The Cyclical Entropy of Annihilation, and the Uncanny Within and Without

Annihilation (2018) | Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Lena: “It’s literally not possible.”
Josie: “It’s literally what’s happening.”


The body you know best is supposed to be your own: the whorls of your fingerprints, the color of your eyes, the warmth of your blood. A cage for your soul, a protection against the world, something familiar and reliable. The longest relationship you have with anyone or anything is with your cells, the building blocks of your DNA, the component parts that make you into you. The face you see in the mirror is a sort of ownership: no one else is supposed to look this way. In the whole world, your first home is your skin—and an intrusion upon it is a threatening act, devastating and disruptive. The uncanny begins with the body and spreads outward, a permeation of anxiety and fear, a consideration that the uniqueness we have been taught has been compromised. We are not ourselves.

Freud introduced the idea of the uncanny as a matter of psychoanalysis and aesthetics in his 1919 essay, with an exploration of “what arouses dread and horror” and a belief that it was the return of the repressed infringing upon “silence, solitude, and darkness” that was so disquieting. Jacques Lacan used the point de capiton, or quilting point, to suggest that it only takes a single detail “that does not belong” to infringe upon our idea of the natural and familiar, to introduce the horrifying possibilities of the uncanny.  

If our bodies are our first homes, then an unexpected transformation from within and without is an attack, a smoky tendril working its way through the pristine peace of our expected individual realities, discoloring everything it touches. An oily, iridescent bubble protecting a mutating ecosystem; different species of flowers growing from the same root structure; a series of trees, crystalline structures of salt, sprouting along a coastline. Three droplets of blood pulled from a tiny wound; cells repelling and attracting each other in an intricate molecular dance; a takeover of one’s body that defies accepted scientific categories.

In Alex Garland’s Annihilation, the manipulation of the natural world and our physical response to this alteration tests our understanding of the uncanny, questioning how our laws of reality fail to grasp the personalized nature of transformation. When your body betrays you, who do you become?

One cell becomes two, two cells become four, four cells become eight, over and over again, until thousands can fit on the head of a pin and 75,000,000,000,000 cells make up your body. They are defined by their size and shape, they develop specialized functions over time, they protect from toxins and invaders. We are regulated and defined by them, and when they change so do we, in unexpected ways that confuse Natalie Portman’s biologist Lena.

When we’re introduced to her, it’s as an unreliable narrator, a blank figure in white scrubs surrounded by men and women in masks. She isn’t able to answer questions as simple as “What did you eat?” and “How long did you think you were inside?” Her responses often return to “I don’t know,” which is in marked contrast to the woman she was before—an authority figure, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, a professor leading a class of medical students in their study of human biology. “All cells were ultimately born from one cell…the structure of everything that lives and everything that dies,” Lena says. She is intimate with both concepts—she served in the U.S. Army for seven years, and must have seen death; she works in laboratories and classrooms now, exploring the origins of life.

“What do you know?” Lomax (Benedict Wong) asks her in that clinical debriefing room, probing for some believable recollection of her experience. But when we move backward in time to before Lena’s questioning, it becomes clear she has struggled for months with her own recognition of self after her husband Kane’s (Oscar Isaac) year-long absence.

With no knowledge of where Kane’s Army Special Forces mission went or when he will return, overwhelmed by questions for more than a year, Lena allows herself sadness. She curls up on their couch, listens to the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Helplessly Hoping,” and weeps over happier memories:

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

The scene described by the song plays out exactly in the film: Lena is increasingly unmoored and bereft, Kane is there, Kane is not quite right, something unfamiliar has trespassed upon the most intimate of places, the bedroom Kane and Lena once shared. With no preamble or introduction, Kane is suddenly inside their home, gazing upon her without recognition. He doesn’t respond to the desperate hug Lena throws onto him, and when he asks for water, the blood leaking from his mouth colors the glass pink.

