Why The Shimmer in ‘Annihilation’ is an allegory for the U.S.’s foreign policy [Retrospective]
Alex Garland’s sophomore directorial feature, Annihilation, explores the ideas of corruption, destruction, and rebirth. Throughout the film, The Shimmer, also referred to as “Area X,” represents a cancerous destruction, and, by transitive property, those who are willfully drawn to it are, by nature, self-destructive. It spreads like a malignant tumor (as explained by Dr. Ventress, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh). And like a deep-rooted cancer, there is no cure, no curbing the ever-expanding border of the genetic- and ecological-altering alien bio-dome, if you will. Cancer is the obvious connection – Lena presents the allegory to her students in the beginning of the film, foreshadowing her and the larger world’s transformation. She even refers to the mutations within The Shimmer as malignant, like tumor. However, there are other metaphysical layers to prism-like – as Josie (Tessa Thompson) refers to it – dome. Its unflinching, indiscriminate destruction and mutation of the DNA of life around it is an allegory for Western society’s apathetic, apocalyptic implosion and destructive foreign policy.
The Shimmer is a marriage consumed by infidelity (Lena, played by Natalie Portman and Kane, played by Oscar Isaac). It is a life given but unwanted (Josie). It is irreconcilable death and loss and grief (Tuva, played by Cass Sheppard). Taking place in the cess pool of America, Florida, Garland’s Annihilation adaptation is at once representative of the self-destructive nature of humankind, and a pointed condemnation of a cultural hegemony’s perverted regression; Area X represents war, pillaging, colonizing, the pursuit of knowledge, manifest destiny in its most desperate iteration. The miniature alien biosphere’s actions are bore by these values, rooted where the meteor lands: the heart of the American South – where many of the aforementioned unflattering crusades throughout history are celebrated. Where, ironically, the ilk of the earth holds onto the very things that are killing it, and the more they desperately attempt to grasp a normal that never was, a poorly conceived revisionist history that ignores America’s demons, the more damage it does to the country.
Larger yet, however, once The Shimmer destroys, it rebuilds. It reincarnates. In Garland’s vision, there is no afterlife, only a continued refraction of our DNA across time, the process of which the prism accelerates. There is a twisted beauty in its carnage. This is representative of the tattoo of the ouroboros, which depicts a snake or serpent eating its own tail. This is seen on one of the soldier’s arms in the empty swimming pool, Kane, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), and, finally, Lena. The ouroboros represents destruction and reincarnation – consider it the family crest of The Shimmer. Just like the growing, amorphous being does, the United States destroys foreign societies and rebuilds them in its image.
The government sends soldiers into The Shimmer, akin to shipping out military out to do our imperialistic biddings abroad – soldiers are expendable. When they die, America sends more into the unknown. Those that do come back from war – the midst of battle, in the presence of viscera and death – aren’t the same. They are changed, much like Kane and Lena are when they return from Area X. Doctors and scientists volunteer. However, not for the sake of the pursuit of medicine and science, but for their own selfish reasons. Ironically, when they finally destroy the electromagnetic nucleus that mysteriously arrived on a meteor, confronting their demons, they merely cause its essence to break free of its self-imposed prism and prison, and spread and live inside humans, mutating Lena and Kane’s cell’s genomes like the wreckage of cancer. Lena and Kane, in a karmic turn of the tables, now manipulate the government to do whatever The Shimmer’s malicious biddings may be.
Like the societies we conquer, we become one person, armed with The Shimmer’s groupthink mentality. Shared “duplicates,” “echoes,” “stream-like” in the eyes of the refracted. We are now extensions of this distorting dimensional presence. A new environment. A new society. That is, after the spreading and, well, annihilation of the old environment and society as we know it. An interregnum, of sorts. That includes the life within The Shimmer’s ruinous path, a glimpse of which we saw when Lena and her crew entered it. Larger yet, mutating prism is the sped-up lifecycle of a given dominant species on earth. And it just so happens that the human lifecycle, living in an oppressive society which its existence caused, is largely, one of morbidity and, as Dr. Ventress states to Lena, one where human beings confuse “suicide with self-destruction. Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct.” Dr. Ventress continues. “In some way, in some part of our lives. We drink, or we smoke; we destabilize the good job…and a happy marriage. But these aren’t decisions, they’re…they’re impulses…Isn’t the self-destruction coded into us? Programmed into each cell?” Alas, The Shimmer is merely reflecting and violently refracting these impulses. Human beings destroy the earth in the name of power, avarice, and the pursuit of extending their lifecycle, leaving animals and plants the unwitting victims of their collateral damage. In an interview with The Verge, visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst explained, “We tried to sell the idea that all this mutation, all this physical change, is being forced on these living creatures, and often has a direct consequence on their well-being, which should provoke some sort of response in an audience.” If our protagonists willfully enter Area X on their own accord, then what happens to them inside is a perverse violation of human autonomy and free will.
