How a science-fiction film opened my eyes to body horror

Claire Brnjac // Arts and Culture Editor
John Pachkowsky // Illustrator

Before Annihilation, I had never walked out of a movie. 

I remember standing in front of the movie theatre doors hyperventilating, rubbing my sweaty hands on my jeans as I debated about going back in. The staff watched me as I looked into the neverending depths of the Dippin’ Dots machine, trying to pump myself up. The emotion I was feeling wasn’t fear or even my ever-present anxiety disorder. It was discomfort—it was exhilaration. 

Annihilation is a 2018 science-fiction movie loosely based on a novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. It focuses on a strange bubble, referred to in-universe as “The Shimmer,” that encapsulates a coastal area off of Florida and is growing steadily. Within this zone, animals merge and meld with fauna and with each other, creating giant crocodiles and delicate white deer with flowers growing out of their antlers. It gets more and more sinister as a group of scientists venture into The Shimmer to document its growing radius and for the main character, played by Natalie Portman, to find her missing husband. Part cosmic body horror and part science-fiction, it’s exemplified best by a scene early on where Oscar Isaac, the husband, shakily cuts open another scientist’s chest to reveal his organs swimming around like eels. 

In Annihilation, nothing stays the same. Everything is moving and shifting and changing around the protagonists—even their fingerprints change patterns after prolonged exposure to The Shimmer’s alien influence. It’s one of the many horror films, like Black Swan and The Fly, that deal with the human body as a warzone, where the protagonists have to confront their bodies changing without their consent into some other, more animalistic form. At the end of the movie, we aren’t sure if Natalie Portman’s character is even entirely human or if she’s been changed irrevocably into another animal. 

This conceit, as it turns out, hit me in a way I didn’t expect. I had read the book, where the characters went nameless, and the plot focused around a cosmic being writing on the walls of a twisting cave. I wasn’t expecting the movie to diverge into its own nightmare.

Before Annihilation, the emotions I felt watching movies were usually garden variety—sadness as someone died or broke up with their true love, happiness at a reunion or a good dance sequence, laughter at a good joke, sometimes secondhand embarrassment at a cringy scene—and I would largely forget them as time went on. This level of visceral discomfort was new. I marvelled at it as I stood outside of this theatre, this deep, gut feeling that something was wrong. I was and still am a fan of horror as a genre—scary video games like Five Nights at Freddy’s and the Silent Hill playable teaser are two fond memories of my growing up, as well as movies like The Ritual and It Follows—but Annihilation hit a nerve that I hadn’t known existed, one reserved for imminent, unavoidable personal danger, and of inescapable strangeness. 

I remember the exact scene in the movie that made me leave. The main characters were strapped to chairs with gags on, and the human antagonist of the film at the time, played by Michelle Rodriguez, was asking everyone about the disappearance of another scientist on their team. She suddenly hears the scientist calling outside, and she runs to intercept her. The audience can hear only silence, and then a twisted version of the scientist’s voice calling for help. With the remains of a human skull fused onto the side of its face, a boar comes into their room, limping with the changes to its unwilling body. The boar calls for help in a parody of the scientist’s voice, sounding like an animal pretending to be another animal with just discordant noises. Like a parrot mimicking a dead person’s voice.

I slammed my hands over my ears, unwilling to process what I was hearing. I had a sickening realization of what was about to happen, and I was unable to stop it. I rushed out of the theatre, and I stood in front of a Dippin’ Dots machine, and then I left entirely. I didn’t watch the end until it came out on Netflix a year later.

Annihilation is not the most well-made movie, nor the best-acted. It takes only the central premise of the incredibly well-written book and creates its own world around it. But even after all of that, it has stayed with me consistently. Not a week goes by that I don’t think about it, and there is not a work of fiction I’ve made that hasn’t had some aspect in it. Even now, especially with COVID, there remains a familiar creeping fear that something within you is changing without your permission. That you can do everything you can to stop it, but you will change anyway. 
Something in Annihilation changed me. I think if I look hard enough, I can see my fingertips changing patterns, slowly and surely, and I don’t think I want them to stop.

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