Like many sci-fi fans, I availed myself of the opportunity to watch Alex Garland’s new movie Annihilation this week. Due to commercial loss of nerve it’s on Netflix rather than the cinema where it belongs, and that is perhaps understandable. It looks like one of those movies that will please critics more than audiences. But I have small children, and it’s a lot easier to get to my front room than to the cinema, so I’m not complaining.
Annihilation tells the story of a biologist, Lena, played by Natalie Portman. She is grieving the disappearance of her soldier husband, who has been gone for a year on an apparently top secret mission. For reasons I won’t spoil for you, she ends up retracing his steps.
The main storyline of the film unfolds in a promontory of land that has been struck by a meteorite, and that has been enveloped in a strange hallucinogenic presence referred to as ‘the shimmer’. The light bends and swirls like the surface of a bubble. Time and memory are scrambled. Nature is distorted, with plants that grow different kinds of flowers on the same vine, or animals that utter human-like sounds. No radio signals can enter or leave the shimmer, and – this is a movie after all – nobody has come out alive.
Annihilation is a deeply ambiguous film, with an ending that leaves more questions than answers. It’s rich in allegory. The spreading distortions of the shimmer hint at cancer and decay, but its oddly beautiful forms suggest evolution and transformation. There are themes of paranoia, grief and self-destruction. But what it spoke to me about, and gave me a reason to write about it here, is climate change.
The term ‘climate change’ is a strangely neutral and bloodless one – popularised after all by the deliberately neutral UN. It doesn’t really reflect the lived experience of it, which more often than not is to find things out of place. Cyclones occur in places with no history of them. Disease lines move, bringing malaria up into the mountains where it was previously unknown. Spring comes early. Rains vanish. Migration patterns change. Bizarrely warm temperatures in the Arctic plunge Britain into a deep freeze. There’s a reason why Thomas Friedman likes to call it ‘global weirding’.
To Timothy Morton, this is the ‘uncanny’, “the word for familiar and strange at the same time”. We are repulsed, he argues, by things that are like us but not like us – something that the film uses to horrific effect. Climate change is uncanny because it muddles what we know, and because we see ourselves in it too. We know that are human causes somewhere in the background of the odd weather and the freak events. “They are the mysterious work of our hands” as Amitav Ghosh puts it, “returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms.”
Bill McKibben wrote the first popular scientific account of climate change in 1989. He called it The End of Nature, because human activity has so pervaded the environment that nature and weather was increasingly a product of human activity. “The meaning of the wind, the sun, has already changed” he writes in the conclusion. “Yes, the wind still blows – but no longer from some other sphere, some inhuman place.” Like the scientists in the movie encountering plants with humanoid shapes, human activity has imprinted itself on the natural world in ways that now make us uncomfortable. As Timothy Morton says, “things are more mashed together than we like to think.” Where do we begin and end in this new world? Do we still know who we are?
Unlike climate change, the transforming presence in Annihilation is alien in origin, we are led to believe. But in the confusion, whether people survive it or not is almost entirely up to them. Opportunities to turn back may or may not be taken. Team members can trust or accuse each other. Some press on out of morbid curiosity, knowing they have nothing to lose. And they all know that just as nature is changed, they themselves are changing in ways they cannot understand or predict – and they can resist or embrace those changes.
Annihilation is not about climate change, inasmuch as it’s not about any one thing. Some will see a story about mental health, or overcoming loss. No doubt some will see an over-reaching shambles. Alex Garland has left it open for us to make up our own minds.
It’s not for everyone – it’s not a horror film, but there are gruesome and disturbing moments. But if you appreciate intelligent sci-fi and have a tolerance for loose ends, I’d be interested to know if anyone else shared my perspective on climate change and nature in the film.