Five years ago this month, the book Annihilation, a science-fiction-meets-existential-horror story by Jeff VanderMeer, was released. Last year, also in February, Alex Garland (after his success with Ex Machina) wrote and produced a movie adaptation of the book. However, Garland took the structure of VanderMeer’s book and forged a new path (he even admitted to only reading the book once, and adapting it from memory). VanderMeer, for his part, was supportive of the endeavor.
The story centers around Lena (played by Natalie Portman), who joins a covert mission with four other scientists—all women—to explore a mysterious area known only as “The Shimmer.” Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) disappeared with his military unit within the Shimmer, and she agrees to join the new team out of a desire for closure. Once crossing the border, they find themselves in what appears to be a mutated world, full of strange and fantastic plants and beasts.
It’s a story intentionally soaked in mystery; the ending of the expedition provides few answers, unwilling to ever hit that point of exposition ‘where all becomes revealed.’ Which is part of why I like it so much: Annihilation is not a puzzle, a whodunit sort of thriller that needs to be fully teased out and understood. I see it as a story that’s fundamentally about original sin, and how we deal with our own brokenness.
The movie opens with Lena showing and describing apoptosis: programmed cell death that is part of the healthy growth and change of a multicellular organism. However, she reveals that the cells on her screen are actually cancerous, which is part of what happens when apoptosis doesn’t function correctly. Spoiler: this idea is important for the rest of the movie.
A year after Kane’s disappearance, Lena has still not processed the potential death of her husband. Wracked with guilt, she agrees to join the next excursion into the Shimmer. However, once inside, she and us begin to see the myriad ways in which the other members of her team are wounded, from addiction to bereavement to terminal cancer. Lena, frustrated with her team leader Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), at one point calls the whole expedition a suicide mission. Ventress, a psychologist, responds:
“Is that what you think we’re doing? Committing suicide? … I’d say you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction. Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct. In some way, in some part of our lives. We drink, or we smoke. We destabilize the good job, or the happy marriage. But these aren’t decisions, they’re impulses. … You’re a biologist. Isn’t self-destruction coded into us? Programmed into each cell?”
Ventress articulates what philosophers have struggled with for millennia: if we desire to be good and happy, why do we so often make decisions that go against that desire? The explanations have been as varied as the people who posited them. For Plato, it came from ignorance. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it came from civil society. For Christian philosophers, it came from original sin.
Outlined by Augustine, original sin was the first sin, committed by Adam and Eve, that caused the fall of humanity from being in union with God. Consequently, every human being is a sinner, fundamentally incapable of ensuring one’s own salvation. Aquinas actually describes original sin as “a lack of justice,” reflecting the Christian belief that only grace can put us in a state of right relationship with God. Ventress looks to a much less supernatural explanation, noting that self-destruction is literally part of our DNA, courtesy of evolution. Both views, however, converge on a single truth: we cannot escape the horror of watching ourselves change against our will.
Regardless of how we feel about it, life means change. We grow, we develop, we react to our environment. We form plans and expectations, fall in love and make enemies. One of the other team members, Cass (Tuva Novotny), opens up to Lena about her own experience of losing a daughter to leukemia: “In a way, it’s two bereavements. My beautiful girl, and the person I once was.” Though Cass has begun to process her grief in a way Lena has so far failed to do, she acknowledges the death of self that comes with that process. She did not welcome the death of her daughter, but she acknowledges the way she was broken and tries to do something with the pieces. In her healing, Cass has let go of the person she once was, implicitly showing that original sin does not mean we should embrace nihilism. Like apoptosis, there can be good death, actually a ‘healthy’ death, where we let go of something we were before. In death there is an opportunity for a new beginning. We cannot control the fact that we change; we can only decide what to do with the new self we find before us.
In the climax of the movie, Lena encounters the cause of the mutating landscape. She wrestles with herself, trying to come to terms with the change she’s been forced to undergo. In the moment, it’s unclear whether she’ll let her old self die, or if she’ll keep holding on to what she was before. Then after she returns from the expedition, an interviewer attempts to get to the bottom of the story, to resolve the puzzle and figure out how to move forward. He tries to understand the alien presence, arguing that “It came here for a reason. It was mutating our environment. It was destroying everything.” But Lena disagrees: “It wasn’t destroying. It was changing everything. It was making something new.”
Lena, after undergoing the horror of the journey, has acknowledged the reality of change and death, and so has begun to recognize the inevitable journey of evolution that every person undergoes. In a sense, she has responded to her own condition of original sin.
But there is a certain ambiguity, by the end of the story, whether the change Lena has undergone is a good thing. It doesn’t seem like she has escaped the problems that caused her to seek some sort of death in the Shimmer in the first place. Perhaps this is because just acknowledging brokenness and inevitability isn’t enough. Self-destruction can be good if we die to the worse parts of ourselves; likewise, it’s harmful if it destroys what is good. Apoptosis (programmed death) is good for the body; cancer (unregulated growth) can be deadly.
Fortunately for us, Lena is not the only model we have. Josie (Tessa Thompson) is one of the other team members, who always wears long-sleeves to hide the scars of self-harm. After understanding how the environment was being forcibly mutated, she simply sits outside, enjoying the warmth of the day, finally wearing a light shirt that exposes her cut skin. She reflects, “Imagine dying frightened and in pain, and having that as the only part of you which survives. I wouldn’t like that at all. Ventress wants to face it. You want to fight it. But I don’t think I want either of those things.” As Lena watches, Josie walks away from their camp to disappear into the wilderness, apparently giving in to change and the death of her self.
Josie, like Lena later on, recognizes her own original sin. She acknowledges the scars that she carries, and the potential for new life if she lets go of her pain. Unlike Lena, Josie is not horrified by change, but calmly acquiesces to its inevitability. And unlike any other member of the team, she sees that what survives is just as important as what dies. She doesn’t want pain to be the only part of her that lives on. In her self-destruction, she lets go of her fear and anxiety to embrace a new peace.
I think Josie, in her moment of sitting in the sun, doesn’t knows what’s going to happen next. She has conceded to her brokenness, and hopes for something better on the other side of destroying her old self. She has given up control, yet isn’t afraid.
In the context of the movie, I’ll admit her choice to just walk off seems a bit crazy. But then again, I’ll admit I sometimes feel like my decision to join the Jesuits was a bit crazy. Original sin means that we don’t always know if what we change into will be something better than before. I know that I haven’t always changed into a better person; sin has a way of turning our best intentions against us. We strive to be more kind, more patient, more holy. But our striving is an imperfect thing. Good thing we have God’s grace.
Like Josie, I trust a process that is beyond my comprehension. Because like Josie, rooted in my hope in God, I know I need to hold on tightly to peace. Original sin means we often stumble, and often can’t control the changes we see in ourselves. But grace carries us through, and helps us (re)focus on what’s most important. So in all of the changes and craziness of my life and vocation, I also do my best to hang on to love. No matter what I become, wherever my journey leads me, whenever I might walk off into the great unknown, my only hope is that my love and peace will remain.