Encountering the Unknowable in “Annihilation”

Major **Spoilers** for Annihilation, including the film’s ending.

From its description, I was expecting Alex Garland’s 2018 film Annihilation to be inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker – and by extension Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic. The story of the investigation of a strange zone where the normal laws of physics and biology are being distorted. While there are wonders to be found, just being in the zone is fundamentally corrosive. Whatever answers are within may be beyond human comprehension. And while Annihilation is those things, the heart of the story is much closer to H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space.” I don’t mean that it’s an unacknowledged adaptation of “Colour,” but that it draws from a well of inspiration that Lovecraft established. Annihilation is to “Colour” in the same way that The Thing (both Howard Hawks 1951 and John Carpenter’s 1982 versions) is to Lovecraft’s 1936 novel At the Mountains of Madness. Those are two streams that flow through much of 20th and 21st century weird and horror sci-fi. Annihilation at times draws from both, but the fears it invokes are more deeply akin to “Colour.”

A problem bedeviling film adaptations of Lovecraft, or anything that takes inspiration from his stories of cosmic horror, is how to do you show “that which cannot be described”? That is, the truly alien, the thing that our senses cannot process, our brain cannot comprehend. Not just Lovecraft, but Arthur Machen, John Martin Leahy, Guy de Maupassant, and other horror writers have included such things in their written stories. Leahy’s 1928 story “In Amundsen’s Tent” is a tale of explorers finding a menacing creature of such a horrible and unspeaking nature that looking at it can damage one’s psyche beyond repair. Naturally no description is given of this form. In his At the Mountains of Madness Lovecraft vaguely describes a shoggoth, but he also presents a broken man, muttering the names of subway stations, since standing by a train rushing through tunnels is the closet experience he can relate to being near such a horror. The ultimate revelation in the novel is beyond even such a metaphor, as its observer can only mumble incomprehensible fragments. It is the effects of these experiences on their victims that communicates the horror. What can a visual medium do to convey that?

When John Carpenter made his 1982 movie of The Thing (keeping the situation closer to John W. Campbell’s 1938 “Who Goes There,” than Hawks did) practical special effects (pre-computer graphics) were able to put everything up on the screen to be clearly seen. Nothing much hid the flesh twisting, shape-changing creature of the title. It was horrifying, but this was body horror, revealing real things (the guts and blood of life) normally concealed. It went in the opposite direction from expressing the completely alien other.

Returning to H. P. Lovecraft, his “The Colour Out of Space” is one of the best presentations of the indescribable. It’s not even a thing, but an aspect, a color outside the spectrum of this reality, that corrupts and destroys by its very presence. Whether it has any sentience or goal is debatable. Maybe it is gathering strength for its journey across the cosmos, maybe it’s reproducing — maybe. There have been multiple film versions of this story. Daniel Haller’s 1965 Die, Monster, Die didn’t make use of the unearthly color, concentrating more on the radiation emitted by the meteorite that brought the alien entity to Earth. Huan Vu’s 2010 German language adaptation, Der Farbe, made a wise and effective choice: the film is in black and white, except for those things the Colour has pervaded, which appear as an eerie purple. Another adaptation starring Nicolas Cage was filmed in 2019 but is not yet released, so we will have to wait to see its approach.

The entity in Annihilation – which fell to Earth from space, as did both the Colour, and the Thing – has created an expanding zone, “The Shimmer”, within which Earth biology is being mixed and rebuilt. And it is spreading — and here differs from the Zones of Stalker, which have become part of the landscape. They can be sealed off and warded (like the area around Chernobyl) and there’s no reason for humans to even get involved with them if they didn’t choose to. The Shimmer has to be dealt with before it encompasses the planet (or so the military fears). Note here that I am just discussing the movie, and have not read Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy of novels, the first of which was loosely adapted by the film.

While there is nothing truly unearthly within The Shimmer, biology is functioning under very different rules, and even human perception of time is not immune. Something is going on, but conventional reasoning cannot define it. Those who ultimately descend into madness seem closer to answers than the nominally sane. There is nothing even as definibly strange as the “Colour” (though color is strange with the Shimmer). The entirety of the environment is the indescribable alien throughout most of the film.

There is a center to it all, the point of contact where something crashed to earth and spawned the Shimmer, our ultimate encounter with “alien.” It is something unearthly and incomprehensible, the anagnorisis that both enlightens and destroys. We witness the breaking down and restructuring of a human form into what could be called a “womb” that manifest as a swirling, rolling, constantly changing fractal storm. While this is weird and beautiful and unsettling, the “womb” doesn’t quite succeed in being the incomprehensible. What I immediately thought of was high resolution photos of the human pupil. These are surprising complex with many layers of branching patterns and interlocking shapes. Is that a failure of visual design in the film? An attempt to show the alien that ends up reminding us of the very earthly? Something has to be depicted on screen, so we are back to the problem of creating a visual image that can match the challenge to depict the indescribable. The approach of using something that seems alien, but still has an aura of the earthly and familiar may be the only way to go.

Once you have, as much as possible, shown it, how do you depict the consequences on those that behold the truly unknowable? It is one thing to just say the victim is “driven mad.” The unfortunates who behold what is “In Amundsen’s Tent” can no more describe just how their human spirit has been broken than they can describe what broke them. It is through that broken function that our true fears seep in. Lovecraft’s terror of contamination, impurity, and decay is evident in what happens to those who encounter or are pervaded with the Colour. In “Who Goes There,” and Carpenter’s adaption of The Thing, the fear is replacement — that those we love or trust can be replaced without knowing it, and that even we can become the other, the alien. Annihilation takes that path in the end. Even before encountering the source of the Shimmer, the most shattering truth to be faced is a revelation of identity. Throughout the journey, the humanity of characters has been refracted away, and now even what appeared to be human must be doubted. In the Shimmer, life is mixed and transformed, but not consumed or decayed. There is talk, among the human explorers, of death and self-destruction, but what we witness is transmutation. Even violent death seems to lead to being broken down and remixed into something new.

What exactly happens at the end of film is open to debate, but the simplest interpretation is one that parallels The Thing. The goal of the alien force is replacement: the best way to adapt to the new environment of our planet is to become us. A difference is that “the Thing” appears to be clever, calculating, and at least as intelligent as the victims it consumes. As I mentioned above, the horror of Carpenter’s The Thing is very in your face; it is not a subtle film about implied terrors. The entity of Annihilation is closer to the Colour in that we don’t know if it has will or intent at all. That it acts to refract and mimic may be instinct, reflex, or even something more basic, such as a piece of RNA duplicating segments of DNA in a cell. The characters that exit from The Shimmer are probably no longer human, though with memories and impulses copied from the people that went in. Whatever they are, it is no longer possible for us to imagine what is going on inside their minds. When we can achieve a glimpse of the unknowable, the unspeakable, it has been through our empathy with those who have encountered it. After that there is only the lingering dread that Annihilation leaves us with, the horror of which comes when that path to empathy, or even to self understanding, has been cut off.