ANNIHILATION (2018, Directed by Alex Garland)

The two films to date that have been directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation, can both be described as science fiction films with strong components of horror. However, Annihilation tilts much more strongly toward horror than does its predecessor, especially in its visual imagery. In Annihilation, an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel of the same title[1], a special team of government operatives is sent to investigate the area that lies beyond the “Shimmer,” a glistening, undulating rainbow curtain that has appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. The Shimmer itself is easily penetrable, but several previous missions (mostly military) sent to investigate the phenomenon, have disappeared without a trace, having lost the ability to communicate with the outside world once they passed through the curtain, never to return. The rest of the film details the efforts of the exploratory team to try to understand the strange area beyond the Shimmer (known as “Area X”), an area in which the laws of physics and biology seem to operate completely differently than they do in the rest of the world[2].

The all-female exploratory team[3] featured in Annihilation is led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), though the central character and the one whose point of view is followed most closely in the film is Lena (Natalie Portman), a professor of cellular biology and a veteran of seven years in the military. It is also crucial to the plot that Lena’s husband Sergeant Kane (Oscar Isaac) is, as the present action of the film begins, the only member of any of the previous expeditions to have seemingly returned from Area X (though he seems oddly distracted and confused, and then nearly dies)[4]. Moreover, we will eventually learn that this “Kane” is apparently not really Lena’s husband but is some sort of clone of the original, created by whatever phenomenon that has created Area X. Other members of the main expedition in the film include physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), former Chicago paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and geomorphologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). The team thus consists mostly of scientists, but all are armed with military weaponry and have clearly been given the training to use it, on the suspicion that they are likely to encounter something dangerous.

Annihilation is constructed in a complex nonlinear narrative form in which flashbacks (consisting of Lena’s memories or dreams of the time before Kane went into Area X) and flashforwards (mostly consisting of the interrogation of Lena after she returns from Area X) are interwoven with the present action in a way that helps to give viewers some sense of the temporal confusion experienced by the characters while inside Area X. For example, we can piece together from the Lena’s memory flashbacks that Lena and Kane had apparently once had a healthy relationship, but that (by the time of his mission into Area X) it was already beginning to grow stale. Kane, often away on missions, seemed to be growing more and more distant, while Lena had been involved in an affair with Daniel (David Gyasi), a colleague at Johns Hopkins. We learn from one of the flashbacks that Kane had found out about the affair, suggesting that he might have gone on the suicide mission into Area X in response to that discovery, thus explaining Lena’s sense of obligation to go into the area herself in an effort to find out something that will help him. The flashforwards construct a sort of frame narrative involving the efforts of the Southern Reach, the top-secret government agency operating from a facility designed to investigate the Shimmer and Area X. In fact, the film actually begins with one of these flashforwards, in which Lena is being interrogated after her return by Lomax (Benedict Wong), an agent of the Southern Reach, who are obviously taking extreme precautions for fear that Lena might be carrying some sort of contamination. Meanwhile, one thing that adds to Lena’s confusion in the film is that she herself does not fully understand the nature of the Southern Reach, nor do we. They do, however, seem vaguely sinister in their own right, somewhat in the mold of the government agents who swoop down on the unfortunate alien in Steven Spielberg’s ET the Extraterrestrial (1972). This motif adds an extra dystopian dimension of complexity to this already complex film. The potentially dystopian orientation of the powers that be in this film is clearly indicated early on as Lena rides in an ambulance rushing the newly-returned “Kane” to the hospital, only to have the ambulance intercepted by a paramilitary force that spirits Kane away to a secret facility, while Lena is drugged and taken to the facility as well. When she awakens in the facility (now dressed in a prison-like jumpsuit), she is immediately interrogated by Ventress. Alarmed by the situation, Lena demands to see a lawyer. “You’re not going to be able to see a lawyer,” Ventress states flatly, then refuses to divulge any further information about what is going on. Eventually, Ventress is able to recruit Lena to join her on the next mission into Area X, but the “Southern Reach,” the organization that manages the investigation of Area X, maintains a mysterious, dystopian air throughout the film[5].

