Any good sci-fi narrative will explore some deep-seated questions within the human psyche: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live in a world where everything is changing? What if I can’t trust myself?
In Annihilation (Garland et al, 2018), Natalie Portman’s Lena is a soldier-turned-cellular biologist who joins a team of scientists on an expedition into an area of unexplained phenomenon they call “the Shimmer”. The Shimmer is an ever-expanding zone of swampland where several teams of soldiers, including Lena’s husband Kane, have been sent to reconnoiter, but none but Kane returned. As Kane’s return from the Shimmer quickly results in him falling into a coma and showing signs of multiple organ failure, another team is sent inside. While the previous expeditions were all led by soldiers, this is the first team consisting of all scientists: Lena the biologist, Ventress the psychologist, geomorphologist Sheppard, physicist Josie, and paramedic Anya.
Shortly after the team enters the Shimmer, they awake to find that they’ve set up camp, but no one is able to recall doing so, and after tallying their food stores, they estimate they’ve been traveling for a few days, though no one has any memory of it. They learn their radios are scrambled, as are most of any other sensory equipment. The geomorphologist and physicist determine the cardinal directions by use of the sun, and the team sets off, deciding they may as well continue on if they aren’t able to figure out what happened while they traveled.
Shimmer: The Wilds of the Unconscious
They find that the Shimmer is colorful and wild — the flora is unlike any they’ve seen before, and appears to be the result of significant mutation. Lena observes that a group of multi-colored flowers they find are all growing out of a single vine, an impossible thing to have some varied genetic expression from a single organism.
They then discover how dangerous the local wildlife can be. They are attacked by an alligator (or crocodile? It’s hard to tell the difference when all you can see is teeth coming at you) — much larger than any alligator should be and significantly discolored in shades of white, light gray, and red. Once it’s dead and the team takes a closer look, they find that the creature has rows of teeth like a shark.
A Jungian analysis of these symbols would suggest that they are about delving into the unconscious — where the things of dreams and nightmares are familiar yet fantastic, and always fraught with danger. The unconscious mind is often likened to the dragon’s cave. It’s dark and mysterious, with terrors that will eat the conscious mind whole, but also home to the most fantastic of treasures, if only they can be found and brought back to the light of day. While the Shimmer is anything but dark on the surface, the things that lie hidden there are beautiful and terrible (and treacherous as the sea). The strange things the scientists find here only hint at the greater mysteries of what caused the Shimmer, and what the Shimmer has done to the formerly natural things there.
While the flowers are beautiful, as are every other rainbow-colored growth that paints the scene, they are signs of chaos and disorder. Lena tells Ventress that if something similar were seen in humans, it would be called pathological. Many of the non-plant growths seen, such as the paintball-splatter-like splotches on a cabin that they find, just grow out of one another as though they are evolving within the same life-cycle. They’re like tumors that keep spreading and growing and developing new characteristics by the minute.
It’s the same with the alligator. While the coloration of crocodilian amphibians is known to change (fun fact: alligator coloration depends on the quality of the water. More tree tannin in the water makes them darker, while more algae in the water makes them greener), the colors it expresses indicate some very advanced changes in the alligator’s genetic structure and/or substantial chemical changes in the water itself. Ventress asks if the shark-like teeth could be a sign of some kind of cross-breed, but Lena says such a thing is impossible at a cellular level. And yet the gator has shark teeth.
Symbolically, creatures like alligators or crocodiles, or even sharks for that matter, that hide beneath the water are very superficial representations of the dangers within the unconscious. While the fantasy-setting dragon cave is a very common metaphor, so is the metaphor of the mind being like an iceberg — the conscious mind is easily observable, but the larger part of the iceberg is always hidden below and out of sight. That the alligator crawls out of the water and attacks them here is just the first real warning that they should turn back.
Ouroboros: Self-Destruction and the Life-Cycle
As the scientists continue on, they reach an old military facility that had to be evacuated years prior as the Shimmer was growing. When they decide to set up camp there, they realize that the last expedition had also made camp there, and left behind a memory card of video footage. As the scientists playback the video, they watch as Kane cuts open the stomach of one of the other soldiers, and peels back the skin to reveal what look like the soldier’s intestines — only the intestines are writhing and slithering around themselves like an eel. Anya the paramedic immediately turns off the video, saying it’s just a trick of the light and the soldiers had clearly gone crazy. As they argue, Ventress wanders off to the pool where the video was shot, and finds the remains of the soldier who had been cut open, only to find that whatever it was that was inside of him had exploded like a mold growth out of his stomach and covered half a wall. They quickly decide to set up camp somewhere else.
It’s at this point that we realize that the true danger of delving into the unconscious is not the animalistic id urges below the surface (because zombies are so last decade), but something altogether more sinister and sophisticated: yourself. Not every inner demon is a balrog on a bridge. Many of them wear human faces, and take unpredictable, crazy decisions. It’s the self-doubt wondering why we said those words and pushed others away, and the self-destructive urges that lead to bad choices.
That night, at their new camp, Lena takes a blood sample from her finger and examines it under a microscope. She watches in horror as one of her cells divides into a new shimmering cell. She goes to confront Ventress about Kane — as the psychologist responsible for choosing the teams that previously went out on expeditions, surely she must have noticed something about Kane that would explain his decision to go on a mission where no one had returned previously, and then ultimately kill one of his own squadmates. Ventress says that she wouldn’t have called volunteering for the mission suicidal, but says that often people make self-destructive choices when they feel a lack of control in their lives, noting that self-destruction seems to be something coded into our own cellular behavior (i.e., apoptosis, a programmed cell death that results in human characteristics such as separated fingers rather than flippers, or results in cancerous cells when the process stops working correctly).
