This movie intertwines two stories: the first, is a military mission in a quarantine zone, a science-fictional setting; the second, shown in flashbacks, is the dramatic story of a couple. The main character is the same in both stories: Lena.
Lena married a soldier, Kane. There is love and tenderness between them, but he’s often absent, away on dangerous missions. Eventually, she has an affair with Dan, a man with which she shares a sexual and an intellectual connection. Her betrayal is discovered though, and she is eaten away by guilt. Her husband then leaves once again to carry out a covert operation, but this time he doesn’t come back.
This part of the story could be called a real life story. Everyone has experienced betrayal, or betraying. More importantly, everyone has been wounded, or has wounded deeply. All other characters that follow Lena into the quarantine zone have gone through some kind of personal schism as well: the loss of a daughter, self harm, addiction, cancer. Lena in particular seems unable to reconcile the image she has of herself with what she has done. That’s what we have in common with her: when overwhelming inner powers break loose, they do so with no regard for what we think we know about ourselves.
Lena enters the quarantine zone as part of a team of five women: the world they find inside is undecipherable. As if the natural order of things has been broken down and recombined: cross contamination of species; animal-plant hybrids; fluid body parts; silicon based life forms. Even the body of the characters starts to transform, and their minds are pushed to their breaking points. The world that they know and understand is being wiped away, by a power that doesn’t seem to abide by any pattern except one: growth.
Even this second story is actually a real life story: it’s what happens to a person whose inner world has broken apart. Think of a painful experience that has fundamentally changed you. Possibly of a crucial moment in your life when you have reacted with fervent denial: “this cannot have happened to me”, “I cannot have done this”, or “these two situations cannot both be real”. The event that triggered this reaction has surely marked the beginning of a crisis for you. A period of time during which you questioned your ideas about the world and about yourself. These ideas are constructs, boundaries, and illusions: what we think we are, what we think we should be, what we refuse to see, what we expect from others, what rules govern the world, and many others, that constitute our inner structure: the personality. These boundaries keep us sane in the face of a powerful chaotic nature, but expanding them might become a necessity when pushes come to shove. If this structure doesn’t bend, it breaks. We might witness a system crash, a loop, a disintegration of personality: that’s what we call going crazy. Personality protects us from an overwhelming outside, compared to which we are small and powerless: for Lena, the loss of her husband. And it also protects us from an overwhelming inside, compared to which we are small and powerless: for Lena, her sexual desires.
I’m sure we all had such a crisis, during which the structure of our personality was in danger. We have tried to frantically stick back together pieces that would no longer fit, and looked around confused at a world, at a person, at ourselves, unable to recognize anything familiar. Some of us have succumbed to madness. How do we survive this conflict?
Well, by doing what Lena did. The forces of sex and death threatened to destroy her. So she dives deep into her scrambled inner world, looking for the light of conscience to restore balance.
As it turns out, Lena is populated by both great beauty ad grotesque horrors. Creatures that elicit both fascination and repugnance, because their transformation is about the body. It’s primarily the body, that constitutes the solid ground for our inner structure. During our childhood development, we learn that we end where our skin ends, that we eat and breathe to live, and that we can look, touch, and smell, shit, shout, walk, grab, push, and sleep. To all these things we bind great meaning, at a very early stage. Our body is the first language available to us, one that constitutes a very deep layer of our inner structure. Without that certainty, the whole building crumbles. It’s the transformation of the body, that pushes Lena’s companions over the brink of madness, and it’s the same force that glued my eyes to the screen, despite the sense of uneasiness in my bowels.
These transformations of the body are an expression of the power of sex, which torn Lena’s life apart. The metaphor becomes clear if we take the point of view of a biologist. In fact, the quarantine zone possesses qualities a biologist like Lena can certainly appreciate:
- Its only ascertained pattern is growth.
- Exchange of genetic material takes an unprecedented leap within the zone.
In biology, reproduction is what gives birth to a new individual, and it ensures growth. While sex is defined as the exchange of genetic material. We are used to considering sex and reproduction as the same thing, but the distinction is actually crucial. I’ll give some examples. Think of unicellular life forms, like bacteria: they reproduce by mitosis (one cell splits into two), without interacting with other individuals. Many plants can produce spores, that are basically seeds that grow into exact genetic copies of the original plant; many invertebrates (like snails) and fishes are hermaphrodites, often capable of self fertilization. These are examples of reproduction without sex, meaning without the exchange of genetic material between different individuals.
Some bacteria are also capable of sex without reproduction: two individuals can exchange small packages of genetic material (they basically trade protein blueprints). No reproduction is involved. No gender.
Sexual reproduction, on the other hand, involves the development of complex adaptations, such as differentiation of gender, mating rituals, and chromosomal crossover. It hinges on individuals finding a sexual partner, and the population growth is certainly slower. If that’s the case, why have so many species developed sexual reproduction in the course of their evolution?
