I saw Annihilation a week ago and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind, both for its themes of isolation and change and its deeply terrifying final act. Terrifying not because of any jump scares or monsters or even the general spookiness inside “the Shimmer” itself, but because of the implications of what we’re watching: an alien something undoing everything we know on Earth and creating something new. Like Natalie Portman’s Lena, we can’t fathom a universe where something like this could exist, and yet it does. In that way, writer-director Alex Garland has made Annihilation one of the most Lovecraftian movies ever made, even cribbing from one of the author’s best stories.
Up to now, most of the best Lovecraftian movies were done by John Carpenter; The Thing is a glorious cosmic horror story akin to At the Mountains of Madness, and In the Mouth of Madness is a fun riff on the “Cult of Lovecraft” idea. But even though Garland’s movie is based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer, as we and other outlets have covered, it bears little resemblance to the source material. And as someone who hadn’t read the book before seeing the movie, the only thing I could think of as the movie reached its last 20 minutes was Lovecraft, specifically the 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space.”
In the story, an unnamed narrator pieces together the story of an area known by the locals as the “blasted heath” in the wild hills west of Arkham, Massachusetts. The narrator discovers a meteorite crashed there many years ago, poisoning every living being nearby; vegetation grows large but foul tasting, animals are driven mad and deformed into grotesque shapes, and the people go insane or die. The contents of the meteorite is a “colour,” unknown and indescribable to human eyes. It has no other physical quality, but it’s bright and beautiful but causes blight and death, residing inside a well on the farm of Nahum Gardner.
It’s easy to see the similarities between that story and the movie; the Shimmer is an iridescent, colorful something that causes immense physical and mental change to anything inside its borders. Physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) explains the Shimmer is a prism that not only bends the light passing through it but the living cells as well. The lines between animals and plants, living and dead, begin to bend, as the Shimmer, like the Colour, begins to engulf the entire area, if not the planet.
These are certainly somewhat superficial similarities, but they’re nonetheless enlightening when viewed in terms of the finale. Unlike a lot of writers, we tend to know a lot about what Lovecraft meant or believed about fiction through his extensive correspondence with other writers and through his massive essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” He urged horror and weird fiction authors not to explain anything, that the unexplained is the most frightening thing there is. This is borne out in the opening lines of that essay. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
But that’s a starting point; Lovecraft’s horror ethos, what “cosmic horror” actually means when you talk about what “Lovecraftian” means, is the learning of new and startling information that is too much for the feeble human brain to comprehend. Many, many Lovecraft stories end with the narrator or lead character going certifiably mad by a revelation about either his history or humanity’s future, that everything we thought we knew about the world and physical universe around us is wrong, or shaped by an influence we hadn’t and couldn’t fathom. Until now. The discovery of these truths cannot be forgotten.
This is why people go insane in Annihilation. We see through found footage the previous expedition lost it one by one, and Anya (Gina Rodriguez) cannot fathom the truth, believing instead that her team is out to get her. This is perhaps best exemplified by a quote from Lovecraft’s seminal work, 1922’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” in which, through newspaper clippings and firsthand accounts, our narrator has learned of a cult that worships an ancient behemoth–a mixture of octopoid, bat, and oddly human characteristics–called Cthulhu, which lies dormant in the South Pacific. If it awakens, the world as we know it will cease to exist.
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
I feel like the end of Annihilation is the epitome of this mentality, with a caveat I’ll discuss in a moment; Lena makes her way to the lighthouse where the Shimmer originated, and learns the first cosmic truth: that her husband (Oscar Isaac) killed himself with a phosphorous grenade, and the man she welcomed back into her home, the one who now lies dying at the Southern Reach’s facility, is something else.
Going deeper into the lighthouse, she finds an immense series of living tunnels, and Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) communing with the being, which comes pouring out of her mouth in beams of light and color before becoming a swirling abyss into which Lena stares deeply, unable to comprehend what exactly she’s seeing. We are in the same boat; this is something unlike even the strange and beautifully grotesque animals and plants encountered previously. A drop of her blood flies into the swirling void and it begins to create a humanoid, a true alien being, replicating and enhancing Lena.
However, unlike Lovecraft–whose crippling xenophobia meant he was, for most of his life, unwilling to concede that changing the status quo might possibly be for the better–Garland’s story ends not with the decision that discovery and learning are bad, but that they are how we reach the next level of existence. Though Lena destroys her terrifying duplicate, and the whole Shimmer in the process, she is forever changed by it. Embracing her not-husband, she decides to keep the truth between them; his eyes shimmer and so do hers. It hardly matters if she started out as human or was the alien duplicate because the Shimmer has performed its function regardless.
In terms of Lovecraftian films, Annihilation is the new gold standard, but unlike most of the author’s work, and the apocalyptic visions of John Carpenter, Garland offers that while the unknown cosmic forces are worthy of the dread of the eldritch truth, it’s beautiful. Annihilation destroys, but it also creates. Which is why it’s been swirling around my brain since I saw it; my mind has changed the way it sees this kind of movie and it’s trying to correlate its contents.
Images: Paramount/H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society