I only heard about "Annihilation" through the recommendation of a friend.
This is due to the film baffling both audiences and studios; it lacked sufficient advertisement, receiving promotion only immediately before release. "Annihilation" is sustaining itself off of word of mouth alone. A friend of mine brought it to my attention, saying something along the lines of, "Ok, dude. It is weird. I liked it. It's weird. I'm gonna be processing it for a long time. Dude. Go see it." This is the sentiment of many who have seen the film and is the best-case scenario for anyone walking out of the theater.
On the other hand, you may believe that "Annihilation" may simply confuse you for the sake of confusing you, and will leave you with nothing to do afterward but debate theories and meanings with other viewers. I belong to the former school of thought. As the credits rolled, the audience remained still, attempting to make sense of what they had been shown. I don't have all the answers, but it is a movie worth discussing with others, perhaps even seeing a second time to unpack further.
Many reviewers and critics have compared "Annihilation" to "Arrival," and I believe that they do this because it makes itself hard to describe without comparing it to something else. It is, more simply, a tense sci-fi thriller that pushes the boundaries of the genre. Both it and "Arrival" offer a view of the extraterrestrial not before conveyed in the film.
The movie opens with a small object soaring through space and colliding with Earth, the point of impact being a lighthouse resting on an expansive, sandy shore. We are then taken to the present day, where former soldier turned biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) sits in a sterile room being observed by about a dozen people in hazmat suits.
They ask her to tell her story, and we are taken through the rest of the film in flashback, occasionally returning to the interrogation room to clarify certain details. At the start of her story, Lena is grieving over the presumed death of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), whom she met in the Army and has been missing for twelve months after being sent on a confidential mission. He suddenly shows up at their home, seemingly out of the woodwork, much to the shock and joy of Lena. However, he seems to be confused as to where he has been for a year and even who Lena is.
In a further twist of events, government officials arrive and take both Kane and Lena to a covert facility called the Southern Reach. There, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells Lena about "The Shimmer."
The Shimmer is a wall, of sorts, several miles from the facility at the edge of a forest. It is multicolored and in constant motion, looking much like the exterior of a soap bubble. Dr. Ventress informs Lena that it is slowly expanding outward, and the origin point is the lighthouse from the start of the film.
They've sent many teams of military men into The Shimmer, and not one man has returned save for Lena's husband. Lena, desiring to learn more for her husband's sake, volunteers to go on the next expedition. Armed with automatic weapons, she and Dr. Ventress make up a team of five women.
The other three are the hardy paramedic Anya, (Gina Rodriguez), timid and bookish physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and the somewhat melodramatic anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny).
It is with their journey into The Shimmer that the movie truly finds it's pace. It's the equivalent of the first fifteen minutes of "Arrival," as our heroine is recruited by the government to explore a never-before-seen phenomenon. That is, however, where the comparison ends.
Rather than show us a creepy, alien entity, as many movies of the genre do, "Annihilation" presents us with a yet unseen alien presence that alters our familiar reality in disturbing ways. Plants exhibit impossible evolutionary behaviors.
Predatory animals are turned into fearsome, mutated monsters. The world that humans have become accustomed to shifts into an alien landscape, containing both familiarity and undiscovered dangers. It is a new world where vibrant plant life and beautiful fauna mask the genetic manipulation of any human who enters it.
I found myself taken by the tone that the movie set for itself, acutely sensitive to every bestial noise and my gaze lingering in the background of otherwise harmless shots, searching for the next threat. The movie thrives in this world, where death can either be tranquil and quiet or grisly and terrifying (a particular bear-mimic hybrid currently governs my nightmares).
All of this leads to a nearly inexplicable climax, which is best described as an acid trip followed by a wordless motion art piece. It successfully makes a classic mirror routine one of the most unsettling things I've seen in recent film.
"Annihilation," by my best analysis, wants the audience to focus on themes of self-destruction as opposed to perfect life. Each team member has nothing to lose, to some degree. There is a discussion of self-destructive behavior being ingrained in each of us, and how the very notion of cells dying on their own is a biological mistake. Meanwhile, the alien world that surrounds our heroes is a beautiful, self-sustaining biome where all genetics are shared.
But it is this lack of clarity in its message that will rifle some viewers. It subverts expectations but to the disappointment of moviegoers who expected a more conventional alien invasion story. In "Independence Day," for example, the alien's motivation is clear: wipe out humanity. In "Arrival," they have knowledge to share. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is ultimately a diplomatic inquiry. "Annihilation" is simply a look at an unexplored facet of the genre. It is uncaring and inexplicable, like the cycle of life and death.
Maybe I'm in the ballpark with my analysis, maybe I'm in the wrong stadium, or maybe I'm playing the wrong sport entirely. See the movie for yourself and discuss it excitedly with your friends.
