How Annihilation Nails the Complex Reality of Depression

The women of Annihilation. Photo: Peter Mountain/Paramount Pictures

Let’s talk about what it means to destroy yourself.

In the relatively short time I’ve been alive, I have made an art out of self-destruction. I’ve placed myself in frightening situations just to feel something, anything but the crushing depression that often rewires my life. I’ve sought oblivion at the bottom of the bottle and in the arms of a rakish stranger. I’ve lost count of the suicide notes I’ve written, the attempts I’ve planned. If pressed, I’d say I learned the art of self-destruction from my mother. She would blow up her life — financially, professionally, romantically — in ways that meant my brother and I became collateral damage, forced to adapt amid the wreckage in order to survive. It’s also a matter of misfiring brain chemistry that comes with having bipolar disorder type II. It’s become a way of being, a prism through which I’ve written the narrative of my life. Cinema has struggled to capture the texture and complexity of this experience, especially when it centers on women. Perhaps this is why Annihilation feels like such a revelation.

Conversations around Alex Garland’s sophomore effort have largely invited a wholly cerebral reading of the film, as if it were a puzzle begging to be solved. But I was struck by what a complex, sensual experience it was. When I walked out of the theater after seeing it for the first time, I felt like I was coming undone. Tears welled in my eyes and my footsteps were skittish, despite having walked that same path numerous times before. In the theater, I recoiled, yelped, cowered, and craned my neck upward in awe. It’s a masterwork I felt in my nerve endings, a brutal, gorgeous meditation on the rigors of depression and the human impulse toward self-destruction. These themes ripple through every facet of Annihilation — the tremendous performances, the dream-like story, and the fracturing, baroque swampland the characters trudge through, searching for oblivion and serenity in equal measure.

The film centers on Lena (Natalie Portman), a steely yet clearly fractured biologist and professor with a past tenure in the Army, where she met her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). It has been about a year since she’s spoken to him as he’s been on a covert mission, leading to a frightful uncertainty as to whether he’s dead or simply missing in action. One night, he shows up at their home unannounced. He’s withdrawn, changed in ways that frighten Lena even if she can’t discern exactly why. The terror only heightens from there as he spits up blood, his organs failing. Before they can make it to the hospital, they’re swooped up by government officials. Lena soon learns Kane is the only person to return from a group mission into what’s known as Area X — a swath of Florida swampland undergoing a strange ecological phenomena that is expanding. Lena joins a group of women meant to travel into the unstable terrain to bring back data. Each of them has dealt with past traumas that led them to volunteer for what can only be deemed a suicide mission — psychologist and team leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez proving her action-star bona fides), geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and soft-spoken physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson).

At one point, Lena and Cass have an intimate conversation about what led this group of women into the Shimmer. “We’re all damaged goods here,” Cass says with tranquil ease, incongruous to the situation. She and Lena trade stories about their emotional scars tersely, without much detail — Lena’s husband, Cass’s daughter, who died of leukemia. Cass goes on to discuss the emotional wounds of the other women: Anya’s carnal energy and overwhelming charisma mask her struggle with alcoholism. Josie always wears long sleeves to hide the scars on her arm, a physical reminder of her suicidal impulses. Ventress’s chilly determination is a byproduct of her looming, inevitable death due to cancer. Garland is never as blunt anywhere else in the film as he is here. Yet even before this exchange, the film reveals itself to be a trenchant consideration of the interlocking dynamics of depression and self-destruction.

When the team first passes through the Shimmer — the translucent, rainbow-hued bubble that separates our world from Area X — they lose four days. No one can account for what happened from the moment they cross this barrier to when they woke up. They have no idea how they got to their present location, when they set up camp, or what they did in the intervening time. This immediately ratchets up the disorientation and unease that has been building at the edges of the film since the beginning. This decision by Garland can first read as an easy narrative device to bypass fleshing out the particulars of the early part of their trip. But their loss of time read to me as a familiar experience of a depressive episode, where time moves in unnatural ways. Where you wake up sometime in the afternoon, the days an uneasy blur, but very aware of the taste of regret on your tongue.

These thematic and emotional concerns are not merely a matter of narrative decisions and character backgrounds. They are etched into the very fabric of the film — its sounds, its visual grammar, its texture. As they venture deeper into this alien terrain, this becomes more evident. The plants they encounter are strangely drained of color, as is the unnerving shark-alligator hybrid. Concrete walls are covered in vegetation that reads as cancerous growth, tumors awash in psychedelic color. From certain angles, trees scan as humanoid in shape. Depression is like this. It consumes everything in its path, warping it madly. The world is drained of vibrancy or easy understanding. The finest meal can taste like ash. Your body is no longer your own, but a weapon formed against you.

