Annihilation — The Art of Self-Destruction


Hi, I’m Michael. This is Lessons from the Screenplay. Every genre brings with it a set of expectations that shapes the kind of stories it can tell
and the themes it can explore. And as Alex Garland, writer/director of Annihilation
says, science fiction is perhaps the best genre
to openly explore fundamental ideas of existence: “When I first started, I always felt like
I had to smuggle ideas into the stories. And, I realized increasingly that in science
fiction you have permission for big ideas. You didn’t have to feel embarrassed about
the idea, in fact it’s almost encouraged.” So today, I’d like to investigate how Annihilation
takes biological, existential concepts and translates them into narrative elements… …to explore how these are expressed in every
element of the story, from the characters, to the environment, to the monsters that inhabit it… …and to examine how subverting one of the
fundamental elements of character creates an experience that is truly alien. Let’s take a look at Annihilation. On the surface, Annihilation is about a group of scientists
trying to understand a strange phenomenon. They venture beyond an otherworldly border
called the “Shimmer,” into which teams of researchers have been
sent before, only to never be heard from again. But this premise serves to explore the deeper
ideas of duplication, self-destruction, and mutation, which are directly introduced at the beginning
of the film through a brief lesson in biology. “This is a cell. Like all cells, it is born from an existing
cell.” We’re shown how a cell creates new life
via duplication. But this cell isn’t a normal cell. “The cell we’re looking at is from
a tumor.” This is a cancer cell—a product of our own
bodies that may eventually kill us. Self-destruction. And as Lena says later in the script, during
a flashback to this moment: “We can describe cancer as a mutation that
causes unregulated cell growth. It changes us.” Mutation. These concepts are inspired by the fundamental
elements of life itself, so how do you explore them in a narrative? In Annihilation, the design of the characters is used to express
the theme of self-destruction. Every character in Annihilation is dealing
with self-destruction. “We’re all damaged goods here. Anya is sober, therefore an addict. Josie wears long sleeves because she doesn’t
want you to see the scars on her forearms. I also lost someone. A daughter. Leukaemia.” Ventress, who leads the expedition, is using
the mission as a kind of suicide. “Ventress had cancer, she was never coming
back.” And Lena, the protagonist, volunteers as a way to try to atone for her
self-destructive actions. Over the course of the film, we learn that
Lena had an affair, which is part of what drove her husband to
enter the Shimmer in an earlier expedition, eventually leading to his own self-destruction. Each character represents a variation on theme
of self-destruction. Demonstrating theme through character design
is a technique found in all genres, but science fiction is particularly good at expressing abstract ideas through the story
world. In Annihilation, the story world is used to
express mutation. The setting of a story can be a powerful way
to express ideas and reflect the hero’s journey. In Annihilation, the story is set inside the
Shimmer, a place of constant mutation. “More mutations.” “They’re everywhere.” “Malignant. Like tumors.” This is one of the advantages of science fiction— the writer can imagine a story world that
embodies an idea. What if the DNA of all life in an area was
being mutated? What kind of environment would that create? What kind of animals might one encounter? Embracing the science fiction genre allows the concept of mutation to become literal
in a row of beautiful flowers… …or a terrifying monster. “Sheppard!” In one of the most memorable scenes of the
film, mutation is used to create a new twist on
a classic horror scene. Thorensen is losing her grip on reality and has tied her fellow team members to chairs, when she suddenly hears the voice of Sheppard— who was killed by a bear earlier in the film. “Help me!” “Help me!” “Cass?” But… “It’s not Sheppard. It’s the bear-like creature that killed
her. Mutated jaw. Hairless, strangely pigmented skin. Lesions. Then the Bear opens its jaws, and a human-like
noise emerges.” (distorted human noises—“help me!”) But the Shimmer does more than simply mutate
the DNA of the life forms within it. It also makes copies of things, like a cell. Lena sees a strange copy of a deer in the
forest. The house the team stays in is a copy of Lena’s
own home. And the Kane that leaves the Shimmer and returns
to Lena is actually a copy of the real Kane who committed
suicide. But the most dramatic example is found in
the climactic scene of the film, which is designed around the concept of duplication. While genre can allow for creative freedoms, one of the challenges of working within genre
conventions is that you can find yourself in very familiar
territory. In the finale of Annihilation, when Lena finally
confronts the alien, Alex Garland had to find a way to provide
a unique spin on a well-worn sci-fi situation. “When we deal with aliens we often make
them like us in some way. Maybe they want to eat us, or maybe they want
our water, our resources. But these are all sort of human concerns. We are motivated by things, and we have agendas, and an alien might not have an agenda or might not be motivated. And so it was it was an attempt to create
an alien alien.” In Annihilation, the alien is unknowable. This is achieved by subverting the fundamental
element that drives every character in a story: desire. “It’s not like us. It’s unlike us. I don’t know what it wants. Or if it wants.” The alien lacks any definitive motivation, and this absence makes it entirely unpredictable. The physical form of the alien is also completely
unrelatable. As Ventress deteriorates, new forms begin
to emerge… “Then finally, the unfolding coalesces into
a new shape. Entirely non-human. At this moment we are seeing the Alien. Its actual form. A Mandelbulb creature from the world of visualised
mathematics. Infinitely complex, inexplicable in its movement.” Then, it becomes something more familiar. “It expands. Transforms. And resolves – – into a humanoid figure. Sexless. Featureless. Having the arms, legs, head and torso of a
human – man or woman. But nothing else.” A kind of duplication of Lena’s form. And this idea of a mirrored duplication is
expressed not just in the form it takes, but in the design of how the entire climactic
scene plays out. “Lena scrambles across the room – – towards the door to the lighthouse. But she doesn’t make it. The Humanoid simply appears in front of her,
before she reaches the door. It is unclear how it got there. A frozen beat. Then Lena strikes the Humanoid with all her
strength. And a moment later, in a mirror of her actions
– – the Humanoid strikes her back – but
with incredible power. The Humanoid is mimicking her. She is fighting herself.” In the final moments of the encounter, the humanoid shape mutates to become a literal
duplicate of Lena, and in the end, she is only able to escape by tricking it into doing what all the humans
in this story are best at: Self-destruction. Annihilation is a great example of how a film
can serve as an exploration of an idea. It embraces its science fiction genre, taking the fundamental process of how life
spreads and evolves, and expressing it in the setting of the story and the forces of antagonism that inhabit it… It unites all of this under the thematic umbrella of humans’ tendency toward self-destruction to create a powerful and intriguing cinematic
experience… And demonstrates how something new can be
created following annihilation. When Alex Garland adapted Annihilation from
the book, he used a unique approach. Rather than try to adapt the plot beat-by-beat, he decided to adapt it based on his memory
of the book. I think it made for a very interesting film, but if you’re curious to check out the original
text, you can download the audiobook of Annihilation
today for free with Audible. Audible has the largest selection of audiobooks
on the planet, and every month Audible members get one credit
good for any audiobook they choose, plus two Audible Originals from a changing
selection you can’t get anywhere else. So go to audible.com/lfts or text “lfts”
to 500 500 to start a thirty-day trial and get your first audiobook for free. Once again, that’s audible.com/lfts or text
“lfts” to 500 500. Thanks to Audible for sponsoring this video. Hey guys! I am up here at my parents’ house for the holidays, but I wanted to say thank you, as always to my patrons on Patreon and supporters here on YouTube for making this channel possible. I hope you had a very happy holidays, and have a wonderful new year. Thanks for watching, and I’ll see you next time.

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