Lena has as many questions when her husband is back as she did when he left: Why would Kane volunteer for an assignment that was certainly a suicide mission? And who, or what version of Kane, has come back? Lena eventually learns Kane willingly joined the Southern Reach organization, responsible for maintaining Area X, a mysterious region of marshy swampland in the United States that has undergone radical changes in the past three years.

“I don’t know where it was, or what it was,” Kane says, and that’s because nothing about Area X makes sense: It’s enveloped in an iridescent soap bubble, the Shimmer, that constantly moves as the circumference of the affected location spreads. As the Southern Reach’s Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) says to Lena, “Nothing comes back.” No animals, no drones, no people. The Shimmer will swallow you, absorb you, consume you. What makes you you will be gone.

This is an area that Lena and her teammates—“All women?” she asks when meeting them, only to be corrected by physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), “Scientists”—are supposed to understand. Cass (Tuva Novotny) is a geomorphologist, Anya (Gina Rodriguez) is a medic, Ventress is a psychologist; they’ve had field training, they have been prepared to enter the Shimmer and consider it analytically. But how to apply reason and logic to a place that refuses those definitives, in which every living thing is shedding off its past self? How does one accept the uncanny?

The women enter the Shimmer together, but some time later, they realize they are all missing various gaps of time, days spent inside that they don’t remember. The flora and fauna are a menagerie of impossible cross-breeding—alligators with sharks’ teeth, crystal-clear fish with orange and blue vascular systems, deer with antlers made of flowering branches, lichens spreading on trees and rocks that are riotous declarations of pinks and reds and purples. Lomax suggests to Lena that these creations are “nightmarish,” but Lena defends them as “dreamlike.” Garland presents these images with a mixture of curiosity and fear. With every step the women take inside the Shimmer, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy linger over landscapes made inexplicable through their new additions yet also gorgeous because of them.

The effect of these alternately neon, vivid, and almost artificial-feeling elements to such an ancient, verdant space is striking and eerie, entrancing and inexplicable, and it all brings to mind something Lena said to Kane before his final mission: “The cell doesn’t grow old, it becomes immortal…We see aging as a natural process, but it’s actually a fault in our genes.” If humanity is, in and of itself, wrong, then how to understand a natural world that has broken all of our accepted definitions?

The line between the familiar and unfamiliar is dangerously thin, not just because of what the Shimmer has become, but also because of what the women are becoming. Lena willingly forays into an area for which there are no explanations for her love of Kane, yes, but more so for guilt, for a betrayal that she remembers once she is inside the Shimmer: an affair with a colleague while her husband was on a previous mission.

If the uncanny is the remembrance of something repressed, then Lena’s dream of that dalliance is exactly that, a choice come back to haunt her—and one that hangs over her head as she journeys further into the Shimmer, as she comes upon a house that looks exactly like hers and her husband’s, with the same layout and the same staircase to the right side of the foyer and the same area for photographs to hang just inside the door. Garland insistently cuts to the memory of Lena’s bare back moving methodically over the body of her colleague as if the Shimmer, with its own contradictory qualities, brings to mind actions that Lena herself cannot explain—and then recreates the circumstances to try and find meaning in repetition, in diving deeper into sorrow and regret.

One by one, the women unravel or succumb. Cass, the first to share her personal story with Lena (“In a way, it’s two bereavements: my beautiful girl, and the person I once was,” says Cass of her daughter who died) is taken and killed by a gigantic bear, her throat ripped open, her voice trapped inside the deformed animal and her skull and her eye imprinted upon its face. Lena notes that everything inside the Shimmer seems to be “stuck in a continuous mutation,” but how could something so grotesque mutate in such a short period of time? Cass’ cry for help becomes the bear’s violence; her despair, its attack. Everything is upside-down, nothing is as it seems.