The theory of evolution, in its simplest formulation, describes a process based on two principles: random mutations and natural selection. Let’s first consider the case of purely sexless reproduction: each individual reproduces by basically making a copy of itself. Think of making a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a key: how close will the latter be to the original? These differences are called random mutations. Since they are random, they are very unlikely to constitute an improvement: try changing something at random in the motherboard of your computer, and see if it goes faster. Most of these mutations will be totally undesirable, a clear disadvantage: like tumoral cells, or birth malformations. Some will be inconsequential, like red hair. Some few, will be enhancements (like the Wolverine?). Natural selection is what separates genes that constitute a significant advantage from those that don’t: carriers of bad characters tend to die. There used to be stuff wandering the bottom of the oceans on seven legs: guess what? They’re all gone. While individuals that survive and reproduce will ensure the continuity of their own genetic line.
It would take an incredible amount of time for small typos in copying DNA to actually produce any good result. Consider that since the origin of life, it took about 3.5 billions of years to produce multi-cellular organisms. The whole process would be a lot faster if the population had more variety, because then the occurrence of useful mutations would be higher. Genetic pools need scrambling.
That’s where sex comes into the picture. Being able to exchange genetic material between individuals, means that the characters that best ensure survival and reproduction will spread and combine throughout the population. A sexless population is constituted by individuals that are close to identical, while sexual populations possess an incredible variety of combinations. They are faster to respond to variations in environmental conditions: if you keep mixing, it’s easier to find the right cocktail for the party. That’s why nature has so much invested in boosting random variations.
It’s interesting to notice that species that evolve in the same environment tend to develop a balance with each other. Dynamics in old ecosystems are well established and predictable. Coexisting populations tend to be each other’s source of natural selection or competitive advantage. Their evolution pace is synchronized, and their adaptations complementary.
So there you have it. Our evolution as a species is carried out essentially by two forces: sex and death. Co-evolving species establish a balance called` ecosystem.
It’s as if an evolutionary bomb went off in the quarantine zone. The characters of the organisms within the zone are being reshuffled across different species, mutation is fluid and unceasing. In other words, the zone is permeated by sex. As a result, the ecosystem is thrown completely off balance. Old patterns and dynamics loose meaning, and our greatest evolutionary asset — comprehension — seems useless. In this state of things, natural selection is skyrocketing, and death is sudden and unpredictable for all. At every step they take, the five women have no idea on which side of evolution they are going to end.
The state of this ecosystem perfectly matches the state of Lena’s personality.
The forces of sex and death, that detonated at the center of these structures, are recognized in psychoanalysis as the fundamental forms of energy within the psyche. This means that any human expression can ultimately be interpreted as the work of these two forces. That naturally follows, if you consider the human psyche to be the result of an evolutionary process. It also means that Lena’s experience refers to all of us.
When Lena finally reaches the core of the quarantine zone, she faces an undefinable Entity. Something that defies comprehension, as it completely lacks the structure of a living being, and yet constitutes the epicenter of the evolutionary bomb; it’s Lena’s eruptive desire, forcing her out of her normality; it’s the source of psychic energy, free of the intelligible structure of personality. The Entity represents the force of sex and life on three levels: evolutionary, personal, and psychological.
Lena can hope to restructure her personality only by confronting her core impulses. It’s no accident that this climax takes place in a lighthouse: she risks being wiped away by the inner power, and needs the light of her conscience to proceed with awareness through this confrontation.
Though her deep impulses have threatened to destroy Lena, they have also provided the means to survive the crisis. The scattered elements of her personality can be recombined with renewed vitality to create a different ecosystem. Lena has been given the opportunity of evolving past her previous form, even though this change has been very painful. The Entity produces a copy of Lena: it’s the structure of her new personality arising from the chaos.
Lena is facing a choice: will she sacrifice her previous structure, and let the new one take over? She is living this process with grate anguish, and we can certainly understand her: who has never had trouble letting go? She feels that accepting her new form would constitute annihilation. Which means she completely identifies herself with her present form. In the end, she chooses to destroy her duplicate, thus reasserting her old personality.
Kane, her husband, has gone through this before her. From what we can recollect though, he has made a different choice. The man Lena finds when she comes back is not the one she used to know, and the feeling of alienation between them is unmistakable. When Kane and Lena went through betrayal, they both began questioning themselves very deeply. One opted for change. The other stuck to her old ways. It’s hard to tell whether they made a good choice or not.
The only one who actually didn’t need any of this is Dan, Lena’s lover. In fact, he never enters the zone. He has no conflict over having sex with Lena, and at the same time he loves his wife. In his personal structure, there seems to be room for both. Mind that he is not a superficial man. He just seems to be better equipped to deal with this situation, which doesn’t trigger any personal crisis for him.
Love and Soul
The ancient Greeks used to believe that the gods, the incarnations of our desires and power, had to take the form of a person, or an animal, when appearing to mortals: seeing the true form of a god would surely annihilate us. As it often happens, we are just reformulating an idea that the ancient Greeks had already expressed or implied. In narrative, there is very little we can’t trace back to Greek mythology. The reference myth for deep love stories is that of Eros and Psyche. Psyche is the Greek word for soul. While Eros means love, as in being in love or falling in love. Mind that the Greeks didn’t make much of a distinction between the feeling and the act: Eros also represents playful sexuality.
