About halfway through Lent, I decided to check out a new sci-fi horror film called Annihilation, which follows a group of scientists on an expedition into a mysterious “shimmer” that has already swallowed up multiple military teams. It’s an excellent film with the best cinematography I’ve seen in sci-fi since Arrival (which admittedly wasn’t that long ago) and a superb main cast (including Tessa Thompson in a role I only recognized during the closing credits). This isn’t a review, though. My review is “good movie, check it out”, whereas this post…is more of a discussion of some things I took out of Annihilation.
Content Advisory: blood, violence, body-horror gore, briefly-depicted sex scene with nudity, depiction of suicide
I’ll be discussing specific details from the movie, including spoilers, so I highly recommend that you watch before reading, particularly because it’ll help give you context for many of the things I discuss.
The Water Motif
The first big thing that I noticed after the film was the sheer presence of water. As the expedition team travels through the Shimmer, they encounter scene after scene of locations that feature water in some way. There’s a swamp they glide through (and a boathouse where Josie almost dies), the “base camp” of the previous ill-fated expedition with its pool of stagnant water, and the seaside lighthouse at the center of the Shimmer. When we find out that Lena’s husband is dying, it’s because he drinks from a clear glass of water and hemorrhages into it (which, incidentally, creates a surprisingly gorgeous shot). I hadn’t explicitly noticed this, until I started processing and discussing the film with my younger brother once I got out of the theater.
This all might be a coincidence, except that fluidity itself is a recurring theme. The Shimmer is said to “refract” things, mixing and bending them, blurring plant and animal, mutating things into different species. The climactic scene is with an alien presence which takes on Lena’s form. The Shimmer itself mutates many of the expedition members–Anya’s internal flesh begins to warp and bubble, Josie begins to blossom flowers, and Dr. Ventress’ body is melted into an unearthly energy. In the previous expedition, we’re treated to the horrifying sight of a man whose innards were warped into slithering worm-like tissue. I’m pretty sure the water symbolism is intentional.
Okay, but what does it mean? Water takes on multiple forms. Water shifts from one state to another. Water is flexible. Water matches the thing that contains it. Water is defined as adapting. It changes.
The Meaning of Annihilation
While most of us think of “annihilation” in the sense of “total destruction”, there’s something we’re missing. FILM CRIT HULK’s excellent analysis of Annihilation points us to a different definition: the one used in physics. “The conversion of matter into energy, especially the mutual conversion of a particle and an antiparticle into electromagnetic radiation.” Conversion. Change. Just as water changes from one thing into another, just as the characters in the story undergo cataclysmic change.
This was a point that I sat on for a while. FILM CRIT HULK’s analysis was interesting, but I couldn’t entirely connect with it myself. It was good for him, but I needed to find my own hook into the movie if I wanted to resonate with it. Fortunately for me, I had recommended the film to a close friend, and after she saw it, there were words to be had. The final piece of the puzzle was about to fall into place.
We danced around a lot of subjects, from how wonderful the cast was to the really interesting visual symbolism to that teasing last shot where an iridescent shimmer glimmers in Lena’s eyes, suggesting that her experiences have left her permanently altered. There was far too much discussed to concisely recap it here, but a very interesting image did emerge from the core theme of change. As I thought back over it, I was reminded of something very vivid, with very strong connections to the events witnessed in the movie. It turns out, there’s a natural process that offers unique parallels to the often-terrifying changes seen in the film…
Metamorphosis of the Soul
There’s an insect that all of you are probably familiar with. It crawls around, leading a rather humble existence, until one day it barricades itself up inside a carapace and then dissolves itself into a soup via digestive enzymes. Ew. But, of course, that’s how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, self-destructing and then forming itself back together from caterpillar soup until it emerges from its chrysalis as a fully-formed and beautiful creature. The metaphor isn’t unusual; we use it all the time. What struck me this time was that when prompted by the context of the film, it became a visceral image.
What we see in Annihilation is a vivid reminder of the horrors of metamorphosis, how the victims of the Shimmer are liquefied from the inside, warped and changed over time. What’s interesting is that, in opposition, we see the idea of a chrysalis reflected in an iridescent shimmer that appears in Lena’s eyes at the end of the movie, light refracted into a spectrum of possible futures now open to her. Her metamorphosis leaves her a strange and wonderful new future to pursue. When I related this back to change in real life, the result was a particularly nerve-wracking image: the idea that when we undergo personal change, we in a sense destroy ourselves, losing things that we thought defined us, so that we can rebuild ourselves anew. Sometimes, when we hold on to things (whether it’s a place, a particular interest, or a habit), those things can lock us into a version of ourselves that’s stagnant and even toxic.
This was particularly scary because it resonated with a lot of the personal growth I’m currently going through. My current landlord is going to become a priest, so I kinda have to move out of my current house soon. I’ve had five different jobs in the past couple of years. My college friends are scattered across the country. Every time I’ve been thrown into change, it’s been chaotic and scary, and the suggestion that this change is not only necessary, but should disintegrate things that I thought were important to hold on to? It keys into a deep fear. What if I need this?
Whether or not this specific image is intended, it pairs immensely well with the movie’s discussion of self-destruction, perhaps even offering us the option of an alternative for destructive behaviors. If change can be horrific and destructive to a person, perhaps there are ways that destroying your old self can result in positive change, making you a better person. We even see this in the climax of the movie, as Lena must destroy the alien creature, which has mimicked her, almost stepping into the role of her past self. It’s only after she leaves the past behind that she’s able to move on. She had to die, in a sense, in order to live.
That’s when it hit me. This was all starting to sound suspiciously familiar. Suddenly, I had to explain a little bit of Catholic worldview to my friend.
The Path of Change
…that you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth. (Ephesians 4:22-24)
Huh, well that’s interesting, I wonder…
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24)
Uh, wow, that’s pretty direct!
The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes: “He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2015)
Y’know, I didn’t quite get just how topical this theme was to me, but it’s kinda obvious in hindsight.
And you know, given that I was in the middle of Lent, I couldn’t help but feel that it was incredibly appropriate to be having this particular realization at this time. Lent is nothing but denying ourselves things that we perhaps imagined to be necessary, in small or big ways. Habits, specific foods, personal enjoyments. If you resolve to give up something negative during Lent, that’s one kind of annihilation, but it’s also an annihilation to give up something positive, because you’re refusing to let that thing define your soul. You may return to it, but perhaps you’ll find that you enjoy it without relying on it.
I sit here, sending this post out on Good Friday, because it marks the apex of Lent, the consummation of annihilation. In following Christ, we ourselves must take up the cross and watch our old lives be annihilated in some way, converted into a stronger, purer, more alive new self. We’ll do this multiple times in our lives, because it’s not just a one-time thing. We’ll get into a state of life and think that we can’t possibly imagine things being any different, but in order to grow and increase our spirit, we must let those defining factors dissolve so that we can re-emerge from our chrysalis as a new person. And yet, somehow, that new person is still the old person, but in a form that the old person could scarcely have imagined. But this isn’t even our final form. We’ll do this again and again, until we pass through the ultimate metamorphosis of death and emerge into our final, eternal, beautiful form.
On Good Friday, we complete this year’s annihilation of self, that we may re-emerge into the world with shimmering, color-filled wings. I guess it’s not a coincidence that Christians have long used the butterfly as a symbol of death and resurrection, huh? The change of self is scary, because letting go of yourself means you don’t know where you’re going to wind up. All you can do is pray, and have faith. You’re in good hands.