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‘Annihilation’ and the Ache for Transcendence

Peter Mountain © 2017 Paramount Pictures

Nearly halfway through Annihilation, the film flashes back to a scene where the main character, Lena (Natalie Portman), sits beside her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), reading a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Published in 2010, the book tells the true story of a poor black tobacco farmer who suffered from and ultimately succumbed to cervical cancer in 1951. Prior to her death, Lacks underwent a biopsy where doctors harvested a batch of cancer cells without her consent and later cultured them, producing a breakthrough in the medical community—the HeLa cell line.

As the first of what would later become known as an “immortalized cell line,” referring to cells that would not perish after a particular number of divisions, the HeLa line has served many experimental purposes. Yet despite being the most famous and widely used human cell line to date, Lacks and her family received no restitution for her cells, which have since been used for development in the polio vaccine, in vitro research, and gene mapping.

The book’s cameo, although brief, signals one of Annihilation’s central questions—can something destructive also be beautiful?

Seeing Ourselves in the Shimmer

The film (rated R for bloody violence and language) opens by introducing Lena, a professor of biology at John Hopkins (ironically, where Henrietta Lacks underwent her biopsy) who specializes in the behavior of cells. Her husband, Kane, has been missing for the last 12 months after setting out on a secret Army mission. Without warning, he shows up at their home with little explanation for his absence and begins coughing up blood. As she races him to the hospital, an armed government unit forces her to stop, takes her husband, and sticks her with a tranquilizer.

When Lena wakes up, she finds herself in a glass-encased cell within a top-secret compound at the edge of a luminescent canopy known as “Area X” or “The Shimmer.” There she is told that her husband was part of the latest team to venture into Area X, which expands daily in size, to try and understand its purpose. Despite being the sole survivor of any mission into the Shimmer, Kane suffers from massive internal bleeding and multiple organ failures that threaten his life. In a matter of days, a new team plans to enter Area X in search of a lighthouse at its center that was struck by a meteor, which they believe could be the source of the Shimmer. Lena decides to join the four-woman crew in hopes of finding answers that may save her husband.

The Shimmer perfectly reflects the film itself—beautiful and unsettling. Its landscape is covered in thick, dewy grass and colorful flora and lichen. Yet its beauty is haunting, horrifying at times. It’s not so much foreign as it is remade, something simultaneously familiar and disturbing.

As the women journey deeper, they realize they are themselves being mutated. Like a prism, the Shimmer refracts everything inside: light waves, radio frequencies, even the genetic makeup of humans. Their fingerprints begin to sway like ripples on water; one of them sprouts plants from her skin. Within the Shimmer it also becomes clear that each of the women carries a burden resulting from some form of self-destruction or trauma prior to entering Area X: alcoholism, infidelity, self-mutilation, the loss of a child, terminal cancer. These scars bind the women but prompt them to look for different answers.

We All Share the Same Terminal Root

Science fiction films—which often present non-human or partially human characters—have a knack for presenting thoughtful, provocative perspectives on what it means to be human. Annihilation is no exception. The Shimmer functions as a kind of broken mirror for the human experience. Within its walls, there is horror and beauty, destruction and creation, yet it’s clear that everything grows from the same terminal root. In that sense, the film’s honesty about the human experience is praiseworthy.

Science fiction films—which often present non-human or partially human characters—have a knack for presenting thoughtful, provocative perspectives on what it means to be human. Annihilation is no exception.

We have all experienced forms of self-destruction that change our lives as well as those around us, often without sensible explanation. Unable to process grief, we turn to the bottle or a pill. Rather than remain content in a stable marriage, we drift toward affection elsewhere. Sometimes we face bodily self-destruction that is wholly out of our hands, like that of a terminal illness. Like the Shimmer, our bodies and minds confirm that things are not right. Something is broken, in the world and in us.

Hope Beyond Annihilation

Annihilation readily embraces this brokenness and longs for a solution. Yet the best it has to offer is catharsis, an end that resembles nirvana, if anything at all. The “hope” of the film, if we can call it that, is to cease. We cannot understand or outsmart self-destruction. Our only consolation is to surrender to our inevitable end.

Admittedly, Annihilation does not answer its own questions so much as pose them to viewers. But the film aches for transcendence nonetheless. It’s a visually beautiful and unsettling experience because of how it confronts our self-destructive tendencies, both in how we relate to the world and also to one another. We are unstable and in need of something beyond us for true healing.

Annihilation captures something of the space between Genesis and Revelation. It is a profoundly honest picture of our fallen state, but one that lacks the hope of the gospel’s promise. Our world is an unsettling place, full of beauty and horror. By nature we are all bent toward self-destruction. We can’t resist or outsmart it, but the gospel offers us the hope that it will not always be so.

By nature we are all bent toward self-destruction. We can’t resist or outsmart it, but the gospel offers us the hope that it will not always be so.

At the cross of Christ, we see horrific, violent, bloody destruction coupled with new creation and the promise of lasting beauty. Through Jesus’s death and resurrection, the maddening cycles of intertwined creation and destruction find a resolution.

God is making all things new, such that one day beauty will endure and horror will cease. Sin and terror will be annihilated at last, and unhindered beauty will be reborn. Through Jesus Christ, we will arrive on the other side remade and renewed, freed from that terminal root which has infected us for so long. And we will ache for transcendence no more.

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