The one sequence in the film I return to most often comes about midway through their journey. The women decide to camp out at a mostly intact house hooded by overwhelming vegetation. Each woman is unraveling in their own particular ways, especially Anya, who can feel acutely how the strange phenomena is reworking her DNA. She studies her hands angrily as her skin seems to glisten like liquid. She decides to knock each surviving team member out and tie them up in chairs, interrogating them with unhinged intensity that even she recognizes, her voice shifting from fury to a laugh that is more alarming than comforting. The scene turns when Cass’s voice can be heard just outside. But how is that possible when she was killed earlier, and Lena even found her body to make certain? Anya is gone for too long for anything but horror to follow this silence. Still strapped to chairs and unable to defend themselves, the women watch as a deformed bear-like creature enters the home, its face mostly skeletal, dripping with blood. It moves between the chairs, sniffing at the air. When it opens its maw to bellow, it isn’t an animal’s voice it speaks with, but Cass’s. From its unhinged, uneven jaws comes her voice during the final moments of her life: terrified, crying for help, aware of certain death. It is the most amazingly constructed, terrifying scene I have watched in the last few years — a triumphant marriage of invention, stellar sound design, careful acting, and directing. It highlights the way sorrow can ripple, infecting everything in its radius, its effects seen long after the initial traumas it breeds. If I had to give my depression a face, perhaps it would look like this.

Each woman comes to represent a different facet of the struggle with depression and self-destruction. In Cass, I see the knowledge that you can never return to the person you once were in the wake of trauma. In Anya, it’s how you lose touch with and control of your own body. In Ventress is the angry, propulsive desire to give yourself fully to engendering your own destruction. And in Josie, it’s the weight of suicidal ideation. I have come, in recent years, to describe suicidal ideation as a bitter pull. It feels like a thread being pulled at the back of my skull, a gnawing that will not cease until it is embraced. I had never seen a forthright consideration of suicide that captures the essence of this feeling and the way it haunts me, even when I’m well, until I watched Tessa Thompson as Josie. After most of the team has been brutally killed, Josie and Lena get a moment of reprieve, looking out at the beautiful wildlife surrounding the home that became both their refuge and hell. Lena is determined to continue. Josie is curiously still, her eyes trained elsewhere. She remarks that she doesn’t look at Area X the way Lena and Ventress have — trying to understand it and trying to destroy it, respectively. She’s embracing it. It’s then that you notice her bare forearms. Leaves and foliage prickling through the scars. She walks away from Lena, who calls her name and follows her. But she’s gone, turned into one of those beguiling humanoid shaped trees. Something beautiful, complex, and strange even in death. Josie’s acceptance of death further invites questions about how we heal from traumas and the possibility of becoming whole, which Lena’s arc perhaps gives answers to.

Lena, in many ways, is a culmination of what the other characters represent: a longing for death, an angry, self-destructive quality, the feeling that her body is no longer her own, and a curious embrace of sorrow and understanding of how it has reworked her. The film reaches a crescendo as Lena arrives at the lighthouse where this entire ecological phenomenon began. As Josephine Livingstone notes in her moving piece for The New Republic, “The lighthouse is surrounded by crystal trees that resemble the synapses of the brain. This lighthouse is desire, as with Woolf, and also the frontier that separates our own minds from others’. Here we see an embodied meditation on subjectivity and trauma.” Lena finds a video camera with footage explaining the charred skeleton sitting before her, which may actually be her husband, meaning the man that returned home to her is not a man at all. The most affecting moment comes later, as Lena becomes embroiled in struggle with a shimmering, faceless creature that mirrors her movements, at one point literally being crushed by it. As Emily Yoshida expresses in her review, “Garland goes silent for the film’s stunning finale. Something at the intersection of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey and modern dance, it left me breathless with its unforgiving depiction of the relentless weight of depression; the impulse to self-destruct.”

The final scene invites the question of whether Lena, now returned home, is herself, or the version of herself the shimmering creature became? She hugs Kane — although it is now undeniable who stands before her isn’t her husband — and their eyes glitter with unnatural hues. I’ve gone back and forth between reading the scene as proving that this Lena isn’t the Lena we were introduced to at the beginning, and believing that it’s still her, just unnaturally changed by her time in Area X. This is partly due to Portman’s stellar performance as Lena. Acting is as much about becoming as unbecoming, and few actors understand this balance better than Portman. She’s an actor who seems at once translucent — a subtle twinge at the edge of her mouth, a furrowed brow, a taut gait cuing us in to the roiling emotions of character — and opaque, as if there are hidden corners of her character, a darkness weighing on her she refuses to let us see fully. I saw so much of myself in her performance that I felt stripped bare of the pretenses I’ve long developed to ignore the truth of my depression.

I have often deemed my depression and self-destructive urges as an inseparable part of myself, as if these traits are written into my very soul. Currently, I am in recovery in the wake of a suicide attempt that landed me in the hospital during the twilight of last year. This recovery — the hours of therapy, the conversations about medication — have led me to question the narrative I’ve written for myself. Who am I without my trauma, my guilt, my sorrows? This question has haunted me in the last few months. As I think about Annihilation, I keep coming back to that ending — Lena being crushed by the physical embodiment of her self-destructive nature and depression, yet somehow escaping —  at least a part of her has. I will never be the young girl I once was, unmarked and unbound to the rigors of depression and the glorious highs of mania. Maybe, like Lena, I can become someone, something else. Not as easy categorizable, but perhaps more whole.

How Annihilation Nails the Complex Reality of Depression