In addition to these dystopian resonances, Annihilation sometimes has the feel of a postapocalyptic narrative. After all, the transformations inside Area X are apocalyptic in scale, including the fact that the expedition encounters several ruined and abandoned structures, such as an entire abandoned village, evacuated two years earlier by the Southern Reach. They also discover the former headquarters of the Southern Reach, now engulfed by Area X, indicating that the organization has been studying Area X for quite some time, given that they have already had time to drop back and build a replacement headquarters farther away from the lighthouse—which is itself perhaps the most important abandoned structure that the expedition encounters.

As these added dystopian and postapocalyptic components illustrate, one of the things that complicates the viewer’s understanding of Annihilation is that it participates in several different genres at once, making it a bit difficult to understand just what kind of film we are viewing. Much of this multigeneric character comes from the source material: VanderMeer is generally described as a practitioner of “weird fiction,” a kind of postmodern amalgamation of science fiction, fantasy, and horror[6]. The multigeneric character of the film does make it harder for viewers to contextualize the film, but the actionis not really especially hard to follow, in the sense that it is fairly easy to know what Lena is experiencing at any given moment and reasonably easy to grasp the relationship between the flashbacks and the main narrative. Any difficulty in the film comes from the fact that Lena herself does not understand much of what she experiences, while we have no more information than she does, given that essentially everything in the film is related to us through her perception of it. It is helpful, though, to get one’s bearings by locating the film generically, which can best be done by considering its relation with the two genres in which it participates most extensively: the alien invasion genre of science fiction and the genre of psychological horror.

Annihilation as Alien Invasion Narrative

When Lena wanders to the edge of Area X, she first observes the almost indescribable Shimmer. Ventress follows her and afterward offers an explanation that is no explanation: “A religious event? An extraterrestrial event? A higher dimension? We have many theories. Few facts.” This uncertainty will remain in place at the end of the film, though there are many indications in the film that the extraterrestrial theory is probably the most accurate one. In addition to the vaguely dystopian intonations of the activities at Area X, Annihilation contains a number of science fiction motifs, including (most obviously) its status as a sort of alien invasion narrative. Near the beginning of the film, we see an object (apparently a meteor) streaking across the sky and crashing into the earth at the base of a lighthouse. The film implies (though it does not explicitly state) that this meteor is the seed that sets in motion the transformation of the surrounding landscape, a transformation that is gradually advancing, ultimately threatening to engulf the entire world. Ventress does go on to explain, however, that the lighthouse is in “Blackwater National Park” and that the “event” started around three years before the present action of the film when it was reported that the lighthouse had suddenly become surrounded by a “shimmer,” which has gradually expanded outward ever since. So far it has encompassed barely populated swamps (which have, in any case, been evacuated on the pretext of a chemical spill), but it threatens soon to start moving into more heavily populated areas. All drones, animals, and people sent in to try to determine the nature of the event have disappeared without a trace, until the apparent return of Kane. To the extent that this event can be attributed to the impact of that meteor, Annihilation is clearly an example of the science fiction subgenre of the alien invasion narrative, even though we never see any actual aliens (unless we consider the replicated Kane to be an alien). After all, alien invasions have been coming to earth aboard apparent meteors ever since H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898). Here, though, instead of actual aliens, what we see is a “refraction” (by some unstated and perhaps unknowable process) of the laws of nature, so that everything, including human beings, touched by this process is fundamentally altered. In particular, the physicist Josie (best equipped by her training to understand such things) hypothesizes that the zone somehow distorts everything by refraction, including biological information (such as DNA) and physical information (such as the laws of space and time). The changes wrought by this refraction of information are especially noticeable at the biological level, lending themselves to the creation of striking surreal visual imagery in the film. Animal species can be genetically modified through changes to their DNA; they can also be combined with other animal species (and even with plant species), creating strange hybrids that would be impossible according to any terrestrial understanding of the laws of biology. Plants, for example, can include human genetic material that allows them to grow in the shape of human beings. Moreover, this strange process of hybridization extends even farther, so that living species can be combined with inanimate materials to create even more bizarre hybrids—as in the crystalline trees that we see near the end of the film.

