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Annihilation is the Anti Arrival and That is What Makes it Amazing

Photo credit: Paramount

I am writing this the day after the Academy Awards and I am reminded of just how powerful a film nominated last year felt to me.  Arrival directed by Denis Villeneuve hit me like a ton of bricks.  I did not see the ending coming.  It was a twist that was both devastating and familiar.  Not to get too in depth with my own families trials and tribulations but in 2016 we had a baby who spent a lot of his early life in the NICU.  That came after weeks of regular Dr.’s visits before his birth to check on his health (spoiler…He is fine now or as fine as any two year old can be).  The ending of Arrival really asks us a question about what our roles as parents should be (a question I am still trying to figure out)? What happiness is? How does time exist? And, how these questions all intersect with one another?  Arrival frames all of those questions within a greater conversation about language.  As a science fiction fan who teaches language, who also had a sick kid, I felt like this movie was made for me.  I recently saw Alex Garland’s masterpiece Annihilation and it spoke to me in a completely different way.  We loved it too.  Arrival is aptly named because it is so much about the advent of things.  The appearance of aliens and their new language.  The meeting of two lovers.  The birth of a child.  The influx of a new truth.  As much as Arrival was about discovering these things Annihilation seems to be about the opposite and spends a great deal of time looking at and discussing departures and destruction (or maybe just deconstruction).  Annihilation is the anti Arrival and that is what makes it so incredible.  

The Complexity and Acceptance of Arrival

Photo Credit: Lava Bear Films

At its most basic core Arrival is a movie about scientists who must learn to speak the unique language of aliens that have landed on planet Earth.  Its genius lies in just how real the scenario feels.  The dysfunction of nation states and the general paranoia that tends to reflect their interactions is one of the central themes of the movie and certainly feels pretty prescient right about now.  Global politics generally is a messy process but when you throw in potentially hostile aliens we have real chaos.  It’s central conceit is really simple.  If aliens landed on our planet we would really struggle because our language would not look or sound like theirs.  Arrival creates a different written language, a different spoken language, and even a different function and process for that language. Its the layering of themes and their interplay that is complex.   We have the central plot but included in that is a romantic story line that is fully fleshed out and again feels real because we see each of the character’s flaws.  Villinueve also uses this complexity to discuss why each of the main characters will handle their own tragedies in different fashions.    All of these different themes complicate things for our central characters but make the pay off all the more worth it. 

Even deeper than the alien communication Arrival is about being a parent.  Parenthood itself is an entanglement of competing ideas and emotions and often parents are set off without a road-map to try and make sense of it.  In that way being a parent is about learning a new language.  When our children are young we ask questions like; When do I soothe the crying baby or when do I allow them to cry it out?  When they are older they grow even more complex.  When do I allow my teenager to figure stuff out on their own or do I step in?  Navigating this new language can be infuriating and rewarding but most parents agree the absolute worst part of being a mom or dad would be when we have to watch our children suffer.  Arrival is so devastating to us parents because it presents parenthood in all its emotional intricacies.  It shows us exactly what being a parent is about and then invites us to revel in its joy and misery.  Arrival gives us all of the answers to our questions knowing those answers will not change the decisions we make.  Louis played by Amy Adams knows how the future will play out and despite the terrible things that it will introduce chooses to continue along the path.  Villenueve knows despite all of the pain, it is worth it.  

The Simplicity and Fight of Annihilation

If Arrival is about layering complex themes and creating sprawling bureaucracies that feel real because of their convolutions Annihilation is about peeling back those layers and dispatching with the inane and unimportant.  Director Alex Garland spends little time explaining how, what, or why the Shimmer exists.  He spends even less time explaining what this government agency is that is in charge of observing the Shimmer.  Even the building and rooms that mark the edges of the Shimmer are simple and nondescript.  Its almost as if the director does not want us to look for the answers.  These are questions that do not pertain to his message and thus the movie glosses over them pretty quick.  In many ways this reflects  the dream like quality Garland sought to create.  Annihilation never feels real and that’s clearly not important to the overall message of the movie.  Once in the Glimmer our all female crew encounter all kinds of flora and fauna that seem to be deeply complex in their nature.  However upon further examination we understand the science behind the Glimmer and realize its actually the exact opposite.  The Glimmer acts as prism for everything in it not just light.  Those of us that paid attention in science class and even those that didn’t (looking in the mirror right now), can tell you that prisms actually break light down into their basic components.  So the Glimmer is about deconstructing things down and then rebuilding them into something different.  Taking it a step further its accepting this simplification that leads to the characters ultimate transformation as bizarre and horrific as those transformations may be.  Arrival gives us a lot of the answers and watches as the characters make the same choices even with the knowledge of how those actions turn out.  Annihilation is all about change.  The characters in the Glimmer cannot help but be changed by their experiences there. At the very least Annihilation has a ton to say about how we handle loss.  Lena is devastated by the loss of her husband.  Shepherd by the loss of her daughter and Dr. Ventress by the loss of her own life.  If Arrival is about acceptance then Annihilation is about fighting.  A number of great articles have been written about the end of Annihilation.  I am partial to the readings that look at Lena’s struggle with her clone as a discussion of depression.  I find that imagery deeply compelling and speaks to just how devastating that disease can be.

The Crossroads of the Suffering Mother

Perhaps the most interesting character when looking at how these movies parallel and then diverge is Cass Shepherd.  We learn through a discussion between Shepherd and Lena that Shepherd has lost a daughter to cancer much the same way Amy Adams character, Louis, loses her own daughter.  Rather than remaining

Photo credit: Paramount

 roughly the same person Shepherd accepts the suicide mission with the rest of the crew, mostly as a rebuke of her old life.  She departs her previous life for something completely different and that is the entire point.  Whereas Arrival makes the argument that despite the grief that could happen, life itself is worth the pain and suffering.  Louis knows exactly what will happen to her daughter but chooses to have her anyway with the understanding that loving and experiencing loss as a result is an acceptable trade off.  Annihilation does not give us that easy answer. Rather it posits when we suffer pain or loss perhaps its time to shift the kaleidoscope and place a renewed value on adaptation, evolution and growth.  Why do the same thing and suffer when we can adapt and spare ourselves the agony.    Trusting the path we are familiar with gives Arrival a clear ending.  It wraps everything up nicely.  It is also the far less scary of the options available to the characters.  The unknown is ultimately far more terrifying. That is why Annihilation works as a horror movie. Annihilation the book and movie fit squarely within the sub genre of  horror known as “The New Weird”.  We have discussed it at length here and on our podcast, The Horror Podclass.  One of the hallmarks of “The New Weird” is a lack of explanation or clear understanding of what is going on.  Annihilation cultivates this ambiguity.  It again separates itself from Arrival in that it’s ending is at best obtuse and is arguably purposely vague.  The director makes peace with that level of opacity and trusts the audience to adapt the message of the film to their own set of circumstances, much the same way the Glimmer forces certain members of the expedition to accept what is happening to them to allow for their own adaptation.  

Both of these movies are profound.  I found both to engage in interesting discussions of relationships, grief and understanding.  However I think both films represent different sides of the same coin.  Villenueve and Garland both want to take the audience on a journey it just seems Villenueve is more worried about the destination and Garland more concerned about where we are departing from and why.  Maybe I will catch them at an airport bar sometime and ask their opinions.  What is your opinion of either movie?  Do you think the movies are more similar or different?  Let us know by leaving us a comment on our Facebook or Twitter pages, or just send us an email with your opinions.  We would love to hear from you.

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