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A Disabled Lens on Alex Garland’s Annihilation: Pessimistic Surrealism

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This entry in Assistant Blog Editor Nicole Nguyen’s Disabled Lens series is a guest post by Dani Shi, a member of the Frida writing team.

From the producers of Ex Machina comes an expedition-type narrative occurring in a mesmerizing, futuristic environ, a “debatable” film according to its director Alex Garland. The plot follows a group of women into the Shimmer, an alien zone of surreal wonder that the military sends countless expeditions out to in order to prevent its cancerous spread across the coastline. Starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac, Annihilation is adapted from the science fiction series Southern Reach by Jeff VanderMeer and conveys the need to believe in survival against all odds, and the important refrain about hope transcending danger and despair. 

Psychedelically haunting and beautiful at turns, Annihilation’s surface message about cancer as metastasizing growth is shadowed by a secondary metaphor, one that communicates a meaning that may be missed at first glance. Namely, although the all-female scientists entering the Shimmer together purportedly volunteer out of curiosity and duty, this impression is soon pierced through by a darker rationale—the theme, rather than a valiant quest after scientific knowledge, is instead one that speaks to psychological instability and mental, or invisible, disability. 

Self-destruction is shown to be the motivating force, as the women’s impetuses for entering the Shimmer are revealed one by one; they are all plagued somehow by guilt, depression, isolation, and these painful feelings, coupled with in one case attempts at self-harm, are what drive them forward into uncharted and unreachable terrain. Though it is convenient to consider them as heroic, and on some idealistic quest to save the world or rescue those who have vanished into the zone before them, the viewer would be amiss to disregard their mental and emotional state upon entering the Shimmer as irrelevant to their reasoning for being willing to sacrifice their lives to the mission. 

One by one, the women meet with grisly ends. Josie Radek, played by Tessa Thompson, commits suicide, as she says of her teammate, “Imagine dying frightened and in pain and having that as the only part of you which survives.” She decides to allow the Shimmer to turn her into a flowering species, deliberately mixing her DNA with that of plant growth from the refracting prism, though it is unclear whether or not this death allows her to escape pain either, as she is literally turned into foliage. Although it may be tempting as well to find inspiration in the way the characters move forward, refusing to be incapacitated by their self-loathing, the question remains: if it is a suicide mission, is their forward momentum really making progress towards a kind of redemption? 

“Almost none of us commit suicide. Almost all of us self-destruct,” says a psychologist with cancer, Dr. Ventress, who is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. The parallel between cancer and suicidal ideation is one that is markedly clear—just as cancer is disability in physical form, so too are severe depression and its symptom of suicidal thoughts another manifestation of disability, an invisible one that substantially limits one from working or taking care of oneself. I argue that the women in the film are not heroic figures because of being fighters or self- sacrificing (for they are, in many ways, looking for a way to end their own suffering); instead, their heroism is in the acts of bravery they do commit while in the Shimmer, watching out for each other and protecting each others’ lives with commitment until they perish. 

The twist in the ending, in which science fiction elements take on a primary role in the explanation of mysterious forces beyond the characters’ control, sends a message about the significance and sacredness of life that uplifts the self-destruction that feels uncontrollable and without end. “The reading of the book is a little bit like having a dream,” Garland describes Southern Reach. Annihilation’s slow pace throughout, in which scenes atmospheric and eerie make for a sense of quiet disturbance, depicts the group of women canoeing, making their way through the strange, alien landscape while mutated trees rise above their heads—external surrealism echoing the profound pessimism about the future that for most of the film lies within. 

Annihilation screens Saturday, April 8th at The Frida Cinema.
7pm, 9:30pm


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