Tor.com: The Philosophy of Self-Destruction in Alex Garland’s Annihilation

So far, Annihilation is my second favorite movie of the year (right behind You Were Never Really Here, which you can read about here). And while I’ve read plenty of excellent articles about how the movie thinks about self-destruction (particularly this piece for Vulture), I haven’t read too much about the film’s beauty, outside of this post by Abby Olcese.

For Tor.com, I tried to reconcile that beauty to themes about self-destruction by thinking about what, exactly, we mean by self. Greatly simplifying the issue, I break philosophical traditions down into two categories: the Romantics, who believe in a fully-formed and anti-social self, and the Postmodernists, who believe that the self is constructed through interactions with others.

While the destruction of self in the Romantic sense is absolutely terrifying, that’s not really what we see in Annihilation. Nobody gets annihilated — they just reshift. Using as an example the death of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character Dr. Ventress, I write

Garland presents Ventress’s death with similar ambiguity. Lena finds Ventress, driven into The Shimmer by a terminal cancer diagnosis and a sense of responsibility for recruiting members for previous expedition teams, sitting at the meteor crash site and explaining the nature of The Shimmer. “It breaks down our bodies and our minds […] into their smallest parts until not one part remains,” she explains. But after declaring “annihilation,” Ventress dissolves into light, inaugurating the film’s abstract climax, as the light changes shape and color before transforming into the being that copies Lena’s form.

More than just the ravings of a dying woman, Ventress’s final words deserve attention. She seems to be saying that The Shimmer ultimately disintegrates biological forms, and that’s one way of understanding what we see in her death — that her very existence has been diffused into light.

But that’s not what she says. The Shimmer breaks people down until not one part remains. Not singular. Not alone.

And that’s what we see when Ventress dissolves — an explosion of multicolored, freeform light, from which Garland’s camera pans to find Lena staring in a state of ecstasy, or terror, or both. The camera follows rich droplets of blood floating from Lena’s eye and into the happening, where it mixes and mingles and forms a humanoid creature that eventually takes Lena’s shape, merging with Lena to create the hybrid on which the movie closes. The Shimmer has broken her down until many parts — not just one part — remain.

The whole article goes on to trace other examples, and to explain what that means for our ideas about safety and immunity. Check the whole thing out here, but only if you’ve already seen the movie. And then let me know what you think. What did you find scariest in Annihilation? What did you find most beautiful? What ideas about selfhood do you see at work?

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