I want to talk about “Annihilation,” a movie that will likely not be this year’s breakout hit. But first, some thoughts on last year’s breakout hit, “Get Out.”
The most iconic image from “Get Out” was of its main character, Chris, falling into what Jordan Peele, the film's writer and director, called the Sunken Place, a hypnosis-induced mental abyss where he no longer controls his own body. It’s a striking image from a thoroughly striking movie.
Peele has said that the Sunken Place represented something specific — the way society marginalizes and silences black people while stealing their culture, talents and, yes, even their bodies. Thanks to Twitter and meme culture, the Sunken Place took on other meanings, too. It proliferated but remained grounded in its intended metaphor.
Moviewise, 2017 will be remembered for “Get Out.” And “Get Out” will be remembered for the Sunken Place.
Back to “Annihilation,” and, as it happens, metaphors. The adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s best-selling 2014 novel of the same name is a spectacle of a film, with an astoundingly clever metaphor at its center. It’s not following in the novel’s commercial footsteps, though: After two weeks in theaters, “Annihilation” has made only $26 million.
This bums me out. The central metaphor in “Annihilation” — an ever-expanding supernatural force called the Shimmer — is just as profound as anything in “Get Out.” In fact, I think the Shimmer is mainstream cinema’s smartest plot device since the Sunken Place. Yet the thing that makes the Shimmer so good — and what’s made me obsess over it these past few weeks — is the same thing that will ultimately keep it from having a “Get Out”-level of cultural impact.
I don’t want to get bogged down in plot synopsis, but some context is useful. (Spoilers omitted.) If you’ve seen “Annihilation,” feel free to skip the next three paragraphs.
As the Shimmer engulfs more and more land along the United States’ Southern coast, the military sends teams within its boundaries. Like some kind of cosmic canopy, the Shimmer’s exterior undulates and glows in vibrant pastel colors. More troops go in, but no one makes it out — except for one man, an Army Special Forces soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac). But the escaped Kane has been rendered catatonic. Something weird happened in there.
Kane’s wife, a cellular biology professor named Lena (Natalie Portman), ventures into the Shimmer with a new exploration team, hoping to discover what exactly happened to her husband.
Things inside the Shimmer are like a waking dream: beautiful, surreal and increasingly frightening. Plant and animal life flourish, but they mingle, repurpose and crossbreed in bizarre ways. The normal laws of biology don’t apply here. This infected region is a prism of sorts, refracting everything inside it — including the DNA, and perhaps even the very souls, of Lena and her team. The deeper they venture, the more their personal demons are extracted, manifested and mutated.
The movie’s climactic scenes extend these ideas in some truly jaw-dropping ways. They elicited a unique kind of terror I’ve never experienced before at the movies. That terror stuck with me, mostly because I couldn’t figure out exactly why it felt so troubling.
Yes, the Shimmer is a metaphor. But a metaphor for what, exactly? Possibly relationships. Maybe self-loathing. Maybe technological advancement. It could be cancer. The film's director, Alex Garland, views it as a tale of self-destruction. (I’ve debated all of these specifically, both with friends and with my own conflicted self.)Comment on this story
The Shimmer seems to explore all these things, or perhaps none of them. That, I think, is the film’s brilliance: As if entering the Shimmer, each viewer enters “Annihilation” with his or her own baggage, and that baggage gets refracted into something beautifully, frighteningly new — something tailored to each viewer’s own weaknesses and consequent fears.
The Sunken Place from “Get Out” zooms out on modern society’s worst impulses. The Shimmer zooms way, way in.
Finishing “Get Out,” viewers can point the finger at society generally. Finishing “Annihilation?” There’s nowhere to point but back at yourself. That is the source of its conceptual power. It’s also what limits the Shimmer’s cultural power in today’s pop culture discourse: Individually, each of us knows we’re messed up; we just can't determine how, exactly.