With readers turning to their home viewing options more than ever, this daily feature provides one new movie each day worth checking out on a major streaming platform.
In light of a catastrophe large enough to refract our entire lives through its prism, every piece of pop culture is suddenly revealed to be a nostalgic reminder of what we’ve lost or a prescient roadmap of how we got here. From movies like “Contagion” to novels like Ling Ma’s “Severance” and even video games like “Death Stranding,” the last few years alone have equipped us with a diverse and eccentric curriculum for making sense of our current moment. But Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” is one of the few recent films that actually points the way forward.
Of course, it also offers an uncanny view of the here and now, in its own Tarkovsky-inflected way. Adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, “Annihilation” begins with a meteor screaming into Earth’s atmosphere and crashing into a lighthouse along the shore beyond some Florida swampland; a diaphanous alien dome starts growing out of the crater, slowly encroaching upon human life as it expands. When cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is reunited with her missing husband (Oscar Isaac) more than a year after his disappearance, she’s told that Kane is the only soldier known to have survived a trip into the top secret “Area X.” Spurred by morbid curiosity, wracked by guilt over an extramarital affair that may have pushed Kane away, and seduced by an almost Platonic desire to merge with her pain (or die trying), Lena joins four equally self-destructive women on a suicide mission into the unknown.
When “Annihilation” was released in February 2018, “The Shimmer” felt like some kind of metaphorical fugue state — equal parts “Stalker” and Lovecraft. Watching the film today, it’s impossible not to engage with it in more literal terms; the Shimmer now seems less like an imaginary space than it does a soap-bubble snow globe of the world as we know it: a place where time is confused, and the days melt together or evaporate (“all other lives feel like a lifetime ago”). Everyone is forced to confront their own private agonies even as they begin to pull apart at the seams.
In real life, the most basic and persistent irony of the current moment is that people around the world have isolated themselves in response to a deadly reminder that “we’re all in this together.” We are, of course, whether we choose to accept it or not. And yet, even our most extraordinary human principles have a strange way of seeming downright horrific whenever a global event forces us to look at them through a microscope.
Even as essential workers continue to hold us together, the pandemic has cast an ominous spotlight on our natural porousness, and not even the most solipsistic of people can step outside their home without being confronted by the truth that everything is a part of everything else. But with most of us holed up inside, it can seem as if the only choices we have are to silo ourselves away or disintegrate completely. Either way presents its own kind of annihilation.
The Shimmer, we learn, cross-stitches the fabric of life itself, refracting DNA in all directions like light through the prism of a kaleidoscope. Lena’s team encounters a hostile alligator with rows of shark teeth, floral arrangements in the shape of human bodies, and myriad other Dr. Moreau-like chimeras. Gradually, the women themselves start to cross pollinate with the environment and each other, as their desolation is offset by an invisible tapestry that melds them all together in horrifying and transcendent ways. The terminally ill Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) might as well be talking about COVID-19 when she concludes “I don’t know what the Shimmer wants, or if it wants, but it’ll grow until it encompasses everything. Our bodies and our minds will be fragmented into their smallest parts until not one part remains.”
But Ventress is only half right. Or maybe she’s just not framing the phenomenon in its proper context. As Lena corrects her: “The Shimmer isn’t destroying — it’s making something new.” From the grieving Cass (Tuva Novotny) to the alcoholic Anya (Gina Rodriguez) and the self-abusive Josie (Tessa Thompson), each of these characters are damaged goods who’ve told themselves that “bruised” is the same as “broken.” They walk into the Shimmer with the intention of fully becoming their trauma, only to find themselves in a place where their trauma literally becomes a part of them.
Anya can’t handle it — she freaks out as soon as her self-image is shaken. Lena, however, comes to appreciate that the only way out of the Shimmer is to push through to the other side. Watching the particles of her being swirl together with those of her colleagues and the world around them, she realizes that nothing is immutable. Change is inevitable — it’s disintegration that’s a choice. Lena’s only hope for survival is to set herself on fire until she’s malleable enough to be forged into something new, and that’s exactly what the film’s spectacular finale allows her to do.
Several critics (most of them women) have written brilliantly about how “Annihilation” expresses the careful dance between self-growth and self-destruction as it evolves into a story about someone trying to internalize their grief without imploding under its weight. Revisiting Garland’s film from inside the cold insulation of our communal quarantine, it’s striking how the echoes that resonate between those essays betray the loneliness articulated by their authors. Like the members of Lena’s expedition who are brought to the same place by their own singular pain, the most isolating baggage we carry is the very thing that bonds us together.
This virus has made that all too clear in a way more bitter than sweet. Here we are — each of us stranded on our own private islands and yet all swimming in the same water. Watching the hyper-politicized response to the virus, and horror at how the most vulnerable among us are being left to shoulder the brunt of the suffering, it’s hard not to be reminded of how Lena’s team splintered apart even as their cells merged together (“Was I you? Were you me?”).
“If we don’t reach the lighthouse soon,” Ventress says at one point, “the person who started this journey won’t be the person who ends it.” But she’s already too late. The person who started a journey is never the person who ends it — that’s how they know they went on a journey at all. In “Annihilation,” as in life, the first people to lose themselves are the ones who can’t see past their need for self-preservation. And while the final moments of Garland’s film might initially feel like a reveal of some kind, they reverberate less as a plot twist than as a glimmer of recognition: The real Lena isn’t the one we meet at the beginning of the movie, and the real Lena isn’t the one whose eye sparkle for a second at the end — she’s both of them. As Crosby, Stills, and Nash sing at the top of the movie: “They are one person. They are two alone. They are three together. They are for each other.”
“Annihilation” is so illuminating because it finds a measure of comfort and/or catharsis in that without having to suggest that “we are the disease and the world is healing itself” or whatever. It provides a lens through which to see this pandemic as a true cataclysmic tragedy, and real life, not some momentary pause. Devastation is inevitable, but disintegration is a choice, and a frantic race to restore the world to its previous shape will only end with us dying in the ruins of the world we have now.
The only way for us to grieve our individual and collective losses without emulsifying into them completely is to remember the lesson of Henrietta Lacks, whose story Lena is seen reading early in the film. A Virginia woman who succumbed to a cancer that metastasized faster than her body could fight it, Lacks produced immortal tumor cells that allowed scientists to study molecular cultures that otherwise would have died with their secrets intact. The resulting breakthroughs have saved millions of lives, and Lacks’ cells (though controversially taken from her without proper consent) still continue to travel in the bodies of people she never knew.
At a time when the only thing scarier than being alone is the thought that we’re all a part of each other — that our lungs share the same air, and all of the things that are carried along with it — “Annihilation” reminds us that we were never really ourselves to begin with, and confronting the reality of this crisis is the only way to guarantee that we’ll be able to recognize ourselves when it’s over. Self-destruction may be programmed into our cells, but annihilation doesn’t have to be.
“Annihilation” is available to stream on Hulu.