And that intense existential fear influences everyone: Anya, desperate and unhinged when she thinks she sees her fingerprints moving on her skin; Josie, who bares her scarred arms, where flowers have grown through her wounds from the inside, and disappears into the foliage; and Ventress, who travels alone to the Lighthouse in the Shimmer and gives herself over to the life form inside, which consumes her body and the cancerous tumors within it, forming a levitating, entrancing fractal being.

Consider what Richard Preston said about trees in his essay Climbing the Redwoods: “The resulting structure is what mathematicians call a fractal; botanists say that the tree is forming reiterations. The redwood is repeating its shape again and again.” A cell splits itself in an exponential series, whereas a fractal is self-similar, resulting in strange, evocative patterns throughout nature: the spiral of a Nautilus shell, the fragmented design of a lightning strike, the crystalline prongs of a snowflake.

Patterns that are distinct, that are complex, that form a new creation only from components of themselves—much like what Lena sees in her own blood cells affected by the Shimmer, glowing in different colors, demarcated from her original cells by their boldness and their strangeness. The last time she checks her blood, there are more Shimmer cells than human cells, and yet the last fight she has in the Shimmer is not with a stranger, but with a copy of herself, one produced by the fractal being, one that mimics her movements, one that mirrors her shock and her fear, one that first embraces her and then advances upon her, one that takes her hand when it is offered. Lena’s own blood produces the double, the uncanniness of Lena’s entire Shimmer experience manifested in a form that looks like her and moves like her but doesn’t know her guilt, her pain, or her love. It only knows survival, and it only knows destruction.

If the rules we place upon nature are entirely human constructs, how utterly must we collapse when everything we’ve been taught to be fundamentally true turns out to be malleably false. “Isn’t self-destruction coded into us? Programmed into each cell?” asks Ventress, whose terminal cancer diagnosis affects not only her desire to venture into the Shimmer but informs her understanding that the prior version of herself has been destroyed by herself. Unable to rely on her body, Ventress allows herself annihilation. It’s the last choice she makes, and the one that makes the most sense down to her bones.

“The mutations were subtle at first. They grew more extreme…corrections of form, duplicates of form…echoes,” says Lena as she explains their journey toward the Lighthouse. With the word “echoes,” she considers the tattoo on her left forearm, the Ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail—an image that we see first on Anya’s arm. The tattoo didn’t exist on Lena’s skin before her time in the Shimmer, but it’s only one component of the new Lena, of a woman who walked out of the Shimmer after destroying her outer double, who faced the uncanny in its “corrections of form” and “duplicates of form,” and who internalized and accepted that doubling to survive.

Tzvetan Todorov said of the uncanny that it “may be readily accounted for by the laws of reason, but which are, in one way or another, incredible, extraordinary, shocking, singular, disturbing or unexpected,” and all of that comes to pass in Annihilation: an alien life form crashing into a nondescript lighthouse; a group of scientists destabilized by the denunciation of their accepted facts; a rejection of “natural” order from a cellular to a cosmic scale.

“It wasn’t destroying. It was changing everything. It was making something new,” Lena tells Lomax, a statement that sounds like a paradox but is both observation and acceptance, like so much of her dialogue throughout the film. “You say nothing comes back, but something has,” Lena said to Ventress of the man she would learn is not truly her husband. In their final conversation about the Shimmer, Lena admits “It’s in me” to Josie, who then consoles her with “It will be in all of us.” And when the being who is not Kane asks “Are you Lena?” when they are reunited, she doesn’t answer, both an affirmation and a rejection. By the end of Annihilation, Lena is intimately aware of her own cycle of damage and recovery. The biologist’s own altered biology is the mutation she willingly accepts.

If Lena isn’t herself, either, then nothing is truly familiar, and nothing is truly unfamiliar. One cell becomes two, two cells become four, four cells become eight; “they are one person, they are two alone,” sang Crosby, Stills & Nash. Lena is both the original and the double in Annihilation, and her embrace of the uncanny oppositional qualities of the Shimmer—its unknowability and wildness, its precision and chaos—is acquiescence to the cyclical entropy of life.