Psyche is a beautiful princess. A cruel prophecy has foretold that in order to save her father’s reign, she has to marry a monster that even the gods fear. She jumps off a cliff, as required by the prophecy, expecting to be caught by the monster. But it’s Eros who finds her instead. She is brought to his estate in the woods: a magical, delightful place. Eros comes to visit her every night. They make love, and live the most wonderful moments together.
Since they only meet in the darkness, for a long time she never sees his face. Eventually, she grows suspicious: could her lover actually be the monster from the prophecy? So one night, while he’s asleep, she silently walks in the room holding a candle in one hand, a knife in the other. She holds the candle over him, and she finds herself looking at a beautiful young man. Hot wax drops from the candle though, and Eros, burnt, wakes up. The knife in Psyche’s hand reveals her intentions: Eros is hurt and betrayed. He leaves her.
Psyche is desperate to find Eros, and regain his love. She will have to face many challenges before this happens. Ultimately, she will venture in the underworld, facing none less than the god of death himself. When the trials are over, she is rejoined with Eros, who’s wounds meanwhile have healed. They are married by Zeus on mount Olympus, and Psyche ascends to deity.
This myth constitutes the prototype of any love story, all characterized by three steps. First, the leap of faith and the golden age. Followed by heartbreak and disillusionment. And finally, self growth, the struggle to rebuild the possibility of love (not necessarily with the same person).
Ground by Life
Lena’s story lies in the mark left by Psyche’s. They are both trying to fix a broken love, by climbing down to the bottom of their heart. Lena is looking for her essence, an indestructible core, untouched by the storm of the impulses, on which to rebuild her personality. She needs the lighthouse of awareness to guide her in the dark sea of the unconscious, a source of clarity to make choices possible. Lena is looking for her soul.
The dangers of this soul searching are very present. Of the five women entering the zone, only one gets out. The first one to fall is Cass, cut down by the sickle of natural selection. The monster that takes her is not really a predator: a predator would eat its prey. While this creature seems to be moved exclusively by the urge to kill. But what’s really disturbing, is that Cass is assimilated by the beast in some other way: her last feelings of desperation now echo in the creature’s voice. She’s forever trapped inside of it. This nightmarish killer is an interpretation of death as horror and fear. Every fear is ultimately rooted in the fear of death, and true introspection cannot avoid confronting one’s fears. Psyche certainly goes through it. Cass’ journey comes to an end, because she lacks the spiritual quality of courage in the face of death.
Anya clings to denial for as long as she can: many of the things happening in the zone are unacceptable to her, and she is deeply affected by the changes in her body. In other words, she can’t accept who she is. Her judgement is too severe, moral, and rational. She’d rather not see, she’d rather blame everybody else, and that makes her distrusting and dangerous. This dynamic is, clinically speaking, that of a paranoid. Notice that moral judgement is a common barrier against sex, and that Anya’s sexual preference is for other women. Acceptance of sexual orientation might have been a buried, crucial issue for her. And once she starts digging, the inflexibility of her own moral barrier pushes her right into a paranoid delirium.
If Anya refuses what she sees in her depths, Josie embraces it. She decides to fuse with the forces of nature within the zone, she is happy to become herself a mutated creature. She renounces the boundaries of her personality, in favor of the elemental forces within her. And she renounces her awareness, the burden of choice, to be a part of something grater. Unlike Lena, she doesn’t seek the guidance of her soul, and unlike Anya, she freely expresses her sexuality.
These three women can be found in our everyday life. Cass is fearful: the old neighbor who doesn't leave the house, the friend who’s too afraid to go on a date, to leave a job, to live an adventure. Anya is repressed, neurotic: she’s the conspiracy theorist, the frustrated housewife, the compulsive hoarder, the hysterical boss, the moralist. Josie is unaware and uncontrolled: the adolescent, the nymphomaniac, the wrathful, the self destructive who abuses drugs, nicotine, or food.
I’d say most people are like this, stuck in their own stagnant ecosystems. Often, it’s us. All considered, an evolutionary bomb could be a blessing.
Right now, as I’m wrapping up this piece, I can’t help but feel that there’s three kinds of people: those who repress themselves; those who can’t control themselves; and the cowards, who refuse to live in this tension. They call themselves the righteous, the passionate, and the smart. Dante puts the first kind in heaven, the second in hell. The third, he says, is not even worthy of the burning fire.
I don’t accept that. I feel anger towards the repressed, fascination and fear for the uncontrolled, sadness for the fearful. None of them is what I want to be. But how do I do right by others, without sacrificing myself? How do I live with passion, and still be loved? And how do I dare, if the pain I can feel is so great? There’s certainly no manual for this. The pieces of my inner puzzle don’t seem made to fit together.
Which brings me back to object. What I really appreciated, is that Annihilation is ultimately a kind movie: it reminds us that, if you walk through life with anguish and fear, struggling and kicking to no avail, holding on to a past that will surely consume you, well, you are not alone.