Only through shared speculation is "Annihilation" going to reach new audiences.
We’re ready for our prose poem!
The time will come when our students, or our mother (in an attempt to seem interested for real and not just because it’s her kid) will ask about essays. “Well, dear,” she might say, “I think it’s lovely. But what do you mean by lyric?”
Or perhaps we will want to write a braided essay, or a collage, without really grasping what, exactly that is. We’ll realize it’s been a while since we were in a workshop and nobody else has the notes, and strongly consider retreating to a nice orderly sonnet. Fourteen lines and a whole four classical rhyme schemes to choose from. Go nuts!
It is for these moments that Brevity presents our Brief Guide to Essays:
They are all lyric, these categories of essays in literary journals and finer mass-media publications and the occasional feminist website. Built on images, using poetic tools like metaphor to evoke feeling in the reader. What’s also important is the blank space, a place for the reader to fill in, to meet the author on the page.
Often, the lyric essay ends with a question–literal or implied–rather than resolution.
Not this one.
Moving as fast as thinking, skipping like a stone idea idea idea fading into the last ripples of the pond. The words making their own spaces, running rampant past line breaks, trampling the meter, shoving their way to the discount dactyls of Prose Black Friday where all the words are on sale. The security guard makes you show him the inside of your alliteration, standing between you and the door of random magnetic words, demanding you focus this piece. Choose a dominant image. Right now you’re stuck in Walmart, the pond of the first line paved over. Shit. Beloved of poster-poem makers, these tiny walls of text breathe to the edges of the page and then retract–they can only stay so long, say so long, hit save, it’s done, sunk like a wrong-shaped stone.
Fragments build a collage. Perhaps passages from your journal, or the journal of a more famous writer you wish to look inspired by. The fragments work like shards of a glass: each one a self-contained moment; a ragged edge flowing into the next. Meaning born through assembly. Try to make the whole watertight–or leak artistically.
I sat in a living room in Bombay with women writers who didn’t have time to write. Too many household obligations. Live-in in-laws, kids needing three hots and a well-made cot, maids who got sick or got lazy and had to be watched. When was the pen supposed to hit the paper, exactly?
In Ohio, we shuffled index cards of memories, our teacher guiding us through only enough text to fit on the card, calming a class of overachievers. It’s never enough to get into writing camp, every day is showing up and saying See what I wrote? I belong, I swear. We re-ordered the cards. Wrote connectors. Essays birthed themselves when we slacked off. Trusted doing less.
The paper shop on the corner had index cards for 30 rupees, so I bought five packs, enough for everyone to take some home. And over vegan ladoos and the memory of all the ladoos ever eaten, round and floury and soaked with ghee, we wrote just enough to fill the cards. Shuffled. Wrote connectors. The hostess looked up. “I could write a card while I wait for the pot to boil.”
In middle school I wrote on McDonalds napkins. In high school, Taco Bell napkins and the backs of receipts. Folders of scraps still live in my basement, waiting.
The Bombay ladies got the point: write small and often. The teacher showed us the point: listen to the words, stop trying so hard. I got the point: clean out the damn basement. You get the point: collage.
You can braid as many strands as you like, but just like with hair, more than three is hard and less than three is even harder.
Repetition is the key–each thread recurs.
As well as the writer’s own voice, a braided essay can use an external voice to provide details the writer may not have known at the time.
The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writers voice, according to Brenda Miller in Tell It Slant.
Inside the braid could be a mini-collage, or a list, or a hermit crab. Perhaps a definition useful to the essay, or a quotation.
Repetition is the key. If there’s not repetition, it’s probably a collage.
Some nice braided essays:
The Search for Marvin Gardens by John McPhee
Buzzards by Lee Zacharias
Seriously. The strands have to repeat.
It sounds so adorable, right? A little crab scootching into a new shell, growing to fill it, taking the contours of the shell as its own. No special equipment is needed; this is an excellent starter essay you can make at home.
1) Choose an existing form, such as guidebook, grocery list, rejection letter or recipe.
2) Pack the prosaic form full of meaningful images. Use Table Mountain, and the man who was every bit as selfish as your friend said he was and left the windows open while you froze, who didn’t hug you when you got the news.
3) Tweak the writing to both explore and subvert the outer form; it’s not just a recipe for an essay, it’s the way to finish this blog post and process my father’s death.
4) Dropping a little bomb like that is nice in a hermit crab.
5) Let the form dictate the essay. Much like our maligned sonnets, the creativity comes from exploiting the form itself.
6) For example, recipes by definition end happily. I broke up with him. I mourned as much as I needed to. And I finished this essay in time to post on Tuesday.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.