We, as viewers, never gain a full understanding of this process of transformation, nor is there any discernible reason for it. In this sense, Annihilation participates in a family of science fiction narratives that have been built on the fundamental notion that alien intelligences would probably be so alien to us that we would be entirely unable to understand their motivations or to establish meaningful communication with them. The classic text in this regard would be the 1961 novel Solaris, by the great Polish science fiction writer Stanisław Lem, which still stands as one of the most successful meditations on the difficulties of encounters with aliens that are genuinely different from humans. Here, a human expedition to the planet Solaris has difficulty recognizing that the planet’s vast ocean is itself a sentient being, but one so alien to humans that communication between the humans and the planet is virtually impossible. Solaris was successfully adapted to film under the same title in 1972 by the great Soviet science fiction master Andrei Tarkovsky (and was less successfully adapted by Steven Soderbergh in 2002). Linguistic difficulties are also central to the plot of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1979). More recently, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016) deals almost entirely with difficulties in communication with a group of aliens that have arrived on earth, difficulties that are made more serious by the fact that the aliens perceive time in a way entirely different from that of humans, which exerts a strong influence on their fundamental conception of language.

Of these predecessors, Solaris is probably the most similar to Annihilation, in the sense that the humans in that novel/film, like the humans in Annihilation, do not really understand what they are encountering. This lack of understanding, though, is perhaps even more profound in Annihilation because the properties of the zone explored in this film include a warping of the perception of space and time, so that the explorers cannot really understand or trust the data that come to them via their own senses.

Meanwhile, the alien invasion motif of Annihilation has a number of other important predecessors in the world of science fiction. For example, that a clone of Kane that is returned from the zone inevitably recalls the alien replicants who replace humans in the classic sf film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and its remakes. The apparent ability of the alien phenomenon to manipulate and rearrange genes recalls the “Oankali,” alien genetic engineers in Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-1989), who merge genetically with humans on a postapocalyptic earth devastated by nuclear war. The aliens are very much in charge of the process, however, seeking to remove humanity’s natural (and highly destructive) tendency toward hierarchical behavior, which they see as the cause of the recent holocaust on earth[7]. In the process they transgress all sorts of human gender boundaries—and eventually transform the entire restored earth into a giant spaceship for use in their further travels. Meanwhile, the focus in Annihilation on the exploration of a strange zone where the laws of physic and biology are changed (apparently by an alien intervention) is quite reminiscent of another Tarkovsky film, Stalker (1979), which is itself based on the 1972 Russian novel Roadside Picnic, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, perhaps the greatest of all Russian science fiction novelists.

Even more analogous to what is going on in Annihilation is the main narrative of Ian McDonald’s “Chaga” saga, which includes Chaga (1995, US title Evolution’s Shore) and Kirinya (1998). This story features an alien incursion in Africa by the Chaga, an extraterrestrial ecosystem that seeds the southern hemisphere, possibly through the use of a form of nanotechnology. The Chaga spreads dramatically and transforms the African landscape, seemingly for the better, but the United Nations responds with an intervention that is essentially a neocolonial exertion of power. Indeed, reading Annihilation alongside McDonald’s Chaga books raises a serious question about how we should see the Southern Reach and whether the phenomenon in Area X might actually be a positive force that has come to earth to save the planet, even if that means having to rid it of the pesky humans who are destroying it.

Probably the most striking sequence in Annihilation occurs near the end of the film, when Lena finally enters the lighthouse and is confronted by much strangeness. Among other things, she discovers a recording that suggests that the “Kane” who returned from Area X is a clone of the original Kane, who was turned to ash by a phosphorous grenade. Then comes the strangest sequence of all (critics have used terms such as “mind-bending” and “trippy” to describe it), in which psychedelic visuals accompany what appears to be the creation and then destruction (again by phosphorous grenade) of a clone of Lena herself. The destruction of the clone appears to trigger the destruction of Area X, returning the area to normal and returning Lena to the Southern Reach. This sequence, of course, is reminiscent of nothing more than that final segment of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which astronaut David Bowman enters some sort of Stargate, passes through a psychedelic tunnel, then emerges in a field of stars. He then moves through a series of strange, incomprehensible sights and shapes, taking him out of the solar system and into a different part of the galaxy. After more strange images, Bowman realizes that he has apparently landed in a simulated period hotel suite. Bowman, now transformed into an old man, begins to explore the suite and encounters other versions of himself. A monolith appears at the foot of the bed, and an aged Bowman lying in bed is suddenly replaced by a gestating fetus (apparently as a signal that he dies and is reborn), returning to earth as the Star Child, announcing another step in human evolution.