It is also at this point when Anya suddenly has a figure-eight tattoo of an ouroboros (the figure of a snake or dragon eating its own tail) on the inside of her left forearm. The same tattoo was also on the left forearm of the remains of the soldier they found at the abandoned facility, and a tattoo that Kane had previously been seen with. After the incident with the alligator, Lena had noticed some bruising on her un-tattooed left forearm, and believed it to have just been something that happened when she killed the alligator. Yet not long after this night, Lena is also seen with the exact same tattoo in the exact same spot. No one remarks about the appearance of the tattoo, on anyone’s forearm, throughout the entire film.
The ouroboros is a classical symbol of self-destruction, but also of infinity and wholeness. It’s a symbol of both life and death in that by living, one is ultimately moving towards one’s own death. In the same vein, however, death is ultimately in service to life as the living must feed off of what came before. Just as the self-destruction of cells evolved as a necessary characteristic of multi-celled organisms, death is a necessity in order for new life to be cultivated. The horror of facing one’s own death is ultimately the truth hidden here: the Shimmer is culling away what was old and creating something new through the mediums of mutation and evolution. Change is the agent of all destruction, but also the agent for new beginnings.
Prism: Facing the Shadow
Not long after the video footage, things begin to fall apart for the scientists. They encounter an evacuated town populated by flowering shrubs in the shape of people. Josie then deduces that the Shimmer isn’t scrambling signals, but reflecting them in new and different ways. The shrubs are shaped like people, because they have likely evolved to include human hox genes (the genes that define body structure and make sure that the feet are attached to the legs which are attached to the hips, etc). The Shimmer, which also extends out into the ocean, likely reflected shark genes, resulting in the cross-breed alligator. The bouncing of signals is thus also making it difficult for normal thought patterns to continue, and likely resulted in expedition members gaining the ouroboros tattoo (we’ll leave aside the fact that tattoos are not genetically coded…unless these have gone through so much refraction that they aren’t tattoos anymore?).
During their travels, Anya’s behavior became increasingly erratic after Sheppard was mauled to death by a bear, and in the village, she learns that Kane is Lena’s husband. Anya wonders aloud, after tying her squadmates to chairs, if they will go crazy and kill each other just like the last expedition team. She admits that when she looks at her hands, she can see the skin of her fingertips moving on its own, and realizes that something must be inside her just like that soldier in the video.
The bear that killed Sheppard then returns, having tracked them to their next camp, but now when the bear makes any kind of vocalization it’s the sound of Sheppard screaming “help me”. The signals of panic in Sheppard’s brain as she died, as well as the genetic coding resulting in her voice, have apparently been subsumed by the bear. After the bear kills Anya, and Josie then has to kill the bear. The next morning, Josie admits that she does not want to die in the Shimmer and have something horrible happen to her. Josie then begins to plant bits of the human-shaped shrubs into her arms, and begins to flower. Lena loses her in the plants and has to continue on after Ventress — towards a lighthouse struck by a meteor at the center of the Shimmer.
In Jungian archetypal terms, the scientists are facing the Shadow archetype. The Shadow aspect of the psyche represents the parts of oneself with which the conscious mind does not identify. While this is often assumed to the negative traits that one hides away, this can also mean positive traits that one ignores for one reason or another. In Annihilation, the shadow becomes a real thing to be faced. In the science fiction sense of brain waves being reflected back and projected upon the outside world, this aspect literally comes to life. The dark parts of Sheppard’s mind become manifested in the bear, while Anya’s fears are made manifest in her actions and the changes occurring to her own body, and Josie makes manifest a desire to become something beautiful yet only has the appearance of life.
When Lena and Ventress reach the lighthouse, they face their own shadows as well. Ventress, who it is revealed went on this mission because she was dying of cancer, has her body and mind “fragmented into their smallest parts until not one part remains”. Lena, on the other hand, finds that the molecules that used to be Ventress take a new shape as an alien life-form that begins to mirror Lena’s movements, and then becomes a copy of Lena with a touch. Lena’s shadow is herself.
Throughout the narrative, we see flashbacks of Lena’s life in the year or so before the Shimmer. Lena and Kane’s relationship had been slowly disintegrating. Kane, it seemed, had learned that Lena was having an affair with one of her professor colleagues just before he volunteered for his own mission. The shadow aspects of Lena are manifested in everything that she is, and she has to face that.
While Lena is able to kill the mirroring creature, she returns back to the military base and learns that Kane is no longer comatose and has apparently made a full recovery from his organ failure at the same time the creature died. Kane asks her if she is really Lena, and Lena doesn’t answer, though we see that there is a shimmer to the eyes of both Kane and Lena. Ventress had told Lena that with the rate the Shimmer was changing them, she wanted to get to the lighthouse as the same person that entered the Shimmer before that person no longer existed. But ultimately, having braved the unconscious and faced the parts of herself she didn’t want to acknowledge, Lena isn’t the same person anymore.
There’s an adage about being unable to step into the same river twice, because the water is always moving it’s impossible to encounter the exact same part of the river. And so it is with the human experience: We are always changing, and always becoming something new.