‘Dystopia of Abundance’ is what I felt after watching the imagery in the movie ‘Annihilation’ .
Dystopia is the favorite theme of most sci-fi movies, however the dystopia is mostly barren, deserted, a jungle of concrete, broken landscape, full of death and misery. In short it is the full cocktail of depressive imagery. Annihilation breaks this mold and we are exposed to a superlative imagery, bright colors, plenty of water, vegetation, animals, plenty of everything and yet it is dystopian. The main reason for the dystopian feeling is because we cannot figure our place, the place of humans in this almost psychedelic world.
The movie is unique in many senses. Besides the imagery, the other unique aspect of the movie is that its based on the memory of a book rather than an adaptation of the book. Director Alex Garland wrote the screenplay based on the
feeling that the book left him with and he never went back to refer the book while writing.
I haven’t read the book ( I didn’t know about the book before watching the movie)It is the first part of a trilogy, and because reading three books is quite a commitment, I haven’t given it a thought!. Furthermore I was not even aware about the movie, it was a recommendation by a friend to watch on Netflix as in India it did not get a theatrical release (Sadly, as the imagery would have felt terrific on the big screen!).
The story revolves around an ex-marine biologist who as part of an all female crew enters ‘The Shimmer’. The Shimmer is speculated to have come from a meteor which hit a lighthouse and is since expanding in all directions. The translucent looking shimmer is otherwise opaque, no one has any clue what is happening inside as nothing comes out of it, however its expanding nature is worrisome enough to warrant military and scientific expeditions to enter it. Biologist Leena has quite a mixture as her team members, fellow scientists, a physicist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and curiously a paramedic.
The shimmer’s initial visualization is stunning, green, bright flowers, flora and fauna pristine. However we come to know that the shimmer is modifying things, the group theorizes that the shimmer is distorting everything like a prism. The radio waves from inside the shimmer get refracted, distorted as they reach outside, and hence for so long they have not been able to decode them. Not only the physics, the prism is playing with living organisms, taking genetic material from different organisms and combining it to create a hybrid, a mutant. Thus the shimmer contains alligators with shark teeth, cloned deer, plants which have human anatomy, a bear which takes on the voice of a team member that it kills. The team members realize they are also undergoing change and then it becomes a struggle of whether to accept it or fight it. The physicist embraces it and starts changing into a plant while the biologist and psychologist are determined to resist it and reach the light house, its source.
Here I doubt whether the shimmer is an actual alien. The shimmer is acting like a large genetic engineering laboratory. How is what the shimmer doing different than what scientists are doing across the world. When they want a fluffier bread then are embedding a gene into wheat that reduces its stickiness. We already have Genetically Modified (GM) food. India has already had a cycle of GM crop with BT Cotton and is now planning BT Brinjal. Bacteria and Viruses are modified in experiments and I sure the same is done with lab rats and other animals across the board. It is basically modifying one set of genes of an organism with an another set to check the outcome. Shimmer is just doing the same process in an accelerated manner with a much larger whiteboard. It took years and a multinational effort to decode the human genome, which today can be done in a single laboratory in hours. If we extrapolate this we can imagine a future where the instantaneous genetic modification of the shimmer could be a reality.
If we take this a step further, isn’t this what accelerated evolution will look like? Evolution is primarily a mutation of traits to test survivability and then expanding the stronger traits and getting rid of the redundant traits over a set of iterations. It is just that Evolution takes millions of years, and the shimmer is doing it in weeks or months.
The second track of the movie is also thought provoking. “Isn’t self-destruction coded into each of our cells?”. The psychologist ventures into the explanation of human behavior specifically self harming behavior as an extension of biology. Why are the team members on a suicide mission? Because each one is on the path of self destruction, or rather they are already down the hole and entering the shimmer is a mere formality. Why do humans take self harming decisions? This behavior is antithetical to idea of evolution. Evolution values survival, yet anti survival mechanism is embedded within us, not just at psychological level but even at a molecular level. The biologist explains that death is a fault in our genes, in our cells which continue to divide, and in instances like cancer, cells grow at the ultimate cost of the organism where the cells reside. Yet paradoxically, despite this destructive behavior, life continues to grow, in some form or the other.
Isn’t the Shimmer just an extreme expression of this behavior?
The absence of answers is put aptly into words, when the biologist is questioned, what was the shimmer, she only can answer, “I don’t know”. The only thing she is sure about is that “it wanted to change things”
On a side note, I didn’t quite appreciate the ‘everything’ part of the prism effect of the shimmer. I was mostly focused on the biology of it, even though the physicist postulated her theory on electromagnetic waves, it slipped my mind. Only towards the end that I saw those glass trees cropping up from the sand I realized, Oh! it is modifying non living materials also. Sand (silica), heat (sun), minerals, are the key components of glass!
In discussions with my friends I realized everyone is fixated on the ending and the interpretation of the ending, does the shimmer survive? who dies the shimmer version or the original biologist? etc. I think the trilogy may have answers to these question. But they do not matter in the larger context. Both survivors of the shimmer, the biologist and her husband (clone husband!) have spent considerable time in the shimmer where they got modified. Thus the biologist is considerably modified even before she reaches the lighthouse, what comes out is then immaterial as whatever the genetic modifications done, we are not given any indication of reversal. Maybe the Shimmer reached an iteration of its experiment for which it feels confident and wants to watch the long term outcomes before returning for another iteration!