The Transitional Self: Annihilation and the Illusion of Identity

We have all wondered, at one time or another, about our individuality.  What are the basic components of the self? We all have the feeling of a singular “I,” a certain unnameable essence that separates us from the rest of our friends and family.  One of the earliest philosophical debates in identity is the Theseus Paradox.  Theseus, thought to be the founder of Athens, is included in the pantheon of foundational Greek mythology.  Memorialized for his bravery and leadership, the citizens of Athens preserved his battleship for years. Through natural occurrences, preservation turned from an act of repair to an act of replacement.  Every original piece of that ship eventually rotted and was replaced with new planks. From a philosophical lens, this poses a reasonably tricky question: can we still view the repaired ship as the one that belonged to Theseus?  If not, at what point during the repairs did the ship cease to be the same vessel?

These questions are the heart of Alex Garland’s science fiction adaptation Annihilation.  Much like Theseus’ ship, none of us remain the same person throughout life, both in a physical and mental sense.  We all fall prey to biology and its curses. As we age, we find hair greys and thins, skin wrinkles and loses much of its elasticity, even soundness of mind comes into question with each year.  So how do we reconcile these changes with our sense of self? How do we continue to have planks removed and still see the same person? It is through progressive change and the illusion of free will that our singular narrative goes undisrupted.  Garland examines the substructure of identity through a journey of Lena’s psyche, leading the viewer into the depths of her consciousness where Lena is confronted with the absence of a sole identity.

The subtextual narrative of Annihilation acts as a catalyst for an important conversation about what is to be human.  While there are interesting takes on cancer and relationships, the true heart of the film lies in a simple question:  what is identity? This is a hard concept to define because there are so many facets as to what makes an individual feel an “I.”  However, Garland provides the viewer with a great example through Lena. The film’s journey is one familiar to all of us. Over our lifetime, we change.  Little by little, we develop new taste in music, food, and cinema. We are instilled with the ethical values of our parents, though these can be altered through other meaningful relationships and ideas. It is through these incremental changes that we  still accept the narrative of our lives. This is the idea behind the Shimmer and its peculiar attributes, like the refraction of DNA and memories. The Shimmer is paradoxical in nature: there is an eerie otherness to everything that resides under the dome, but a familiarity lies at the bottom of the mystery.  As Lena points out in the discovery of the multi-colored flowers and vines, they all look so different that one would not believe they are from the same plant, let alone the same species. They are caught in a continuous mutation, much like Lena’s identity.

With occasional flashes of the past, the audience is introduced to a version of Lena that, like the flowers, doesn’t seem to belong to the same consciousness. Through infidelity, Lena begins a self-examination into her own misjudgment of character. The Shimmer and expedition team are a perfect vehicle for Garland to magnify Lena’s introspection.  In this sense, the crew are the many faces of Lena’s consciousness: Anya is addiction to impulse, uncontrollable and incessant. Josie is the softer side of this, wanting nothing more than the chance to feel alive, even if that means a path leading to self-destruction. Cassie is sorrow, a physical representation of Lena mourning who she was before the affair.  And Ventress is the cold, detached examination of Lena’s value judgments and moral identity, serving almost as an underdeveloped conscience.

The Shimmer, in turn, is a metaphorical device for Lena’s psyche.  Her journey to the Lighthouse is one of pursuit: it is a way for Lena to kill her attachment to identity and embrace the idea she is only a passenger to uncontrollable desires, regardless of whether those actions are high-minded or not.  Subsequently, it is through one of the most unnerving and beautiful scenes of the film that Lena faces a facsimile of her current persona. Lena’s confrontation with the being is almost like a ballet, choreographed in a bizarre echo of her insecurities. The duplicate is a surrogate for all of Lena’s doubts and shortcomings;  it is a manifestation of the faults she wishes to discard but have ultimately left her with little more than a suffocating sense of regret. Throughout the film, a tattoo emerges on Lena’s arm, which foreshadows this final confrontation.