Annihilation resembles 2001 in a number of ways, well beyond the visual similarities between its lighthouse scene and Kubrick’s finally segment. Most commentators have interpreted 2001 as a narrative about alien interventions that help along human evolution. In Annihilation, it is possible to see that the clone of Kane is analogous to the Star Child, while it is possible to imagine that the returned Lena will join with Kane to produce a Star Child of their own. (It is also possible that the returned Lena is a clone, as many viewers—noting the new tattoo on her arm and the strange shimmer in her eyes, which she shares with Kane’s clone—as evidence of this fact.) By this reading, the phenomenon that created Area X can be seen as an alien intervention designed to set right a human race that has gone badly off course—though of course it might also be suspected of having more sinister intentions. Garland gives us even less information than Kubrick about how to interpret his ending, so there can be no definitive reading.

Much about Annihilation is confusing and disorienting, but that might largely be the point. In addition to the film’s echoes of specific alien invasion motifs, it should also be noted that Annihilation largely involves the women entering a strange world that clearly operates in a manner that is far different from the world they have always known. They then spend most of the film attempting to get their bearings and to understand how and why this world differs from their own. In short, they are all performing very much the same kind of activities as those performed by science fiction readers (though in a more dangerous way, of course). After all, readers read science fiction in order to explore different worlds, and part of the task (and fun) of reading science fiction is to try to figure out the rules of these new worlds and how they differ from their own. Indeed, ever since the pioneering work of Darko Suvin in the 1970s, there has been a strong critical consensus that this phenomenon, which Suvin terms “cognitive estrangement,” is the central project of science fiction as a genre. For him, science fiction places readers in a world different from our own in ways that stimulate thought about the nature of those differences, enabling us to view our own world from a fresh perspective. Moreover, this process is invested with strong utopian energies, giving readers the ability to imagine that their own world could be otherwise and that genuine change is possible.

Suvin’s discussion of cognitive estrangement (which has played a founding role in the history of serious academic criticism of science fiction) is included in his book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979). Of course, cognitive estrangement is very similar to the phenomenon of defamiliarization that the Russian formalists saw as the central strategy of all literature. Indeed, it could be argued that all literature produces cognitive estrangement to some extent, an observation that leads Carl Freedman to declare that, in this sense, all fiction could be considered science fiction and that the latter may actually be a broader category than the former (21). On the other hand, Freedman (citing Suvin) goes on to argue that the designation “science fiction” is best “reserved for those texts in which cognitive estrangement is not only present but dominant” (22). In other words, while all fiction produces cognitive estrangement, it is only in science fiction that such estrangement is the principal goal and project of the text. One could certainly argue that Annihilation meets that criterion.

Annihilation as Horror Film

On the other hand, one could also argue that the cognitive estrangement suffered by the members of the expedition in Annihilation reaches a level so extreme that it tilts the film into the genre of horror. We learn in the first flashforward at the beginning of the film that Lena (apparently the only one of the group we will be following to survive to return from the zone) believes she was in the zone for a few days or at most a few weeks, when in fact she had been inside for nearly four months as measured in the outside world. Then, in the present-time narrative of the film, as soon as the expedition is shown passing through the Shimmer into Area X, its members are immediately shown in their encampment, even though none of them can remember setting up camp (or anything else after passing into Area X). However, the depletion of their food supply suggests that they have already been inside Area X for three or four days. It is thus quickly established, not only that they are in a strange new environment, but that they cannot trust their perceptions of what is going on.

I have elsewhere argued that science fiction texts create worlds that “operate according to the same physical principles as our own, but they subordinate those principles to changes caused by rationally explicable developments, primarily scientific or technological.” The worlds of horror texts, I argue, typically seem similar to our own, but are then disrupted by “monstrous incursions of supernatural (or at least extraordinary) beings or events” (252). By these definitions (which are not absolute, by any means), Annihilation would appear to be more horror than science fiction. And many events of the film support the same conclusion, though it is certainly the case that many events could be at home in either horror or science fiction (and it is clearly the case that Annihilation is both horror and science fiction, so it isn’t a case of simply choosing to read it as one or the other).

One of the earliest hints that we are dealing with both horror and science fiction occurs when they explore the abandoned base that was formerly the headquarters of the Southern Reach. They find there a video recording left by the most recent previous expedition and play it, discovering that it contains shocking material that might be very much at home in a horror movie. On the recording, Kane is shown cutting open the abdomen of a fellow soldier, revealing that the soldier’s abdominal cavity contains, not the expected intestines and other organs, but some sort of slithering, snake-like creature. Soon afterward, they discover what appears to be the body of the soldier, his abdominal cavity hollowed out and his body merged both with some sort of vine-like plant and a concrete wall, forming a grotesque display. This discovery seems like almost pure horror, though one of the closest cinematic counterparts to this sequence might be the infamous chest-burster scene from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), perhaps the quintessential example of a science fiction-horror hybrid in film.

