Reviewed by John David Ebert
Alex Garland’s new film, Annihilation, concerns a pentad of five female scientists who are sent, armed with automatic rifles, to investigate a mysterious anomaly known only as the Shimmer, an iridescent zone of rampant, biologically mutagenic power that has emerged from a lighthouse on a shore of the American South. Three years previous, an expedition of military men had been sent in to investigate, and the only survivor has returned with both mental and physical illness. Natalie Portman portrays a cellular biologist named Lena–whose name is a modification of “Helen,” which means “to shine,” a not unimportant fact, as we shall see–who is the wife of the lone soldier who has returned from the expedition. As the narrative opens, he unexpectedly visits her at her home, but it is evident that he is not himself and becomes violently ill. On the way to the hospital, the Feds ambush the ambulance and take both Lena and her husband Kane–whose name is Celtic, and means “warrior”–into quarantine. Though her husband is too sick to function and must be isolated into quarantine, Lena is given the mission to investigate the Shimmer by one Dr. Ventriss–a name that appears to have originated in the American Deep South and may mean “venturer,” (she is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh)–a psychologist working for the Federal government.
So, where the male warrior hero so celebrated by depth psychologists as investigators of the Unknown, slayers of dragons and tamers of wild females–this narrative, btw, makes a mockery of the Jordan Petersonian hero who conquers the Unknown which he identifies with the Great Mother, for the “explorer” in this case is a woman, not a man, who does indeed encounter a form of the Great Mother, but not one that can be either “tamed” or “known”–where the men, that is, have failed, it is a capturing and retrieval of an Amazonian band of five women that must be called upon to get the job done.
Once inside the Shimmer, and on their way to its point of origin at the lighthouse, they at first discover that the swamp is being reterritorialized as a zone for bizarre, mutagenic cross-splicing of plant species that should not exist. The Shimmer appears to be appropriating biological powers to create its own works of contemporary art, for the various Day-Glo plants which they encounter remind one of an Andy Goldsworthy work of contemporary art, in which the earth itself becomes the surface of inscription for anomalous disruptions of its emerald green bio-carpetting. (The surface of inscription for aesthetic signifiers has shifted throughout history from stone to the walls of buildings to canvases and finally, with the advent of Land Art in the 1960s and 1970s, to the earth itself [Andy Goldsworthy’s art is a kind of miniaturization of Land Art]).
Moving up the old Chain of Being from the plant to the animal–and in terms of brain architecture with the activation of the reptilian brain stem–they encounter a monstrous crocodile that tries to eat them, a crocodile which, in a retrieval of the rare myth of the female dragon slayer (i.e. Tokoyo, Medea, Saint Margaret of Antioch), Lena machine guns to death. Upon examining its dentition, they find that it has double rows of teeth like a shark’s, and begin to realize that the Shimmer is cross-splicing and genetically engineering its own aberrations and monstrosities. In biology, an aberration is a mutation with no genetic future: it is a Singularity without issue, unlike those successful mutations which open up new evolutionary chreodes followed by hordes of new species that fill empty econiches. On the mythological plane, however, such monstrosities represent the Titans of Greek myth, those anomalous monsters with bizarre, Chimaeric anatomies that are spontaneously produced by the power of Gaea, her own brood of earth-born children whose existence is a threat to Zeus, that progenitor of Father Science at the start of the metaphysical age in which the power of the maternal vulva is taken and appropriated by the Father, whereupon it becomes the paternal vulva capable of producing its own creations of the Logos, such as Athena from the head of Zeus, or Dionysus from his thigh. The Titans are vestigial holdovers from the age of Bachofen’s Mother Right, that swamp-like morass which he described as productive of female monstrosities. Zeus is attempting to build–for the first time in history–a pantheon of purely anthropomorphic deities with exclusively human attributes: the sphinxes and Ram-headed divinities of the Egyptians and the various Typhonic serpent-men of Mother Gaea are thrust down into the Underworld of the Western Imaginary at the fork in the road of mythological and metaphysical evolution.
But Lena and her four comrades have stumbled upon the realm of Tartarus where the monstrosities left over from Zeus’s various wars against Titans and giants still thrive, and are being animated by a mysterious maternal vulva that is manipulating them from its point of origin in the “phallic” lighthouse. In one scene, a couple of the women are devoured by a monstrous bear creature–moving forward in terms of brain architecture from the reptilian to the mammalian brain–with a skull for a head, a head which, when its jaws open, the voice of one of the devoured women can be heard down inside of it. This is a motif, assimilated from Mesoamerican mythology, of the animal mask with open jaws that reveal the face of a human swallowed down inside, like the famous Aztec eagle warriors. These images reveal the swallowing up of the human by transpersonal and instinctive forces, which the Shimmer represents. It is a zone in which consciousness does not evolve, but rather devolves back into Bachofen’s Aphroditic-hetaeric swamp. (And it is a warning of the dangers of interacting with an electronic technology that “outers” all the contents of the human brain into the worldspace surrounding us. There’s a lot going on down there that we might not necessarily want reactivated).
By the time Lena reaches the lighthouse, she discovers the burnt up remains of her husband Kane, and on a video camera recording that he has left behind realizes that the Kane who came to visit her at her house wasn’t her husband at all, but a clone manufactured by the Shimmer sent out as an extension of its colonizing will. Peterson’s myth of the hero conquering the Unknown and translating it into the Known world as a “map of meaning” fails to take into account the reverse effect; that, namely, of the ability of the Abyss to send forth emanations into the civilized eumene which colonize and territorialize the realm of the Known. (Hence, the mirroring effect of the Abyss, pointed out by Nietzsche: be careful about what stares back up at you).
As the film moves toward its climax, Lena actually encounters the maternal vulva itself, as the source of all of these mythological emanations and clones, and as the vulva captures a drop of her blood, it transforms it into a clone that mirrors her every action, although it is a clone, at first, that is completely blank: a surface of inscription with no codes inscribed upon it. It is an avataric Body without Organs which she attempts to destroy with a phosphorous grenade that sends it back inside the Matrix, causing it to implode and disintegrate, withdrawing its topological manifold from the earth.
Thus, the film moves in its significations from the realm of biology and Nature to that of electronic technology whereupon, in Hypermodernity, none of us can exist any longer without avataric clones that mirror our actions on a daily basis. Lena, by the film’s conclusion, has become transubstantiated–as we all have nowadays–a Catholic word that refers to the fact that during Mass, the visible attributes of the bread and the wine remain the same, but the power of the Logos has transubstantiated their indwelling Substance into the Divine Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Likewise today we all, like Lena, have been transubstantiated by the electronic Logos: that is to say, that just as our outward attributes remain the same, internally, our cells have been transubstantiated into the various electrons and photons of the Hyperspheric Matrix to which we have all been assimilated.
None of us appears to be any longer who we think we are.