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Unpacking the Trippy Sci-Fi Movie

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Movies are not mystery boxes. There are no “answers” because art is not a game or a puzzle to be solved. It is subjective, so it is open to interpretation. Great art invites interpretation, not by being unnecessarily vague, but by encouraging viewers to explore certain ideas and concepts that are presented in a unique way. Alex Garlandscience fiction film i Destruction, is great art because it leaves its audience on edge, enveloping its story in the realm of the unexpected—especially for those viewers who were just expecting a generated sci-fi action movie. As such, it’s also a film that will surely disappoint and infuriate some viewers who crave clarity and normality.

The film moves to the unexpected, but in an emphatic way. The sequence as Tessa Thompson For example, leaves growing and people being attacked by a bear with human screams are terrifying, but with specificity. However, Destruction it exists primarily in the realm of metaphor. It’s meant to put you in the same dream state as the characters, offering explanations of what’s going on, but also never announcing its themes as it tries to weave subtext into the text.

So what exactly is going on with Destruction? It’s a movie about cancer.

RELATED: From ’28 Days Later’ to ‘Men,’ Ranking Every Alex Garland Project From Worst to Best

‘Annihilation’ is about cancer

A group of female soldiers armed with guns standing in line in Annihilation.
Image via Paramount Pictures

No one in the film says, “It’s about cancer,” but it’s clear within the first fifteen minutes that the premise of Garland’s film is basically, “What if Earth—that is, the planet itself—had cancer?” And then the movie moves forward from this premise. The plot may be about a biologist, Lena (Natalie Portman), who, together with fellow scientists Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Radek (Thompson), goes to The Shimmer – an unexplained phenomenon. Lena embarks on this mission looking for answers. But the movie is about cancer and you can see that over and over all the time.

We immediately settle into the film’s core metaphor from Lena’s first lecture at Johns Hopkins. She talks about cell division, specifically how cells divide and mutate rapidly. We then cut to three years ago when something mysterious hit a lighthouse in the Southern Reach and the thing began to expand. The inexplicable phenomenon makes a good stand for how cancer attacks. Everything is normal, and then it isn’t, and instead it’s something that’s changing and, like The Shimmer, expanding. Yes, we can talk about risk factors, but there are perfectly healthy people who still get cancer. It’s not that cancer is inexplicable, but our understanding of it is still evolving.

Once Lena and the team are inside the Shimmer, they begin to notice mutations, and those mutations represent cancer (the tumor in Shimmer’s heart) affecting other cells. Garland is essentially taking a biological phenomenon and staging something similar to it Fantastic trip, except instead of scientists shrinking to get inside someone’s body, the body they’re investigating is Earth. Everything gets messed up because of the mutations, and as Radek later explains to the group, they’re basically inside a prism, so everything is breaking. Minds, bodies – everything breaks down because that’s what cancer does to a healthy body.

‘Annihilation’ remains consistent with its metaphor

annihilation natalie portman lena
Image via Paramount Pictures

But Garland presents this in a very specific way. It’s not like The Cloverfield Paradoxwhere anything can happen and nothing is explained, so one guy is full of worms and another guy has a severed arm that offers hints when you’re stuck. Destruction remains consistent, constantly exhibiting mutations, but mutations as would occur in a body. Garland wisely refrains from presenting everything as simply gross or beautiful. There is a calculated indifference. Life grows and changes, and sometimes you get to see something beautiful like a white, skeletal deer with branches for antlers, and sometimes you get ScreamBear, the Bear Made of Screams.

Although Garland adapted loosely Jeff VanderMeerThe novel of the same name, some details strengthen the cancer metaphor. For example, the expedition team is all female. From a plot point of view, this is explained by pointing out that the previous teams were men and this could change the results of the expedition. However, it is also worth noting that the most common form of cancer is breast cancer, which mainly affects women.

Furthermore, even though all the characters are doctors (of course, Thorensen is kind of a gray area because she’s an EMT) of some kind, the only character referred to as a “Doctor” is Dr. Ventress. Although she is a psychologist by trade, her function in the story has less to do with psychology and more to do with watching people who go inside The Shimmer and never come back. This would not be much different from an oncologist who loses a lot of patients. Of course, knowledge is no protection against cancer, and Ventress literally has cancer in the movie.

How is cancer related to Lena’s relapses?

Natalie Portman Lena in Annihilation
Image via Paramount Pictures

Cancer relates to Lena’s flashbacks in the same way that Lena’s self-destruction creates a cancer in her marriage. Lena’s story is essentially the heart of the film. If you throw in her strained relationship with her husband, her guilt over her betrayal and her desperation to find something that can save her, then you have a film that is still fascinating, but also chilling. There’s no emotional center to it because you only have five people walking through cancer. All in the background is the humanity that is connected to each individual – our regrets, our hopes, our dreams. For Lena, her story is about trying to find redemption. That’s why when she talks about trying to save Kane (Oscar Isaac), she does not say “I love him”. She says: “I owe him.”