The ouroboros is an old symbol for the infinite recurrence of life.  It is depicted through a serpent eating its own tail and is meant to represent the perpetual state of creation and destruction.  Joseph Campbell spoke well to this point in the Power of Myth: “There is a sense of death as not death somehow; that death is required for new, fresh life and so on. And the individual isn’t quite an individual.  He is a member of the plant.” Lena realizes much of her identity is a culmination of uncontrollable desires which arise through hidden biological proclivities and external factors.  She must let go of her guilt by burning her memories down to create something new.

Garland realizes that an integral part of our identity is found in memory.  Looking back at the original question of Theseus’ Paradox, we have to consider that our self is much more than a corporeal idea.  Much like the ship, we can replace limbs, sinew, and bone; we can lose hair, eyes, speech, and hearing, but the moment the mind begins to slip, we effectively lose ourselves.  Memories provide context to our narrative. They are the glue that binds our story from birth to death. This is a significant point in Annihilation as it is brought to our attention by Ventress: “We are disintegrating!  Our bodies as fast as our minds. Can’t you feel it? It’s like the onset of dementia.  If I don’t reach the lighthouse soon, the person that started this journey won’t be the person that ends it. I want to be the one that ends it.”  

If we dissect this quote under the assumption that Ventress is a branch of Lena’s subconscious, we realize the words are weighted.  Lena’s head lies heavy with the burden of indiscretion. The journey, as mentioned previously, is something of a redemptive tale in the sense that Lena is trying to reconcile a psychic disconnection between who she thought she was and who she has become.  However, like with any journey of significant growth, she must confront her painful past.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how the Shimmer is an external representation of Lena’s mind.  Garland accomplishes this through echoes of Lena’s memories. Late in the story, the crew sets up camp in an abandoned building that mirrors Lena’s home. However, like most of the environment in Annihilation, the aesthetic aspects have a preternatural value.  Whereas the earlier scenes within her home offer warmth to parallel her relationship with Kane, the echo is meant to be a counterpoint–it is cold, unforgiving, and eerie.   This is an important distinction when we examine the conflict with the bear.

The bear is one of the most interesting monster designs I have encountered in film.  It is a grim confluence of man and beast. While his structure is mostly that of a bear, he is accented with human remains:  a skull protrudes from the left side of his face like a macabre blister. He is Lena’s projection of Kane. Much like the ouroboros, Garland hides the significance of the bear in plain sight, tattooed on Kane’s body.  

There are two flashbacks that give more context to Lena’s idea of Kane.  The first is a moment where the two are lying in bed, engaging in playful banter about his upcoming departure.  The second encounter, however, serves as a contrapuntal scene, contrasting the closeness the audience felt before.  Much like the imitation of their home in the Shimmer, Kane is passionless and stiff. He has discovered Lena’s infidelity and rather than facing  his misplaced trust, he chooses to bury his grief, never fully addressing his anger. Her encounter with the bear, in this sense, is an unfilled wish.  Kane’s decision to enter the Shimmer was one born out of passive-aggression, which robbed Lena of a resolution and left her in a perennial state of contrition.  

Annihilation is ultimately a film about transition.  It is an exploration into a unique meta-narrative where identity itself is brought into question.  Garland, moreover, defies the idea of a singular self by challenging our presuppositions regarding free will and consciousness.  While most of us see our identity as axiomatic, the idea of a definitive “I” is nothing but an illusion. Sure, we can still maintain unique characteristics that separate us from others, but we can no longer claim to be the genesis of our personality.  Much like the Shimmer’s interpretation of refraction, we are an amalgamation of our biology and environment. When it comes to our psyche, we have a certain degree of volatility, which remains hidden from our narrative due to gradual change. However, through deep introspection, the illusion can snap and leave us, like Lena, with a new perspective.



Innocence and Myth: An Exploration of Pan’s Labyrinth

When we are born, are our minds blank slates?  It is an appealing notion—coming into the world with no preconceptions or biases—because it plays to our idea of free will and the autonomy of the mind.  However, when we dig into the depths of our minds, we realize the power of our biological proclivities breaks the illusion of choice. We are slaves to the nature of the previous generations.  Much like genes, ideas can be passed to our offspring. We bury these stories in our ancestral unconscious as a unique way for us to express our instinctive humanity. We tell stories as a caution, warning the next generation of our shortcomings; we tell stories to explore our biggest fears: loss, grief, death, even life; but most of all, we tell stories for entertainment.  There are very few feelings that can trump the mystery, joy, and adrenaline captured by a well-spun tale. Guillermo del Toro’s dark parable Pan’s Labyrinth is an exceptional example of storytelling.  Not only is it entertaining, but it is also an exercise in exploring the loss of innocence and the strength of cognitive illusions.  Del Toro filters his fairy tale through the simplicity of archetypes, pushing Ofelia’s journey into the depths of the mind and illustrating how our mental biases can distort the filter of reality.