Similarly, the hybrid monsters that attack the expedition inside Area X, beginning with an alligator that seems to have the teeth of a shark, would seem to be equally at home in either horror or science fiction. That they seem to have been formed by some sort of genetic modification would seem to place these creatures in the realm of science fiction, but the monstrous nature of some of the hybrids in the film definitely seems more like horror. For example, at one point, the members of the expedition are threatened by a monstrous creature with the body of a bear but with a grotesquely misshapen head, the skull exposed and with a human skull (presumably that of Sheppard, who had earlier been carried off by a bear) embedded within it. It also has a set of human teeth, in addition to bear teeth, while it emits both bear-like growls and human-like sounds. In some ways, this bear-human hybrid is visually reminiscent of the alien in Alien, but the monstrous possibilities offered by genetic merger of humans and animals are perhaps most reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), a classic science fiction-horror hybrid that tilts toward body horror when its scientist protagonist merges with a fly. This hybrid bear seems to be a mutated form of the one that apparently killed Sheppard earlier, and it initially draws the attention of the other women by yelling “Help me!” in Sheppard’s voice, suggesting that it has taken on some of Sheppard’s genes. This moment perhaps recalls the iconic moment at the end of the original 1958 version of The Fly, in which a scientist, merged with a fly to create a hybrid that is the size of a fly, gets caught in a spider web and calls out “Help me!” in a tiny voice.

The mutant bear.

Importantly, it is not only the animals that are mutating inside Area X. The women in the expedition are also changing. Anya becomes alarmed when she looks closely at her hand and believes she can see her fingerprints moving. Lena examines a sample of her own blood under a microscope and observes abnormal cellular division. Ventress states it most plainly when she says they need to pick up speed in their progress toward the lighthouse because “We are disintegrating. Can’t you feel it? It’s like the onset of dementia. If I don’t reach the lighthouse soon, the person that started this journey won’t be the person that ends it. I want to be the one that ends it.”

By the end of the film, Ventress has distintegrated altogether inside the lighthouse, perhaps merging her lifeforce with the energy of the phenomenon. That lighthouse, meanwhile, is in many ways a veritable house of horrors. Indeed, as Lena reaches the lighthouse, we see that a display of human skulls and bones has been carefully arranged on the ground outside of the structure. There are no clues concerning the meaning of this display, but it certainly seems to belong to the genre of horror. On the other hand, it is perhaps most directly reminiscent of the display of skulls that decorates Kurtz’s compound when Marlow finally reaches it in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Then, when we see the inside of the lighthouse, it seems to be overgrown with some decidedly disturbing white, vinelike plants, which also doesn’t seem to bode well.

However horrifying some of the physical transformations and other images in the film might be, to the extent that Annihilation functions as a horror movie, it probably fits primarily in the category of psychological horror. It has monsters, and it has body horror, and one might even see the lighthouse as a sort of haunted house, but the most horrifying aspect of Area X is the tricks it plays on people’s minds. Perhaps it is significant that the expedition is led by a psychologist. Indeed, the perceptions of the film’s characters are so altered that many of the events we see might simply be imagined. Indeed, the returned Lena is questioned about this possibility but dismisses it, noting that all of the women were seeing the same things. However, if these hallucinations are caused by some sort of alien phenomenon (rather than individual pathology), there would not appear to be any reason why all the women could not have the same hallucinations.

Traveling through a strange and dangerous environment that one does not understand (while not being able to trust the evidence of one’s own senses) is about as frightening a situation as one can imagine. Perhaps the only thing more frightening, at least for anyone whose identity has been formed amid the individualist ethos of the Western world, is to lose one’s own identity, much as Ventress indicates. That the loss of identity is central to this film is also indicated in that final video that Lena finds of Kane, who questions the very concept of identity with his final words (spoken to his clone as the latter records him just before he sets off that phosphorous grenade): “I thought I was a man. I had a life. People called me ‘Kane.’ And now I’m not so sure. If I wasn’t Kane, what was I? Was I you? Were you me? My flesh moves like liquid. My mind is just cut loose. I can’t bear it.”

