Are You Lena? – Self and individuality in Annihilation
April 4, 2018 § 1 Comment
This isn’t a review of Alex Garland’s Annihilation, based on the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, mainly because, to a large degree, I didn’t think it was particularly good as a film. The characters felt inconsequential and poorly portrayed, particularly Jennifer Jason Leigh’s unhinged leader Dr Ventress, as opposed to the specifically blank canvases in the original book. It also delved overly-long into needless flashbacks, long after any normal viewer had got the full point of those sojourns into the past, when the book made them part of a fluid and bewildering timeline.
I’m also, despite those two cross-media comparisons, not particularly interested in delineating the differences between book and film, something I think is often required in movie adaptations.
What I do what to talk about, however, are some of the concepts the film itself whispers about behind the scenes of the apparent narrative. Who we are and who we were. How we think of ourselves and others. What happens when those distinctions begin to break down.
Annihilation begins with biologist Lena explaining the process of cell division and, indirectly, cell death through apoptosis. The film returns to this idea of an inherent drive to suicide, death as a necessary part of biology, again and again; Each of the characters has what the psychologist Ventress describes as a drive to self-destruction such as drug addiction or depression, Lena explains to her husband that turning off this process could render cells effectively immortal (omitting that this also leads to what we know as cancer) and the mutants in Area X appear to be formed by a corruption of cell division leading to each child cell being not almost-identical but markedly different from its parent.
Most importantly, this process of constant division and death cuts to the heart of the film and to one of our most deeply held horrors; are we who we think we are?
We are convinced, to such a degree that we no longer even consider it, that the person who falls asleep at night is the same person who wakes in the morning. We inhabit the same body, think the same thoughts, remember the same memories. We persist, even as the world around us changes. Yet, as we stretch out this period from a night, to a week, to months, years, decades then this surety begins to fracture. We do not persist. White blood cells can live for a year, yet red blood cells only for a few months; our skin cells die off after around a fortnight, shedding into the dust that we use as an indicator of time; the cells that line your gut collapse, perhaps not surprisingly, after less than a week. The body you are living in now is largely not the same body that you lived in a decade ago. There is some comfort, however, in the knowledge that neurons, which make up the nervous system, do not get replaced (although the theory of neurogenesis, the creation of new neutrons in certain parts of the brain, is currently challenging that belief and the connection between neurons does grow and change). What does get replaced, and if not replaced then certainly changed, is what that brain contains; the thoughts, beliefs, memories and knowledge that constructs who we truly are far more than the physical machine we move around within. We look back on our past selves, perhaps with confusion or perhaps even embarrassment, and wonder why we did the things we did. “What was I thinking,” we ask ourselves. “I was a different person back then,” we admit.
This gives rise to two disquieting thoughts. Firstly, that the constancy with which we view our own selfhood is an illusion that arises, like the illusion of film, from our inability to detect the slight changes between each version of ourselves. We flicker between states, never fully one nor the next. Secondly, that if we were taken from our beds at night and replaced with a near-copy that emulated us in thought and appearance, accurate apart from a fraction of a percentage of difference, nobody would notice. Even we ourselves would profess not to notice any difference, even though we would not be ‘we ourselves’. It would not make any difference to the world whatsoever, because this is precisely what the world expects.
This is reflected in Annihilation by the use of landscape and the corruption of that landscape. Humans have used landscape, both in itself and our shaping of it, as a way of confirming our own permanence. We build henges and barrows, cities and highways. We orientate ourselves with natural landmarks, let rivers forms our borders. Yet think of that vertigo when you suddenly look up from a reverie, having accidentally taken a wrong turn on your walk, or wake from the strange fugue that falls on the regular driver and find yourself in a place you do not recognise. There is a brief thrill of terror, almost panic, as the angles seem momentarily wrong and then, blissfully, recognition snaps back and we readjust our internal GPS. Imagine, however, if the landscape really had changed, as it changes in Annihilation. Imagine a plain slowly prolapsing into a valley, rivers bifurcating like lungs, distance warping as the very earth stretches and buckles.
Yet, like the imperceptible changes in our own selves, this is exactly what happens. We simply cannot perceive it apart from those occasional, catastrophic events that occur not in glacial time but human time. It is not Annihilation’s malleable landscape that is the aberrance but our insistence that landscape is not malleable, like our incorrect insistence that we ourselves are not malleable.
This leads to a second element of horror that is reflected in Annihilation. As much as we need to maintain our body’s own discrete coherence – I am I and nothing else – there exists a nausea between this need and the desire to interconnect with other beings.
Human culture is built on communication and destroyed when that communication breaks down. Again, we see this represented in Annihilation multiple times; Kane cannot tell his wife where his mission is taking him, Lena cannot communicate her feelings over her husband’s disappearance, the point and purpose of the expedition beyond the Shimmer is never fully communicated to the viewer, the expeditionary force cannot communicate with the outside world. One of the most startling scenes in Annihilation, when the group are terrorised by a mutated bear, is intensified from simple animal encounter to something far more horrifying by the eerie hybridisation of that bear’s communication; its growls and snarls are modulated through human screams, confusing our deeply embedded programming when faced with situations that threaten life (either our own, or that of others).
This hybridisation is taken to its extreme when Annihilation introduces the concept of doppelgängers. We are aware early on that the returned Kane is different in some way than before his disappearance. Is it due to simple trauma? Or is there something more fundamentally different? This idea of ‘the returned’ being changed, often in some malevolent way, has been used time and again in sci-fi horror, explicitly in films like Xtro. It shouldn’t really be that unsettling for us, though, if we accept that, as discussed earlier in this piece, past-beings are fundamentally and necessarily different from present-beings. What is unsettling, and the doppelgänger that Lena meets at the film’s finale embodies this in more ways than one, is when we encounter something that breaches the me/you boundary.
When that membrane between individuals appears to break down, or be pierced, then we recoil just as much as we want to reach out through it. We talk about our personal space being invaded. The erosion or degradation of individual consciousness is, like the ‘corrupted returned’, another wildly used element in sci-fi horror and the hive-mind or other forms of psychic intercommunication is overwhelmingly depicted as sinister. When Lena meets (what becomes) her doppelgänger in the lighthouse, it appears to offer no immediate threat beyond that of its very existence. Even so, her initial instinct is to destroy it (a continuation of the self-destruction trope that runs through the film). She makes no attempt to communicate because, given that the doppelgänger is her, she does not need to.
This sets up some interesting questions. What do we do when confronted, truly confronted, by ourselves? What happens when our membranes, our personae, no longer hold? How do you communicate when there is no difference, no osmotic gradient of understanding and thought? How do we interact with an alien that is not too different, but too similar.
This, for me, is a very hidden, but important, part of Annihilation. We fear and reject the alien, the different, because it is a warped, funhouse mirror held up against our uniformity, our consistency. Yet we are not uniform, not consistent. From one human to another, we are different in major and minor ways. Yet we are still human. From one day to another, we ourselves change and mutate. Yet we are still ourselves. To ignore difference, to reject difference, weakens us and denies the possibility of true communication as something which flows between difference.
Lena ultimately does reject this, refuses to investigate the differences that exist within her, but it doesn’t matter.
It happens anyway.