By Michael W. Harris
Almost any film (or narrative story) is about “the journey.” It is what gives a character their arc and shows their growth. Sometimes there is a very literal metaphor of this arc with a character climbing a mountain or driving across the country with a friend or their father’s ashes…or Einstein’s brain. Regardless, something they all have in common, though, is that the journey is the means by which the character grows. This is the essence of “The Hero’s Journey” and the well-trodden Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces and what not.
But what about a film that is not about the hero’s journey and how it changes them? What about a film in which the journey itself is the point? A journey that, while somehow revelatory of the character and either their motivations for the journey or society as a whole, rather than changing them or causing them to grow as a person, instead ends up either not affecting them or, if anything, leaving them worse off for making the trip.
These kinds of films are about how what is being journeyed through reflects or, in the case of Annihilation, refracts back on the person or society.
In this way, Annihilation reminds me of the films like Apocalypse Now and Stalker that are about trips into mysterious areas, be it the jungles of Viet Nam and Cambodia, the Zone, or Area X/The Shimmer. In all of these cases, the journey exposes something about the characters and their world. It is the dark mirror that refracts back not a pure image, or even the image we hope and want to see, but rather that which we seek to hide and conceal. And these trips are many times also tests for our characters, a trial they must pass in order to pay penance for past misdeeds or mistakes. Indeed, these characters usually have a past. When we meet them they are usually at their end, their major “hero’s journey” has already taken place, and they have emerged on the other side broken in some way. Rather than being inspired by their past actions and journey, they are haunted by it, and perhaps running from it (see: Cowboy Bebop). In some cases this journey is a final one. A form of self-destruction; suicide by trip. Allowing the past to catch up and finally consume them. And even if it doesn’t, the journey rarely works of for the better. In the end, they are still hollow. An empty shell of a person, bereft of joy, incapable of happiness. The journey has not inspired charge.
Or if it has, it has actually made things worse.
* * *
The literary sub-genre of Southern Gothic has always held a macabre fascination for me. While I have never read a lot of Faulkner or others associated with the genre, I am familiar with its tropes via film (and some music). The feeling of decay, collapse, inability to let go of a supposedly better past; poverty, racism, and so forth. A culture past its prime but still clinging to an image of itself, of what it supposedly once was and could be again. It is another form of hauntedness. One that comes through much more explicitly in Jeff VanderMeer’s original novel Annihilation than in Alex Garland’s the film. While the film does have an overgrown swamp, moist atmosphere, and other visual aspects of something in decay, the novel literally oozes it.
One of the major differences between the two is that the film has “the event” occurring some three years before, whereas the book places it decades prior. In the novel the Southern Reach, the organization in charge of researching and hopefully containing Area X, is in full decay. Most of its staff is gone, and the building is largely empty and in disrepair. It is literally a mostly empty shell.
What both film and book do have, though, is a feeling of souls in decay. Past lives being clung to and haunting the present despite the clear need to move on lest they destroy, annihilate, the present. And while this is clearly on display for the entire main cast of scientists who venture into Area X/The Shimmer (in the book the two are used synonymously, while in the movie there does seem to be some distinction), it is most clearly expressed in the character of Lena (Natalie Portman). Despite her marriage becoming cold, perfunctory, and full of infidelity and long absences, she still refuses to give it up. She cannot give up the idea of her marriage despite its cancerous effect on her present, and that idea is what leads her into Area X and her eventual self-annihilation (thought while not as literal as with the death of her co-journeyers, it does effect a possibly destructive on her person).
So, if Annihilation is science fiction Southern Gothic, what does it bring to the genre? If sci-fi is all about the future and Southern Gothic is about the past, what does the combination of the two mean? Why pair them at all?
To me, sci-fi has always been less about aliens, fantastic settings, and technology than it has been a backdrop against which to tell other type of stories. It is less a genre of specific story types, but a toy box in which other genres can play. This is how you get sci-fi horror, sci-fi drama, sci-fi comedy or action or romance. It is set dressing for other genres. So in this way, adapting Southern Gothic hallmarks and story tropes, while not perhaps the most obvious of combinations, is a perfectly acceptable, if unique, approach.
But to what end? Why use a sci-fi setting, a backdrop of the weird and eerie (with a healthy serving of body horror), to tell a story of five people with decidedly non-sci-fi issues? Infidelity. Cancer. Loss of child. Self-harm. Addiction and paranoia. What does sci-fi bring to the table?
First, it is the science part of it. Lena’s opening monologue about cancer cells that never die while healthy ones eventually do is the organizing metaphor of the entire film. The cancer is the Southern Gothic and those things that linger on long past their expiration date and slowly kill us.
The weird and eerie landscape of The Shimmer, and its elements of refraction and doubling of ourselves and our biology, is this cancer made manifest. Mark Fisher discusses the terms “weird” and “eerie” as ways to describe culture in his posthumous book of the same title (which I need to read fully), but in short they have to do with the edge between the real and the unreal, the uncanny, the ruins of the past that inhabit the present and cause a sense of Deja-vu or other unreal experience (or at least that is my understanding).
Southern Gothic provides a vibe and narrative device for the story, sci-fi layers on top with additional feelings and ambiance which amps it up. Add in the physical setting of the Florida Panhandle and ecological disaster and you have of the moodiest stories of recent years.