Annihilation as Environmentalist Allegory

One might see this theme in Annihilation as related to the Buddhist notion that individual identity is a delusion and the major cause of the world’s suffering. And Kane’s final fate is certainly reminiscent of those famed moments of self-immolation with which Buddhist monks have sometimes protested against injustices in the world, perhaps most famously when Thích Quảng Đức burned himself to death on a busy Saigon street on June 11, 1963, to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government. Indeed, Kane positions himself in his final moments in a pose that is very reminiscent of the pose of Thích Quảng Đức, captured in a famous photograph taken by journalist Malcolm Browne.

The self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức on a busy Saigon street on June 11, 1963.

The self-immolation of Kane in Annihilation, as his clone looks on.

There certainly are many elements of Annihilation that seem congruent with the Buddhist worldview, and it is perfectly reasonable to connect the title of the film to what has often been (wrongly) described as the Buddhist quest for annihilation of the self. In point of fact, the ultimate goal of Buddhists is to achieve nirvana, which does not truly involve the annihilation of the self so much as a transformation of the self into a new condition that is liberated from suffering and worldly attachments, specifically greed, anger, and delusion. On the other hand, the title of the film could have many more meanings, including the most obvious one that it describes what was happening to the natural landscape in Area X. However, we should recall the moment in the film when Lomax refers to the fact that the phenomenon was destroying everything, whereupon Lena corrects him and says “not destroying; changing.”

I think a more immediate reading of the “point” of Annihilation and the meaning of its title is that “annihilation” primarily refers to the potentially cataclysmic effects of climate change, making the entire film an environmentalist allegory. I will grant, however, that this reading is easier to defend in relation to the original novel, partly because VanderMeer is a committed environmentalist, and partly because the novel never explicitly identifies the nature and source of its central phenomenon, while the film fairly clearly identifies it as being of extraterrestrial origin, which complicates the environmentalist reading[8].

Still, the environmentalist reading captures a great deal of what is important about the film, even though it still leaves the way open for radically different interpretations. On the one hand, one could see Annihilation as a sort of revenge-of-nature film in which nature is striking back against the damage done to the environment by hundreds of years of capitalist modernization. By this reading, Area X involves a sort of purification of the environment, a reading that again works better with the novel than with film, because the novel makes it clear that the environment inside Area X has been cleared of human-made pollution, while the area outside remains impure. Musing on the environment around her in Area X, the biologist notes, “The air was so clean, so fresh, while the world back beyond the border was what it had always been during the modern era: dirty, tired, imperfect, winding down, at war with itself” (30).

On the other hand, in the film, the environment inside Area X seems much more threatening, almost cancerous (or at least alien), which could be seen to support an alternative view of Area X as a sort of defamiliarized re-creation of what humans have done to the environment on earth. To the extent that we can trust anything we see in this film, the film does seem to verify that the transformation of the environment inside Area X is of alien origin. Late in the film, for example, Lomax hears Lena’s story and concludes, “So it is alien,” which she appears to affirm. Thus, the transformation of Area X might be seen as a sort of reverse terraforming in which alien intervention radically changes the environment, just as human intervention has radically changed the environment of earth over the past few hundred years. This reading would highlight the notion that modern industrial civilization is, in a sense, an alien force that is at odds with the natural environment of earth. Of course, the film also leaves open the possibility that the aliens might be sophisticated enough to change the environment for the better.

Finally, the film also leaves open the question of just what happens next. Even if Lena has, in fact, brought an end to Area X, that does not necessarily mean that the alien intrusion has been thwarted. There is still the question of just what happens next, given that the clone of Kane (and possibly Lena herself) seems to be “infected” with alien material. In many ways, in fact, the ending of the film is less like the ending of the novel than it is like the ending of Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina, in which an android that possibly poses a major threat to the human race escapes confinement and issues forth to mingle, undetected, among humans. That film leaves open the question of whether the replacement of the flawed human race by posthuman androids might be a good thing, just as Annihilation leaves open the question of whether the replacement of humans by aliens as the rulers of earth might be an improvement. After all, the film clearly suggests that human beings are inherently flawed and even self-destructive, as when Lena notes early on that aging occurs simply because of a genetic flaw in all animals on earth, which meshes with Ventress’s later claim that almost all of us self-destruct in some way. Ventress herself makes the connection, in fact, telling Lena that, as a biologist, she can probably understand humanity’s self-destructive impulses better than can a psychologist: “Isn’t self-destruction coded into us, programmed into each cell?” One could see the destruction of the natural environment as a manifestation of the innate self-destructive tendencies of humans in general, and perhaps the aliens in Annihilation hope, not just to annihilate humans but to improve them with an improved model, with no built-in drive to self-destruct.

