‘I thought I was a man’ says Kane to his doppelgänger. He speaks from the epicentre of a mysterious zone of transformation called ‘the shimmer’ that has erupted from the site of a meteorite impact. It would be quite understandable if he was speaking of an identity crisis brought on by his experiences inside the shimmer, but perhaps it is something more mundane: the emasculation he feels as a result of discovering his wife’s affair with another man. Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018) is a study of the human soul in distress.
Kane’s wife, Lena, is taken to the shimmer and she joins the next expeditionary party to go inside it. She brings her guilt and the other party members bring their grief, paranoia, anxiety, and hopelessness. Their theory is that whatever lies inside the shimmer either kills those who enter or causes them to kill one another. The maladjustment of the party members reveals that the normal world outside the shimmer is also a zone that destroys minds and bodies, only more slowly and in ways that we do not consider extraordinary.
Inside the shimmer the air is iridescent, flowers bloom impossibly and funguses grow in riots of pastel colour. Lena calls this behaviour a pathology; a deviation from the norm to be rejected and feared. It will affect them too if they stay in the zone. Aggressive random mutation is rarely a welcome development at the cellular level, but at the emotional level the zone has attracted those in need of transformation. Its phantasmagoric organisms are the spasms of a great impetus to change. There is the promise of being remade, or at least fully and finally unmade.
The shimmer and its mutant fauna pick off the party members one by one. Ego strength appears to be the factor that determines whether these annihilations are serene or gory. Radek is ready to surrender; she sees an opportunity to be free of her disorder, and more than losing herself to the shimmer she fears being reduced only to the part of herself that suffers. Ventress is terminally ill, resigned to the imminence of non-being and clearly prepared to die for an answer to the question that has beaten her blunt. Lena maintains an attitude of defiant opposition to the shimmer – and yet she follows Ventress deeper.
At the epicentre of the zone she finds a lighthouse that was hit by the falling meteorite. The beach outside is alive with a prismatic glow and the land approaching the coast is burgeoning with the shimmer’s bizarre works. Inside the lighthouse Lena discovers the source of the phenomena, an alien entity that duplicates and devours everything with which it comes into contact. It seems to act automatically without intelligent purpose. Staring into its slithering hollow core is like witnessing the birth of a miniature galaxy. The entity presents a gift to Lena: her new self. All she must do to accept is destroy her old self, as did Kane, burning away the knowledge of his wife’s adultery in the fire of a phosphorous grenade.
Lena rejects the gift and immolates the alien entity. Kane’s annihilation has deprived her of the catharsis she had hoped to achieve by receiving his forgiveness. Even for him to reject her would be conclusive. Instead she is stranded with her emotional baggage and an ego too strong to change even as it yearns for renewal. She is reunited with the thing that is not Kane, not the man she committed adultery against. Her eyes are alive with iridescence, with the sliver of a chance at transformation, the smallest fraction of the shimmer’s power to heal the human soul. He asks her if she is Lena. For her sins, she is.