* * *
As I said in the introduction, Annihilation follows a small tradition of “journey” films/stories in which the already flawed people on the trip find no absolution, revelation, apotheosis, or even peace. They change not all or actually emerge decidedly worse…or dead. This is Willard carrying out his orders and leaving the jungle but remaining the broken human that he was. A weapon of war that the Army turns to for its most unsavory tasks.
It is the Stalker returning from the Zone, his clients having faced their demons, but deciding not to enter the Room, and the Stalker still not fully accepting his role in the death of his mentor nor the true nature of the Room as destructive and resulting in unintended consequences.
It is a narratively flat character arc even if the story itself has the typical structure of rising/falling action, and all the other things you learned in 9th grade English. But again, the point of these stories is not so much the characters, but rather what the character and journey says about us. Our culture. Our world.
In Apocalypse Now (and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) it is about the inhumanity of the supposedly “civilized” West, and Stalker is about human desire and revelation of the difference between what it is we say we want and what we actually want. And in Annihilation it is the self-destructive tendencies within all of us. The decay at the center of our worst habits. The cancer within our souls.
But what is the point of the journey? The encountering with ourselves that takes place in the jungle or other space? Why take us, the audience, on the trip if we do not feel a cathartic moment at the end, or even a sense of closure or resolution? Instead, there is just an endpoint in the film.
Colonel Kurtz is crazy. They don’t go in the Room. The Lighthouse has a weird alien and her husband was already dead and replaced by some eerie double.
Why did we come here again?
* * *
If Annihilation has one clear metaphor and commentary for our world, it is that of ecological disaster. Between the setting of the Gulf Coast and the evacuated residents, Annihilation shows us what some of our immediate future might look like. Climate refugees already exist, and the American Gulf Coast will be one of the first hardest hit places in the US. This is a haunted landscape in that it reveals the reality of our future as opposed to what we thought it would look like. And it is also the Southern Gothic in that it shows a proud society brought low and in a state of overgrown, mutated, beautifully surreal decay. The ruins of a lost world.
In every way possible, Annihilation is a haunted film. The characters, the setting, the soundtrack…I’m not so sure about the alien per se, but since it copies Lena and her husband, it is safe to assume that it does some haunting of others. The alien is the final ghost encountered. The root of decay, and the Colonel Kurtz or Room of the journey. The end point. The specter hanging over the entire film.
It is maybe a cliché or cop out for such an encounter to be anti-climactic or otherwise unfulfilling, but in some cases, it is quite apt. As opposed to the “Man Behind the Curtain” of The Wizard of Oz, these films were not structured around the build-up of a mysterious figure, but rather the slow burn of tension tied to the very danger, fear, or mystery of the space being travelled through. The haunting of the characters by what they brought with them.
The journey exposes these ghosts for the audience and companions on screen, a final encounter with that which they have been simultaneously running from and journeying towards (usually their past or themselves). They are going to their ultimate fate knowing (hoping?) that it may destroy them, but to some degree they know they must either confront that past or slowly decay and rot away from the inside.
Regardless, they want the haunting to end…but in the end reach neither absolution or catharsis. They find neither resolution nor comfort. It is just another thing. There is no way to exorcize their demons. There is only the haunting and the knowledge that we somehow helped make this world. We created our own ghosts. We are responsible in some way. Or at least culpable and complicit. Part of the machine.
The ghost is within us all.
* * *
In the process of writing this essay, Dan Olsen of Folding Ideas on YouTube published a video essay which does a much better job than I can of parsing the ending and meaning of the film, which you should really watch, but I will offer a few additional thoughts.
Annihilation is a film that still challenges me and sits at an uncomfortable point in my intellectual world. I want, no crave, more textual information. I want to know more about the aliens and their motivations, but, as Olsen states, in the film, the metaphorical is textual. The theme of trauma and pain, our self-annihilation, is quite clear and blunt…so why do we need the sci-fi and Southern Gothic? I think this is that question that drives so much confusion with the film. We need more meaning and explanation for those elements and setting. We feel like that is where the clues are to unlock a very ambiguous film.
But it isn’t. The film is the film. The narrative is self-contained, and not dependent on these elements except to help bring out those themes. Lena is self-destructive and lethargic. Kane has grown distant. Their marriage has a cancer eating at it, but rather than deal with it, they ignore it. We accept our pain. We feel like we may even deserve it. Thus, we accept our annihilation.
* * *
I have watched most of the projects that Alex Garland has been involved in (minus 28 Days Later, those based on his books, and his video game work), and there are some striking similarities. Dredd is a bit of an outlier in his work tone wise—as I expect 28 Days Later is. And for fans of the three films I have discussed here, I would also recommend Never Let Me Go, with a script by Garland based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Over the course of his career, Garland has established himself as one of the most interesting voices in science fiction. Crafting thought provoking, beautiful, and terrifying stories. Never straight forward, sometimes problematic in terms of third acts, but always compelling, Garland has proven himself a screenwriter and director to watch if you are a fan of the genre.
And that is it. We have reached the end of this mini-series. Hopefully it has whetted your appetite for what is to come in 2019.