You’re climbing, not knowing what you will be faced with at the top. Annihilation. The word echoes in your head as you spiral upwards. There’s a photograph on the wall, splattered in red. Annihilation. It’s of the last keeper of the lighthouse, his eyes squinting into the sun. Annihilation. His face is not haggard, or weathered, but rather holds a stern look of determination. The man is also circled in red, but the reason for that has been lost over time.
Annihilation. The psychologist had drilled this word into your brain over the last few months of training, you just didn’t know it at the time. You read it on the little cheat-sheet of hypnotic suggestions in her pocket. Annihilation. It was laid out right there, in black and white. Annihilation: To induce Immediate Suicide. The thought sends a shiver up your spine, but the feeling quickly fades. It doesn’t matter anymore, anyway. They’re all gone. You’re the only one left. No one would have placed a bet on the Biologist being the last to survive the twelfth expedition into Area X, or “The Shimmer”, but here you are. There have been fifty others to come before you, scientists, soldiers, medics, but they’re all gone now. You’re the only one left.
As you reach the top of the lighthouse, you see the corner of a small trap door hidden under a rug. You move everything aside, no longer afraid of the madness that overtook the rest of your team, and you open it wide. Inside are journals, exactly like the one you have in your bag, standard issue from the Southern Reach. That’s not what made you catch your breath, though. What is working itself into your brain, what has sunk you to your knees and hollowed out your insides is the sheer number of them piled there. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of journals stacked on top of one another.
“You don’t go into The Shimmer and expect to survive, but you can be changed forever and learn the intimate details of reality.”
Are you really a member of the twelfth expedition into Area X? Or the one-hundredth? You’re not sure what to think anymore. This place… This place has a way of taking your world and turning it inside-out. Down is up, the past is the future, a tunnel is a tower. It has baffled all of those that came before you, but you are not like them. At least, you aren’t like them anymore. As you sit alone in that desolate lighthouse lamp-room, listening to the horrific moaning from the creature that chased you in the reeds, it dawns on you: This place is not the anomaly. It is not the aberration. It is, you realize, a microcosm of the universe. It is the complete and true meaning of all existence.
Earlier this month, we took a look at True Detective and tried to decipher what it was teaching us about time. Then, after reading and watching The Mothman Prophecies, we tried to understand the nature of reality. Now, you are the Biologist at the top of the lighthouse. You are the only one left, and you are looking through The Shimmer and seeing the truth about both time and reality for the first time.
Area X, in Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, is known as The Shimmer in Alex Garland’s 2018 film adaptation. In both cases, it’s a mysterious globule of ecosystem that is slowly creeping its way along the southern coast of the United States. There have been many expeditions into this place, but very few answers have made their way back to headquarters. They know that it is expanding, they know that it is devastating, and they know that no one will survive if it is allowed to spread.
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The novel version of Annihilation and the film differ greatly in what, exactly, this place is, but we can learn a lot from both ideas. In VanderMeer’s novel, Area X seems to be a place where nature is reclaiming what once was theirs. It is pristine, unadulterated wilderness. Once all the humans were removed, the world began to right itself. The only problem with that is the Southern Reach, and the expeditions it keeps throwing into the fire.
Like in the film, there is something alien waiting for them. There is a being within the border of Area X that we cannot comprehend with our limited minds. The Biologist calls it “The Crawler”. It is down in a tunnel, writing words on a wall over and over again. It glides up and down the stairs, doing what it is biologically programmed to do. Much like the beings that were seen in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, or near Skinwalker Ranch in Utah, this Crawler is unrecognizable in our minds. It resembles nothing in our reality, so our minds try to reduce it to its most basic form. Something digestible by our primitive consciousness.
“The expeditions that enter [Area X] are representations of our mortal lives.”
Area X is a perfect encapsulation of Rust Cohle’s “Time is a flat circle” speech that we discussed in our True Detective article. If you don’t remember, it is based on Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return. When stripped down to its base parts, it theorized that: “If time is truly infinite, meaning that there is no beginning or end, and if the First Law of Thermodynamics is true (this states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred or changed from one form to another), then the exact conditions that created your life will reoccur again. And again. And again. For eternity.”
The land that you travel to in the novel is exactly that, a flat circle of time within the universe. The expeditions that enter its borders are representations of our mortal lives. We cycle through, over and over again. Each time we go through, we are trying to understand what is around us, but it remains there, unchanged. It does not care how many times we travel through its shining door; it is doing what it is programmed to do, which is to keep spinning for all of eternity. If this is true, then what is the novel version of Annihilation’s “spiral”? What is our way out, if we find ourselves staring into a pit full of journals on the top level of a lighthouse?
“The only way to survive Area X is to stop fighting it.”
We learn, through the Biologist’s own journal, that her group struggled against Area X the entire time they were there. The Medic went nuts and tried to murder the others. The Psychologist and the Anthropologist went on a midnight run to see the Crawler, only for the Anthropologist to meet her fate in the tunnel. The Psychologist, after she realized that she was no longer in complete control of the mission, threw herself off the top of the lighthouse, bashing her body against the rocky shore below. All that struggling, all that fighting, got them absolutely nowhere. That only left the Biologist with one course to follow: Acceptance.
The only way to survive Area X is to stop fighting it. This place isn’t something that you can understand, not in a thousand lifetimes. If you want to live, you have to accept what is happening around you. Death, time, and reality within Area X should be viewed with gratitude. For the first time in the history of humanity, you will no longer be an outsider. You will no longer be the invasive species. For a brief moment, as you become a permanent part of the environment within its expanding borders, your brain will recognize its transformation. It will see that it is one with all of reality, and your next path on the circle of time has been changed.
In Garland’s film adaptation, The Shimmer is a place where all life, all DNA, is refracted and redistributed. This is what causes the physical changes in the expedition members during their time there. Anya’s (Gina Rodriguez) fingerprints swirled. Josie (Tessa Thompson) notices plants with human attributes. The group is besieged by a terrifying nightmare-bear that seems to have been cobbled together from the bodies of several other animals, including members of previous expeditions.
This prism that scrambles the DNA within its borders does not take sides. It does not let some beings pass through without it having some effect on them. It is indiscriminate. It is unfeeling. The Shimmer is the universe we live in, constantly recycling and redistributing the energies and matter held within.
This is what is happening inside The Shimmer. Nothing truly dies there. It is reborn, over and over, until the exact circumstances align again to allow it to live its life over again. The Shimmer, and everything that you witness within, is an example of just how long it would take for that to happen. How many lives would you have to live before your stars align again, so to speak? Will you be aware of the other expeditions you’ve made into The Shimmer?
“When time is infinite, the horrors are, too.”
When time is infinite, the horrors are, too. So how can you break the cycle and ascend to another plane of existence? In True Detective, if you try hard enough, if you make enough of an impact in your lifetime, you can turn your circle into a spiral. That spiral will work its way closer and closer to the center, allowing you to tap into a reality unlike anything on this plane.
In Annihilation, there is no spiral. There is no acceptance of your station or harmonious transformation like in the novel. No karmic attachment is strong enough to bring you out of The Shimmer. Even so, it is still a beacon of hope. It’s a place where you will find answers to the most profound questions in all of history. It is an ending point. It offers finality to those whose paths are broken. You don’t go into The Shimmer and expect to survive, but you can be changed forever and learn the intimate details of reality.
“Wait a second, dummy”, I hear you saying rudely, “We literally see two people, Oscar Isaac’s Kane and Natalie Portman’s Lena, escape The Shimmer”. First of all: Did we? Not really. You see, since there is no spiral of self-improvement, the only way forward and out of the echo-chamber of molecular horror is if you face, and kill off, your former self.
“…the only way to survive Area X is if you look inwardly at yourself and whisper: Annihilation.”
Lena went into the hole. She crawled into the lair of the beast. It took a drop of her blood and created a copy. This shining doppelganger mimicked her every move. It became her, adopting every aspect of her personality. There was no way out. She literally could not get out of her own way. Like the cancers that she studied her whole life, Lena realized that the only way out, the only way any part of her was going to survive, was if she killed her former self. Only then, could she evolve above The Shimmer, and join her husband again in the outside world.
I’m sure that this exact event has happened over and over again in that lighthouse. People come in, they are copied, they cannot let go of the person they were before, so they are recycled into bears or shrubbery. Kane saw the way out through the curtain, and willingly let himself go so that some part of him could survive. He left the video for Lena so that she would see it, too. They cracked the code. There was no spiral, no path to the center. There was only one way out, and that was if they evolved above their previous lives. This broke them out of the reality they inhabited before and landed them on a new, untraveled circle of time. In other words, the only way to survive Area X is if you look inwardly at yourself and whisper: “Annihilation”.
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