Annihilation wouldn’t be complete without the strategic placement of the only non-Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury tune on the film’s soundtrack, “Helplessly Hoping,” by Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Her harlequin hovers nearby
Awaiting a word
Gasping at glimpses
Of gentle true spirit
He runs, wishing he could fly
Only to trip at the sound of good-bye
He waits by the window
At the empty place inside
Heartlessly helping himself to her bad dreams
Did he hear a good-bye? Or even hello?
They are one person
They are two alone
They are three together
They are for each other
Stand by the stairway
You’ll see something
Certain to tell you confusion has its cost
Love isn’t lying
It’s loose in a lady who lingers
Saying she is lost
And choking on hello
They are one person
They are two alone
They are three together
They are for each other
If verse one is the infidelity and disintegration it Lena and Kane’s marriage, then verse two represents point of no return for Kane, his own wife foreign to him, his home unrecognizable, empty, meaningless, and verse three poetically analyzes Lena and Kane’s respective detachment from and coming to terms with their broken relationship. Like The Shimmer, hastily refracting life around it, the chorus of “Helplessly Hoping” describes the splintering and subsequent dissolution and reincarnation of DNA in inside of it; the four women dissolving into the void, reborn as one being, Lena, operating for itself. It also symbolizes the cycle of life. “Like all cells, it is born from an existing cell. And by extension, all cells were ultimately born from one cell. A single organism alone on planet earth. Perhaps the universe.” Lena goes on to describe cellular division as “the rhythm of the dividing pair, which becomes the structure of every microbe, blade of grass, sea creature, land creature, and human – the structure of everything that lives, and everything that dies.”
Immediately after Lena’s lecture, and a workplace encounter with the former lover that damaged her marriage, “Helplessly Hoping” plays over a crying Lena in an empty home, reminiscing over Kane, as he walks up the stairs to greet her, disillusioned when he sees their pictures as he “stands by the stairway,” realizing he’s not who he is, and he doesn’t posses those memories. This is the first of two stairway scenes.
Before Lena entered The Shimmer, she was lost, waiting for Kane’s return to say the things she wishes she had before he embarked upon his suicide mission. Before Kane entered it, he was restless, aware of Lena’s unhappiness and infidelity, her inner turmoil, living alone in a figuratively empty house – one that becomes literal when The Shimmer presents a home eerily similar to Lena and Kane’s. Garland sneaks an almost identical shot of the back of Kane’s head when he gazed at the pictures at the stairway, this time with Lena standing and staring at a picture-less stairway, as if to wonder where her memories are. The same stairwell is also the place of Anya’s death at the hands of the genetically spliced bear-Sheppard hybrid, during the height of her “confusion” and disintegrating mania. It is important to note, in this scene, that the bear is a direct railroad of unwanted physical change – the sickness – inflicted upon the beings existing inside of the DNA-refracting force-field that Whitehurst refers to.
The glass is also an important physical motif. It shows, early on, that The Shimmer spreads beyond its prism; light is refracted once through a glass of water in the beginning, upon when Kane reunites with Lena in their marital home, and once through a glass when she’s interrogated after escaping Area X for four months. Its reach extends far beyond the prism’s grasp, with Kane being the lynchpin who opened the proverbial floodgates for the rest of world to eventually undergo The Shimmer’s annihilation, and subsequent rebirth as the new beings Lena and Kane become in the end.
If one revisits the “single organism alone on planet earth. Perhaps the universe” line in Lena’s lecture in the beginning of the film. This evokes the image of Lena’s “duplicate,” or “echo” in the lighthouse during the climax of Annihilation. If The Shimmer is Western society’s impulse for self-destruction, then the the center, the heart, its engine, if you will, is a true reflection of our own insignificance within the context of the vastness of the universe across space and time. For Kane, this realization was too much to fathom. For Lena, it allowed her to confront her own loneliness. Her depression. That heaviness that weighed upon her. It was the physical manifestation of her misery. In the end, neither Kane nor Lena beat their “duplicates,” or “echoes.” Imperialism ensures that the societies we forcefully transform abroad cannot overcome our way of life imposed upon them.
Annihilation was released by Paramount Pictures on February 23, 2018. It currently available to stream on Paramount+ with a subscription, FXNOW and Amazon Prime Video to rent or purchase.
Photos: Paramount Pictures