicity), the beast has appropriated Sheppard’s scream, using its “downloaded” human application to lure and confuse its victims. Here, the “uncanny valley” pitfall of CGI spectacle is not a weakness that audiences tolerate, but a tool true to the nightmarish reference in its name. The “wrongness” of the simulation makes us even more uneasy, encoiling us within the Shimmer’s uncertainties which, like our technology, abounds with infinite possibilities, colluding the natural with what’s artificial, like the flowers of different species growing on the same vine. With access to “more footage,” as Ventress says, “the phenomena are less explicable, not more.” In the Shimmer, perspectives, like phenomena, become porous, corrupted by virtue of art’s malleable imperfection of intent, much like the moon Lena talks about in a happy bedroom memory with Kane. The moon was once supernatural until, as John Milton’s Paradise Lost shows in one of its swerving similes, the Tuscan Artist (Galileo, great shifter of paradigms) looked through his lens and saw spots and valleys. Does God make mistakes after all, as Lena says, or is everything we see, good and ill, demonstrative of Providence’s monism?
Monism was central to both Milton’s philosophy and his poetic construction, the radical structure of Paradise Lost having enjambed verses wildly growing and upsetting conventions of iambic pentameter and rhyme, the reader like the Fallen Angels “wand’ring in mazes lost” through enigmas of free will and predestination to sort out and answer the cause and purpose of their sordid condition. The nobility of the human abrades against the chaos of creation, and beyond nature and within artistic representation—whether in Paradise Lost and, just as pertinently to Annihilation, the Book of Job—an existential problem upon encountering the inscrutable and, more than unjust, the unconscionable. In Job, Leviathan and Behemoth are treated by Yahweh as great things he’s fashioned, not with “meaning,” however much they’re used figuratively. You can’t get to their essence through words, and the Bible’s own language builds an imaginatively blossoming ecosystem in the reader struggling to apply a mental representation to these beasts, similar to how the boil-ridden and grieving Job cannot fathom why his creator is making him suffer. At the end of Yahweh’s non-answer to Job is the Behemoth and Leviathan, the latter creature, again, a nebulous incarnation of the skin-shedding infinity engulfed in a scaly dual wedding band upon the transgression towards knowledge of good and evil, the ouroboros: the wedding bands with its implicit dissonance between the man and woman is completed by their relations with the serpent. Job says, “My inward parts are in turmoil, and are never still” (30: 27), metaphorical language reflecting Lena’s state of mind in Annihilation, and concretized by what the camcorder shows us.
That same beast is within and without us, an abstraction represented on biblical paper and in Annihilation’s augmented digital code imprinting on our eyes, infecting the imagination of viewers, the forces at work etching something as deliberately fashioned as the tattoo on Lena and, as we see, also on the corpse of the cut-open man, who’s been “arranged” by the Shimmer as a perverse amalgamation of static flesh and decorously floral spectacle. In enlightened surrender, Radek—the woman who compulsively slices her skin to feel alive—gives herself to the Shimmer’s palette, like mad Ophelia with her “garland trophies” into “the weeping brook.” The splintered scientist undergoes artistic self-destruction “refracted” (considering her scientific diagnosis of what the Shimmer is doing, exactly) as design, crafted by a faceless author, her walk into the flora—particularly with the music—evocative of the silent noblewoman disappearing into the jungle in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1971)—the catch being that Herzog’s declaration of nature as “symphony of murder” is deposed by Annihilation’s sim jungle, Shakespeare’s “weeping brook” come alive, simile and metaphor conjoined in a real space incarnation. Radek’s scars are a willful artist’s determination to affect objective reality with the subjective imprint, and her destiny is, in her conjunction with the Shimmer, to make the world radiate a glow of subjective intensity (using Northrop Frye’s turn of phrase).
This is not art as a didactic answer provided by ego, but as an expression of something moving through ego, as with Job’s conclusion where he “sees” Yahweh (who is forbidden to be made manifest) and says that he’s “dust and ashes,” having gone beyond the boundaries of ego and stipulations of reality as he here exists outside the Behemoth and Leviathan, beholding them, which is greater than “explicating” them. Job’s “endurance” through misery is then rewarded with a fresh reality that rewards him with exponentially more than the material and familial things he lost; paradise is regained in Job, as we’re told shall happen for the first created man and woman wandering away in Paradise Lost. At the launch of Annihilation’s lighthouse climax, Ventress becomes a staggering Miltonic evocation, her eyes seemingly erased to allude to the poet’s searching blindness, as she melds with the Shimmer in this “last phase,” pure creation fulfilling a monistic principle. Job makes mention of a “covenant with my eyes” (31:1), and while in the poem’s context that applies to looking at external matter—specifically looking with lust at a woman—as applied to what happens to Job on seeing Behemoth and Leviathan, Milton’s imaginative journey to construct Paradise Lost, and Ventress’ disappearing eyes in Annihilation followed by the audience’s experience with Lena’s encounter with the sublime, bespeaks a new contract or paradigm, the lighthouse illuminating a radical new vision. Like some other recent marvels (from David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return to Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel), the film reaches toward the anagogic, or some totality beyond the confines of ego and movie narrative, where even our interpretation is absorbed within the capacious organism projected before us.