Almost halfway through Annihilation, writer/director Alex Garland’s latest, strangest film, Tessa Thompson’s Josie Radek is pulled into marshy waters by an alligator. Radek is part of a team of five scientists that has been sent to investigate a mysterious “Shimmer” that has appeared somewhere in the U.S. Eventually, that alligator comes to shore, and after it’s shot down by Radek and her colleagues, Natalie Portman’s Lena, a biologist, decides to have a closer look.
Garland frames Lena’s investigation from inside the gator’s mouth, where she discovers that the creature’s teeth closely resemble a shark’s. The gator seems to be in a continual state of evolution, and this evolution fascinates Lena. Despite the danger this creature so recently posed to Lena and her team, Portman’s face betrays an undiminished interest in it.
Lena’s fascination comes not just from a natural, scientific curiosity, but also from hurt and longing that go much deeper. As Garland’s framing suggests, Lena could have been food for this creature. Even so, she wants to understand this place, one where her husband traveled before her, and returned seriously ill and transformed. Initially, Portman has the kind of steely resolve that suggests she wants nothing but revenge, but really she’s looking for understanding. She wants to understand why her husband chose this path, one which almost certainly ended in death.
Alex Garland’s filmography, stretching as far back as the screenplays he wrote for 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go, has always suggested his interest in probing for answers to unknowable questions. Every one of his screenplays, and especially Ex Machina and Annihilation — the two films he’s directed — focus on characters who are fascinated and even obsessed with their own demise.
During one key scene, Lena reveals this obsession through her unwillingness to turn back toward safer ground. When half of the team wants to leave The Shimmer after they lose one of their own, Lena not only wants to continue with the mission, she lies to her comrades to convince them to come as well. Despite the apparent danger, Lena wants to go deeper.
Ex Machina follows another character who can’t help but strive to learn more. Caleb, played with charming guilelessness by Domhnall Gleeson, is entranced by Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificially intelligent android who feels as real to Caleb as any girl he’s ever met.
Throughout the film, Caleb attempts to learn how Ava works. He gets close to her, wants to understand her, and is ultimately left behind by her. Caleb aids in Ava’s escape, but that doesn’t save him from being imprisoned at the film’s end along with the body of Ava’s abusive creator. She is the instrument of his demise. She is dangerous, and both Caleb and Ava’s creator (played with bro-y malice by Oscar Isaac) are forced to reckon with the fact that Ava, and artificial intelligence more generally, is inevitable. What’s more, it may mean the end of humanity as they know it. They know it’s coming, and that it will mean their end, but they can’t help but be transfixed by its approach.
What’s radical about Garland’s films is that the coming apocalypse, whether it’s brought on by technology or something more natural, is not an inherently malicious force. It’s not wiping out humanity because it hates humanity, it’s just existing in ways that make humanity’s survival unlikely. It’s a driving, indifferent force.
That’s the thing that Garland’s protagonists seem to find so compelling. They want to understand the forces that will bring about their own demise, and they come to find beauty in humanity’s destruction. Garland uses these world-altering stakes to dissect the forces of change and death in our own lives. These characters don’t just grapple with their own mortality. They embrace death, and try to ascribe a motive to its inevitability.
Annihilation’s stunning climax asserts the impossibility of understanding. As Lena encounters a being that seems determined to copy and replace her, she also comes to understand that, whatever this being is, its mission is not destructive, it’s transformative. Although the title Annihilation suggests total and complete destruction, that term is relative. Lena and her team may be gone, but The Shimmer has left something in their place.
In one of the final scenes of Annihilation, Benedict Wong’s Lomax, who has been grilling Lena on what happened in The Shimmer, asks her what the life form she encountered wanted. “I don’t think it wanted anything,” Lena replies. Lomax is insistent that the creature must have wanted something, unwilling to accept the idea that there are forces that simply act.
But Lena understands. It’s what draws her toward The Shimmer in the first place. This is a force of change that isn’t inherently destructive. It’s equal parts horrific and beautiful, and Lena wants to understand it, intimately. Lena is driven by a yearning to comprehend, but her ultimate realization is that what she wants to understand is a force of nature. Like death itself, it has no agenda. It’s simply an inevitability.