As the film goes on and we get closer to the Shimmer, we lose Sheppard and Thorensen, and Garland wisely doesn’t make this surprising. He tells us in the first few minutes that those characters die, and then leaves us wondering what exactly happened to Radek and Ventress. But the end for all four characters is essentially death of some kind. Radek notes that Ventress “wants to face her” and Lena “will fight her,” but she chooses to just accept it. Sometimes people go violently and others run away. There is no such thing as “death from cancer”.

Shimmer doesn’t stand for all death

disposal jennifer jason leigh
Image via Paramount Pictures

The reason why The Shimmer doesn’t stand for everything death returns to the imagery that Garland hits us with throughout the film. Everything in the film metastasizes and changes. We get a lot of shots of cells sinking. When we see the dead soldier in the pool, his body has basically torn apart and expanded the way a cancer cell would destroy a healthy cell. The lighthouse itself has a growth very reminiscent of a tumor. If Garland wanted to simply show “death” in all its forms, he would have used different images like blood or ashes. It’s also clear that Ventress, the only character who literally has cancer, goes through the literal definition of annihilation as it relates to physics, “the conversion of matter into energy, specifically the mutual conversion of a particle and an antiparticle into electromagnetic radiation.” .

So why doesn’t the same thing happen to Lena that happens to Ventress? For the same reason cancer does not kill everyone who gets it. But when we see Lena in front of her alien mirror, it’s a powerful visual representation of cancer. Cancer is both foreign and in our cells. It is not an infection or virus. It’s our bodies turned against us, which is what happens to Lena at the lighthouse. The only way she can destroy it is with a phosphorus grenade, which can also hold up to chemotherapy. It is a destructive force that aims to extinguish the alien being that is also a part of us.

‘Annihilation’ is about self-destruction

annihilation-discard-social trait
Image via Paramount Pictures

For his part, in an interview with Google, Garland said the film is about “self-destruction” and on a metaphysical level, Destruction it certainly has it. Ventress and Lena even have a conversation saying that self-destruction and suicide are not the same thing. But if you look Destruction like a movie about cancer, then that self-destruction becomes, in a sense, literal. Cancer is a self-destruction by biological means, and Destruction shows that self-destruction is reflected in the environment. When we think “self-destruction,” we usually think of someone trashing their apartment or drinking too much. IN Destructionwe see it on a biological level.

The final scene of the film is its most cryptic

annihilation-kane-oscar-isaac

We see Kane, who has recovered, and Lena, together. She realizes that this Kane is not her Kane, but likely the copy that was created inside the lighthouse. They are both “survivors” and he is forever changed by his experience. When we see The Shimmer in both of their eyes, it’s a reminder that cancer never really goes away. As this XKCD comic eloquently explains, cancer is always with you no matter what, even if you’re “cancer free.” It also relates to the nature of their marriage where the basis of their marriage has changed. They’re different people now, and even if you took out all the sci-fi stuff and just had a woman get back together with her husband after he cheated on her, and he knew about the infidelity, that caused him to leave in line first, they would change forever.

So why not just make a movie about cancer?

Natalie Portman with her Annihilation Lena impersonation
Image via Paramount Pictures

And why go so far with “self-destruction”? Maybe it’s because we tend to only get one kind of cancer movie, which is about the individual cancer patient. And that makes sense, because it’s dramatic and tear-jerking and, sadly, relatable to many people who have seen friends and family stricken by this disease. But what it does Destruction the peculiarity is that he wants to face the cold, uncaring horror of it all. ScreamBear isn’t just a terrifying creation that can tear you apart; this creature also stands for the fear of how people will remember your moments of death. A cancer patient’s fear that they will be remembered not for what they were, but for their last moments of agony. The characters in Destruction they also, in many ways, represent the five stages of grief. Yes, there is a sense of “self-destruction” in that one’s identity is destroyed, but it is also a specific experience of death.

This is why when Lomax (Benedict Wong), the scientist talking about Lena, says, “So it was alien.” The line goes down with such a bang. Yes, on a literal level, the whole thing is “alien,” but that term is so broad as to be meaningless. Garland didn’t make a movie about extraterrestrials. He made a movie about us and the most terrifying thing that most of us will face in some way in our lifetime. Something so powerful that it can transform us into seemingly unrecognizable or alien versions of ourselves – and isn’t that the real horror?

Of course, this is not the only way to read Destruction. Talking about the film with friends afterwards, some thought it was about self-destruction, while another friend said he thought it was about marriage. My interpretation of Destruction it’s not to shut down other interpretations, but to invite more discussion, which is what makes sci-fi so great. There is no single, “This is the answer. Let’s all go home.” It’s a movie that sticks in your brain and will continue to haunt you long after The Shimmer has faded.

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