Annihilation isn’t a perfect movie. But it deserves credit for striving to tackle a subject few mainstream films ever take more than a glancing interest in: the inherent weirdness, and fragility, of ecological systems. And given the harsh realities of our rapidly deteriorating biosphere, that’s something we could use more of right now.
Spoilers for Annihilation ahead.
The plot, insofar as one exists, is that a mysterious, swampy landscape—reminiscent of a Louisiana bayou or the perhaps the Florida Everglades—has become infected with some sort of alien presence that transforms everything it touches. This phenomenon, known as the Shimmer, is expanding, and if smart humans don’t find a way to stop it, it’ll eventually engulf the entire world. When an all-female team of scientists decides to cross the rainbow-tinged, oil-slick boundary into the strange, beautiful forest, they soon become disoriented, paranoid, and changed in ways cellular biologist Natalie Portman and gun-toting physicist Tessa Thompson can only describe as form of very rapid, aggressive mutation.
It’s a loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel Annihilation, the first installment of the groundbreaking Southern Reach Trilogy. If you loved the book, you should emotionally prepare yourself for a film that only takes the most bare-bones plot outlines from its namesake. And which is—in my view (and others disagree)—disjointed and a bit flat by comparison, despite stunning visuals and one heart-pounding scene involving a bloodthirsty mutant bear.
Still! What the movie did do well is bring to the forefront some rarely articulated ideas about the delicate nature of ecological systems, including our own. While the biological boundaries between species are a fixture of our world as fundamental as the tug of gravity, within the Shimmer, these boundaries break down. Alligators swap genes with sharks resulting in gnarly yet biologically unfathomable teeth, plants take color polymorphism to a new level by sprouting different types of flowers off the same stem. Billions of years of evolutionary divergence would prevent such anomalies from taking root in our world, even if they somehow occurred, but tweak just a few of the biological ground rules and the tree of life is thrown into a tailspin. By the time our biologist lead discovers that her cells, too, have been changed by the Shimmer, all she can do is press on and hope to find answers by facing the anomaly at its source.
Answers aren’t really forthcoming, though, which in itself is an important statement about the fact that by the time ecosystems have started to unravel, it may be too late for scientific interventions. I for one can’t help but draw parallels between the Shimmer and the looming specter of the Anthropocene: the term scientists are increasingly using to describe the transformations of Earth’s climate and biosphere wrought not by a faceless and unknown alien invader, but by seven billion carbon-spewing, resource-gobbling humans.
The Anthropocene shares the Shimmer’s transformative ability and takes things one step further by changing the non-living environment—the planet’s climate, even its bedrock—too. And in the real world, those changes aren’t neatly confined to an isolated bubble of space: they’re coming for everything, from acidifying oceans causing coral reefs and their associated food webs to unravel to a warming atmosphere affecting species migrations, the timing of key life events, and what can live where. The Anthropocene, like the Shimmer, is expected to transform life on a genetic level and shape the course of evolution for thousands of years to come.
Importantly, neither the Shimmer nor the Anthropocene means the end of life. Instead, these phenomena signal the end of the stable life-support systems that have allowed human civilization to flourish for 10,000 years, which is arguably a bit more unsettling and sinister than a giant asteroid taking everything out in one go. In both our world and the fictional world of the Southern Reach, humans have recognized the clear and present danger—the loss of control—and are responding with science, denial of scientific realities, military force, isolation, and fear. If the film were to follow the arc to the books, this would ultimately end in acceptance. (While Paramount owns the rights to the entire trilogy, there’s no indication that more films are coming, at least not yet.)
In some ways, the Anthropocene is far subtler than the Shimmer—it’s surprisingly hard to see the fact that species are now going extinct at a thousand times the background rate, or to imagine how the loss of polar bears’ Arctic habitat or the thaw of Alaska’s permafrost is causing life up north to unravel. That’s why we need stories like Annhilation, where the bears get under our skin by crying out to us in human voices. This film didn’t always succeed at making the understated horror of ecological annihilation gripping and powerful, but it should be commended for trying.
The Anthropocene, by contrast, is far too mundane.