Struck by Russ Ramsey, Free for CAPC Members
Death’s party-crashing ways are detailed in a new book by Russ Ramsey, titled Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death.
**This article contains spoilers for the plot of Annihilation.**
“I don’t know.” It’s the answer Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, uses to describe Annihilation’s events, and it’s the same one I left the theater repeating. The sweeping, dramatic sci-fi drama from writer and director Alex Garland has been called a “beautiful heap of nonsense,” and it’s been wondered if the screenplay was written “by someone tripping on acid.”
Annihilation is visually fascinating. Mimicking a central theme built on refraction and the importance of perspective, many scenes are shot through or against reflective surfaces—glass, water, or a character’s eyes. The premise is also compelling. A strange prismatic orb slowly grows in the Florida Everglades, covering a greater portion of the earth with each day. Its origin is unknown, and expedition teams are unsuccessful at learning more about its properties, let alone surviving the journey.
After joining one such team, Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for over a year, until one day when he shows up unannounced (and unbeknownst to his commanders) at their home. As Kane’s strange condition—total memory loss and failing organs—progresses, Lena decides to join another team venturing into “the Shimmer.”
As the team explores the strange environment, the cause of the phenomenon slowly takes on another dimension: does it have a purpose, or even its own will? Various mutations are quickly discovered in animals, plants, and even humans. The crew begins to wonder if these changes are directed towards some end. Is the earth underneath the Shimmer being destroyed, or is something new being created?
The natural human bent towards self-destruction is a major theme in Annihilation. Each of the expedition team members displays some level of self-sabotage in their personal or professional life: biologist Lena cheated on the husband she’s now risking her life to save, paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez) struggled with an alcohol addiction, physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) cut herself, psychologist Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) possesses no significant relationships in her life. And each of them has volunteered for a mission that has repeatedly resulted in death. Ventress muses that self-destruction is the fundamental condition of humanity, something so biological that perhaps Lena knows more about it than she does.
As the team explores the dream-like landscape created by the Shimmer, the sense of simultaneous wonder and foreboding grows. There is destruction underneath the beauty, a dark underside to the seeming paradise. Just after Lena discovers gorgeously mutated flowers—different blooms all originating from the same stems—the group is attacked by a giant crocodile with shark teeth. They discover incredible plants with altered cells that have grown to look like humans. They also find a man literally torn apart from the inside—a result of mutations severely altering his biological makeup. Their surroundings are striking, but the cost seems exorbitant.Sometimes our confession is more cathartic than redemptive, our recreation is more self-help than dependent on the source of real healing, and the external appearance of beauty is more highly valued than real restoration of the original goodness of creation.
The point is clear: what appears destructive to those observing the Shimmer from the outside is actually creative. When Lena returns to the outpost as the lone survivor of her mission, she answers their questions like a cult’s passionate convert: “It wasn’t destroying, it was changing everything, it was making something new.”
Josie’s acquiescence to the effects of the Shimmer display the heart of this idea most powerfully: the scars that evidence her self-harm become the sprouts of new plants, slowly turning her into a new creation of the Shimmer’s making. Her quiet observations throughout the group’s journey culminate in what is supposed to appear as perhaps the most perceptive response to the Shimmer’s effects: submission. She tells Lena that “Ventress wants to face it, you want to fight it,” but she wants to give in to it, allowing herself to become like one of the eerily human-like plants.
Initially, it seems poetic, even biblical: she gives into the recreation, her scars functioning as the exact place that she finds new life. The old is gone, the new has come. She is being recreated into something fit for this new world. But is she being recreated into what she’s truly intended to be, or just into something new? Is recreation always good and is new always better? The giant crocodile-shark hybrid suggests not.
This theme featured so prominently in Annihilation has reverberated throughout Christian messages for several years: the redemptive value of falling apart. There’s almost inherent value ascribed to the act of proudly proclaiming your mess. There are books, podcasts, and blogs built entirely on the concept of, “Here’s my broken life! It’s so relatable!” But while destruction almost always allows for recreation, not every manifestation of that cycle brings about true healing. Sometimes our confession is more cathartic than redemptive, our recreation is more self-help than dependent on the source of real healing, and the external appearance of beauty is more highly valued than real restoration of the original goodness of creation. When the recreation isn’t the right one, you end up giving crocodiles even more teeth.
This is where the theme of reflection and distortion become especially interesting as it relates to Garland’s film. No previous team has been able to communicate with the main outpost once entering the Shimmer, and none have returned alive until Kane. The scientists assumed that the Shimmer was shutting out radio waves or other forms of communication. Yet, Lena’s team discovers that the Shimmer isn’t blocking out the light or radio waves from the outside world, it’s simply refracting them, distorting them.
The varied shots throughout the film taken through transparent surfaces, including the gauzy rainbowed edge of the Shimmer, remind us that the lens through which we view things will have profound implications on growth. Each surface distorts the image in some way—a glass of water enlarges the clasped human hands on the other side. Plastic curtains obscure human figures aside from their shadows and outlines. They certainly create something “new,” but that image is only a misrepresentation of the original.
The importance of perspective is made most apparent in the opening scene of the film. In one of Lena’s biology classes, she explains the constant “rhythm of the dividing pair” of cells—the regeneration that takes place to create new life. Initially, her class is in awe of the seemingly beautiful process, and then the shot moves to Lena’s solemn explanation that this is an image of stage 4 cancer cells.
The world under the Shimmer is dreamlike, but always teetering on the edge of nightmarish. There’s beauty and life, but death and destruction lurk in unexpected places. For people desperate for a “new me,” Annihilation reminds us that there’s always a cost. Mutations have side effects. The same is true for our self-improvements: they usually just trade one addiction or idol for another, more palatable one. They can produce some blooming flowers, but there may also be threats hiding in unexpected places.
The good news of the Christian faith is that we aren’t doomed to self-destruction forever. We’re more than biology, and the restoration that God offers is not another replacement with it’s own distortions and mutations, but full redemption. Our “messy stories” don’t stay that way, splayed out as evidence of our authenticity. Instead, they’re in the process of being made whole.
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