Catastrophes and annihilation

I’m a guest on this week’s Philosophers in Space podcast, and that’s the cheerful topic of our discussion of the movie Annihilation, a film that I saw as one of the creepiest horror films ever when I first saw it, but my appreciation has grown greatly after a second viewing. It’s actually a movie about change and transformation, bringing together concepts from cancer and deep ecology. So we had a lot to talk about. So much we need two episodes, and Thomas Smith and Aaron Rabi and I will continue next week.

Also, that bear…haunts my nightmares. And we didn’t say enough about how great and atmospheric the music was.


  1. says

    Nightmares? Both the pool scene and the bear haunted my waking thoughts for days.

    And yeah, the music is awesome. The whole movie is awesome. It might not be perfect, but it’s the kind of movie where it doesn’t really matter. it’s the kind of movie that reminds me of why I love SciFi.

  2. mcfrank0 says

    Thanks PZ for the recommendation. I dismissed this movie (almost) offhand when it came out as just another jump-scare horror movie with some pseudo-science/magic background. Looks like I now need to check it out!

  3. Michael says

    I was a little annoyed with the comment after they killed the bear, about it capturing the victim’s soul. Talk about jumping straight to a supernatural explanation, when the natural explanation that it was just great a mimicking would do just fine.

    So why was she able to succeed when so many others failed?

    As far as Netflix movies go, I actually preferred ‘Law Abiding Citizen’ more.

  4. pipefighter says

    It was on the same level as Arrival for me. While I did personally enjoy Gravity/Interstellar/The Martian, they were really just protagonist vs environment in space, which is fine (Interstellar tried to be deeper and failed IMO) but Arrival and Annihilation were far more interesting Sci fi flicks and they never left the ground. Solid movies.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    Listened to the podcast, and read a bit about the movie and the book(s), and looks like this is just a rewriting of Solaris without acknowledging Lem.

  6. lochaber says

    I really liked that movie. I was lucky and managed to catch it in a local theater.
    Read the books afterwards (Annihilation/Authority/Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer). Quite a bit different, but a pretty similar feel/atmosphere, and worth reading.

    I agree with pipefighter @4, Annihilation and Arrival are probably the best sci-fi movies of the past couple years, maybe decade?

  7. Aaron says

    Read the books! They spend less time on the personalized connection to cancer, and a whole lot more on questions of what “is” an individual and what constitutes communication vs. what constitutes infiltration, and the whole rumination is done in a pretty trippy unreliable narrator sort of perspective that was really effective at inducing the right mindset (for me).

  8. chrislawson says

    a. I highly recommend Annihilation. It’s the only Alex Garland movie that I think holds up for its entirety (his third acts are usually so bad that they undermine whatever brilliance has preceded).

    b. It is a horror movie, but in the same way that Berberian Sound System, Cure, and Blue Velvet are horror films. That is, they don’t rely on blood and guts and jump scares, they rely on delving deeply into themes that are unsettling.

    c. This movie is the closest thing we have to a true adaptation of Solaris. Both Solaris movies are great in their own ways, but neither of them even attempts to tackle the central theme of the novel. This one does.

    d. Michael@3: the reason she survives is (1) she wanted to and (2) she was the first one to figure out how to — with some knowledge that was specific to her, and with some knowledge that she picked up on the journey and was therefore unavailable to previous expeditiions. Also, I don’t recall any lines about the bear capturing anyone’s soul. There was a line about it being terrible that the last remaining part of the bear’s victims was that voice — but this was not intended IMO as supernatural. The whole point of the Shimmer is that bits of the ecosystem are blurring into each other — and the ecosystem includes humans with their identities and knowledge, which there is no reason within the movie to doubt are built from the material world.

    e. Walter@9 — IMO Hereditary is creepier because that’s the key element the film was trying to achieve and it hammers the creepiness even when that undermines important issues like internal consistency and plotting (frankly if it hadn’t been for that exceptional cast, I think it would have failed completely). Annihilation is a much much better film because its creepiness is baked into the story rather than pulled out at regular intervals just to maintain a mood.

  9. lemurcatta says

    I remember thinking when I saw this film that it conveyed quite a profound concept about life- evolution is not driven by teleology but just is. There was no malevolent alien force driving the shimmer, just life doing why life does with no underlying deep motivation. Absolutely loved it.

  10. John Morales says

    Huh. I keep seeing this in my Netflix queue, but everything I’ve read (including the third or so of the podcast I endured before giving up) makes it sound very silly and rather boring.

    So, I will forthwith give it a go to test my belief, mainly on the basis of this recommendation and other people’s enthusiasm, but with every expectation of having my fears confirmed and thus giving up well before the end of it. I try to be aware of the sunk cost fallacy, which is why I gave up after about a third of the featured podcast.

    (Reading the Wikipedia reference, I too instantly thought of it as a rip-off of The Colour Out of Space, even before it was mentioned therein)

    Here I go.

  11. isochron says

    I watched it and a couple of days later realised that I couldn’t remember how it ended. I watched the second half again and, upon reaching the ending, thought “Ah, that’s why I didn’t remember.” Incredibly tedious.

    Arrival, in contrast, was captivating and was well worth watching a second time a week later.

  12. zetopan says

    About Annihilation, some have asked: “Why did she survive?” SPOILERS AHEAD

    Actually, she didn’t survive – that is her alien replica! It took many attempts for the aliens to duplicate convincing replicas and she was the final working version. Note the inconsistencies about her battle with her replica, the replica actually won that battle.

  13. zetopan says

    @chrislawson: “Berberian Sound System”

    I suspect that you actually meant “Berberian Sound Studio”, which I haven’t seen.

  14. astro says

    oh, how “annihilation” tries, and fails, to be so-thought provoking. it’s about aliens! no, it’s about cancer! it’s about self-destruction! it’s about silly physics, prisms, and shark teeth! the ending is so ambiguous! no, she defeated the alien!


    lots of great filmmaking, to be sure, like the cervical cancer cells at the beginning (evoking both creation and destruction of life), seeing the exact same cells when queen amidala confronts the color out of space, the water glass, the jarring transition the moment the women enter the shimmer. oh, and the bear and “the mark (interlude).” but in the end the film is consumed by its determination to be meaningful, and its sloppy attempts at ambiguity.