Unsettling depiction of the alien within us, and the horror between us.
I don’t always “get” films right away – so I empathise with folks who need time, or help, to make sense of what they’ve just watched. Not all science fiction films work for me, and horror is not my go-to genre. So perhaps because I just felt this film in some unspoken way, or at least in ways beyond my ability or need to articulate, it didn’t occur to me that anyone might get to the end of Annihilation looking for answers.
Why is it assumed that alien life would behave like we do?Thomas Flight, ‘Showing The Incomprehensible – Annihilation’s Influences‘
The horror is the, well, alien nature of the alien(s); the characters’ response to an experience beyond human felt understandably inhuman; and as such, anything unfamiliar or experimental in the aesthetics or dramaturgy felt appropriate (and not all that out-there, relatively speaking, as far as films can go). The film clearly portrays, and the characters repeatedly explain to eachother and to us, how with time things will only further refract, evolve beyond our ability to understand, and pervert beyond our wildest fears (the mutated bear with the human scream of its victim is, for me, the peak realisation of this promise). The five main characters and performances – deeply melancholic collectively, increasingly strung-out individually – together with the mounting psychedelic visuals and soundtrack of their Apocalypse Now-by-day descent into The Shimmer, all feel effectively unsettling, and at times genuinely upsetting, in their depiction of the alien within, and the horror between, these people specifically, and humanity generally.
“In our primarily materialistic culture, we emphasise that which can be measured by science, and often reject the idea of that which cannot.” Thomas Flight explores “the horror and anxiety produced by these types of encounters with the unknowable” in science fiction, the way that this necessarily produces ambiguous and perhaps unsatisfying outcomes, and why this is exactly the point of a particular tradition within sci-fi horror:
However, in my regular search for more on how the film was made, I discovered that many people feel a need for more to be said on Annihilation. I personally sometimes manage to extend the feeling the movie has given me by listening to others talk about it (perhaps my substitute for not getting to see it in a cinema with others, and discussing it together afterwards). At the same time, there is an argument that ‘Ending Explained’ videos dumb down audiences, and I certainly agree that ‘Everything Wrong With…’ videos actively contribute to the decline of viewers’ ability to engage with art. Dan Olson points to such videos about Annihilation as examples of this, and in response proceeds to explain the use and function of metaphor in the film, demonstrates just how much a viewer may potentially be missing when their understanding of art is limited to the literal, and offers a reading of the text in Annihilation and Decoding Metaphor (via Folding Ideas):
“Demonstrating theme through character design is a technique found in all genres, but science fiction is particularly good at expressing abstract ideas through their story world.” Michael from Lessons from the Screenplay investigates “how Annihilation takes biological, existential concepts and translates them into narrative elements” and “how subverting one of the fundamental elements of character creates an experience that is truly alien“:
An interesting and unusual choice for a horror film is to have so much of it take place not at night, but during the day. Annihilation‘s lighting technician explains how daylight was harnessed to alien effect: