The Nature of Fear in ‘Annihilation’: Venturing Into the Unknown
The greatest fear of all is the unknown. When a person is about to die, fear creeps in because he/she has no idea what will happen next. Doing anything that does not have a definitive outcome is very scary. This is mostly because people are afraid of what they don’t understand and in this case, unknown to them. ‘Annihilation’ by filmmaker Alex Garland tackles the idea of venturing into the unknown and how scary and irresistible it can be. As much as we are afraid of something we don’t understand, we also cannot help ourselves but be curious enough to venture into it. When the audience is heading into a film theater to watch a sci-fi film, they usually have certain expectations. They expect marvelous visual effects, deep emotional connection and a final act that is so mind-bending, beyond reason. With Annihilation, it’s best to leave all expectations at the door and simply take the leap with an open mind into the terrifying expedition into the unknown.
In Annihilation, Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist who’s looking for answers on what happened to her husband after he comes home with a disease of an unknown origin. They are both transported to a facility where scientists have come upon a biological anomaly. Lena volunteers to go into the anomaly to find out more on what is happening. A team of highly skilled scientists including Lena explores the location known in the film as ‘The Shimmer’ that has been biologically mutated into something unknown. The environment in the shimmer is changing rapidly. Despite its dreamlike environment as described by Lena, horrific events begin unfolding too quickly for the characters to catch a break (Garland, 2018). These characters despite being highly trained are way out of their depth. They have no idea as to what is happening in their own surrounding. That gives the audience the same feeling the characters have. They are all afraid of what they could see next, but they can’t help but be intrigued by it. They are caught in the whirlwind that seems to not give them a break until they are all dead.
Everything in the film is meant to give you a sense of the unknown. The narrative is not linear and mostly confusing. The visuals are bizarre and the score abstract. The unknown factor in Annihilation manifests throughout the entire film. By the end of it, you have more questions than you had prior to watching the film. The lack of clarity into what the shimmer is acts effectively and explaining it ruins the uniqueness of the film The vagueness in almost all key plot lines captures the sense of the unknown through film. The events in the film are unknown to the characters and audience alike. Most Sci-fi movies, while they strive for the unknown, they tend to relate it to something we already know, something we are already familiar with. Annihilation makes sure the film remains to be unknown even after watching it. It’s unfathomable, unnatural and almost incomprehensible. The mysteries act as devices used to reveal bigger questions about our existence. As much as the afterthoughts of it are unsettling, they remain with the audience long after that, and they seep into our lives, making us question our existence and other significant elements of our reality. The film’s lack of conclusivity further strengthens the narrative of portraying something unknown and how it’s scary, but we venture into it regardless.
After having experienced Annihilation, the audience gets to appreciate the unknown more because it portrays change, growth, and evolution. As much as it leaves questions lingering, it’s the emotional weight that makes it worthwhile. The willingness to leave unanswered questions in a film is what makes Alex Garland such a great filmmaker. It’s the thing that makes Annihilation work in this era of gigantic sci-fi film events. It tells an equally gripping and marvelous sci-fi tale that will define the entire genre for decades to come. Annihilation is the perfect cinematic experience because it floods the mind with ideas but not too much to drown the fine print of the unknown. It also challenges every perception known without giving a definitive perception of its unknown. It leaves that to the audience to make their own conclusion to the narrative. The filmmaker has achieved what so many sci-fi movies have failed by preserving the mysteries and opting for a story that is unknown to itself. Filmmakers have struggled to capture the complexity and texture of the unknown until now.
Garland, A. (Director). (2018). Annihilation [Motion Picture]. Paramount Pictures,