Works Cited

Booker, M. Keith. “The Other Side of History: Fantasy, Romance, Horror, and Science Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to the Twentieth-Century English Novel. Edited by Robert L. Caserio, Cambridge University Press, 2009,pp. 252–66.

Brooks de Vita, Alexis. “Annihilation, HeLa and the New Weird: Destruction as Re-Creation.” Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Vol. 1: Essays on Film Representations, 2012–2019. Edited by Valerie Estelle Frankel, McFarland, 2019, 88–101.

Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Kunzelman, Cameron. “Can You Describe Its Form? Annihilation and Cinematic Adaptation.” Surreal Entanglements: Essays on Jeff VanderMeer’s Fiction. Edited by Louise Economides and Laura Shackelford, Routledge; 2021. 224–44.

Lutes, Alicia. “How Alex Garland Dreamed Up an Even Crazier Annihilation. Nerdist, 13 December 2017, Accessed 14 December 2021.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale University Press, 1979.

Tompkins, David. “Weird Ecology: On The Southern Reach Trilogy.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 30 September 2014,!. Accessed 12 December 2021.

VanderMeer, Jeff. Annihilation. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014.


[1] The process of adaptation in this case is a fascinating topic in itself. See Kunzelman and Lutes for discussions of the adaptation.

[2] I will grant that the film implies that the whole affected area is called “The Shimmer,” while “Area X” is the headquarters of the Southern Reach. VanderMeer’s use of the terminology I use here is much clearer, so I have decided to go with his version.

[3] The film gives no reason at all why all of the members of the team are women, which somehow seems appropriate given the number of films that have featured all-male expeditionary forces without explanation of that gender choice. The novel merely stipulates that they were “chosen as part of the complex set of variables that governed sending the expeditions” (3).

[4] In VanderMeer’s novel, none of these characters have actual names, but are simply given labels, such as “the psychologist” and “the biologist.” This strategy reinforces the theme of annihilation of identity that runs through the novel. It also recalls the unnamed listeners aboard the “Nellie” in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), a book whose trip into the jungles of Africa (depicted as strange and mysterious, at least to incoming Europeans) has more than a little in common with the expedition at the center of Annihilation.

[5] Garland reinforces the sense of uneasiness surrounding this facility with a subtle structural trick. While VanderMeer’s novel makes it quite clear that “Area X” is the area within the Shimmer (though, unlike Garland, he does not actually call the boundary “the Shimmer,” using instead the term “border.”), Garland simply displays “Area X” in on-screen text before cutting to the first shot of the facility, leaving some uncertainty about what “Area X” refers to. While this trick does create a sense that the facility itself is called “Area X” (perhaps in the tradition of “Area 51”), that term is never again used in the film, leaving some uncertainty. The novel, meanwhile, makes clear that the “clandestine government agency that dealt with all matters related to Area X” is called the “Southern Reach” (8–9). Indeed, VanderMeer’s Annihilation is the first volume of a trilogy of novels collectively known as the “Southern Reach Trilogy.” The term “Southern Reach” is barely used in the film, though it is mentioned in passing, and I will use it here.

[6] It should be noted that VanderMeer’s novel won both the Nebula Award (primarily given for science fiction writing) and the Shirley Jackson Award (primarily given for horror writing).

[7] Humans, it turns out, are especially good subjects for genetic manipulation due to the rare genetic property that enables cancer, something the Oankali have encountered nowhere else in the galaxy. There are also vague hints in Annihilation that cancer (which is key to Lena’s own research and of which Ventress is dying) might be vaguely analogous to the process of genetic transformation in the zone. Brooks de Vita believes that Lena has cervical cancer, but I see no evidence of that in the film.

[8] The third volume of the Southern Reach Trilogy appears to identify the phenomenon as alien in origin, but even that information is delivered in a way that makes it appear less than entirely reliable. For an excellent discussion of the entire trilogy in terms of its focus on “weird ecology,” see Tompkins.