Let’s get this out of the way first: Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a weird movie. Mainstream audiences were destined to hate it, especially after it was mismarketed as a horror film. But if you have the patience to stick with it, the exploration of self-hate and self-destruction, as well as creation, strike some interesting theological notes.
(Note: I tried to avoid spoilers, but due to the nature of discussing a thematically rich film like this, some spoilers for the ending were unavoidable.)
Garland himself has said his film is about self-destruction. It’s fitting, then, that the film introduces Lena, a biologist, giving a lecture on cancer. In a flashback featuring her husband Kane, she tells him the human body contains evidence of God’s mistake, the genetic code leading to the body attacking itself in old age. This sets us up thematically for what is ultimately fulfilled visually – the shimmer.
Although we see the invasion of the shimmer in the film’s opening moments, the idea of it is shrouded in mystery. First, Kane returns from his top-secret mission without any memory of it, and in critical condition. Lena signs up to enter the shimmer – from which only Kane has ever emerged – in a last-ditch effort to combat the quickly expanding invader. Inside the shimmer is something of a beautiful nightmare. The cinematography employs a lush color palette, mostly stemming from strange genetic mutations in plant and animal life alike. THe process of these changes is at times beautiful, other times horrific, and frequently violent. Violence, mutation, and destruction comprise the language of this story.
But there’s another layer underneath the cancer analogy. Each of the characters on the mission have a need for redemption; we could even call it re-creation. This ranges from trauma to actual cancer to infidelity (which is shown twice in flashbacks with partial nudity). Much like the shimmer itself, these characters are part of a fallen creation in need of redemption, and redemption requires annihilation. The film’s final act, which includes some fascinating and bizarre scifi elements, drives this home with emphasis.
It’s somewhat unclear whether this conclusion is meant to be positive or not. It feels intentionally ambiguous, leaving room for interpretation by the audience, although I suspect the ceators’ take is cynical. And yet, I emerged from the film strangely hopeful. While the conclusion is exploring self-destruction and annihilation of identity, it sort of unwittingly becomes a testament to a new creation, a pervasive New Testament theme. Scripture calls it the death of the old man, but we often want to keep him sedated, hoping that will be good enough. If nothing else, the film reminds us of the violence inherent to the redemption process. Deeply broken people require change that is radical, not cosmetic. I must stress that I am not at all confident this was an intentional connection on the part of Alex Garland. And yet, it connects to an important Christian truth, one that I found thought-provoking in the spiritual realm for days after I walked out of the theater.