From the opening of the film, the audience is introduced to a girl who favors the fantastical.  Most of Ofelia’s time is spent in rumination on tales of peculiar fairies, grotesque creatures, and harrowing adventure.  There is good reason for such an imagination: she is a child of war, living much of what should be her most endearing years in chaos and uncertainty because of Francoist Spain.  Because of this, Ofelia finds comfort in the fables and easily blends reality with the sensational to preserve her innocence a little while longer. She imagines a different life, one where she is a princess who has wandered too far from home.  Through the completion of three tasks, Ofelia will be able to cross the barrier into a forgotten kingdom. It is, however, with each task completed that reality seeps through the cracks of her imagination.

Infancy is a pivotal time of our lives.  Early childhood development undergirds much of our adult life, laying out the foundation for either a well-adjusted existence or the first step to a life of disarray.  Regardless of which path we find ourselves on, there is always the temptation to retreat when the road becomes bumpy. The first task is an introduction into Ofelia’s desire  for security and comfort, or a return to her mother’s womb. Ofelia finds her way to a withering fig tree. Split down the middle, its branches curl in a vaguely uterine way, leaving the viewer with an image reminiscent of fallopian tubes. Paralleling Alice’s descent down the rabbit hole, Ofelia climbs through the hollowed trunk to find a toad dwelling in the base of the tree.

Because of the amount of offspring toads can produce, they often double as a symbol of fertility in mythology.  However, in the world of Pan’s Labyrinth, the toad is a parasite, sucking the life from a once beautiful tree.  As Ofelia’s descent can be seen as a return to her mother, the viewer is left  wondering if the toad is how Ofelia perceives her yet-to-be born brother—nothing more than a fleshy little leech who is slowly killing the one beautiful consistency in Ofelia’s life.  Like most children, she views her parent through the lens of idolatry and divinity. Ofelia’s mother is elevated to a picturesque version of the sacred feminine in her adolescent eyes, and she cannot bear to see this stranger inside her mother.  Due to the confrontation with the toad, Ofelia is forced to challenge her fears of losing her mother’s affection, or worse, her mother’s likely death.

Like most sibling rivalries, the first child has replacement anxiety, a fear that can result in an overall uneasiness regarding their idea of a distinct self. The initial task of returning to the womb and ultimately finding rebirth is an important first step in our heroine’s journey because it represents her desire for an identity of her own.  For most of the film, Ofelia’s real-world interactions are punctuated by shame and oppression, so accepting the persona of Princess Moanna is an awakening in Ofelia’s individuality. Similarly, the second task provides our heroine with introspection, albeit something much more enigmatic and daunting than the toad.

Hollywood and its audience has a somewhat sordid affair with monsters.  While we love the adrenaline a good horror film can provide, the underlying motivation to our fascination with the appalling is death.  Monsters are meant to remind us of our mortality, as they often provide a reflective glance into ephemerality. It is with the introduction of the Pale Man in the second task that our heroine contemplates her own death.  

There are some interesting parallels between the Pale Man and Captain Vidal, Ofelia’s stepfather.  The second task, in this respect, is a dive into the depths of Ofelia’s subconscious. As the Faun warns her, “You’re going to a very dangerous place, so be careful.  The thing that slumbers there, it is not human.” During this second undertaking, her mind offers a grim fantasy, one where the Pale Man, a creature who feeds on the innocent and helpless, is a surrogate for Ofelia’s stepfather.  The Pale Man is the undiluted personification of Vidal’s inhumanity. Even his lair mirrors Vidal’s dining room, complete with a feast that any child would find irresistible.

Being set in post-civil war Spain, Pan’s Labyrinth examines the nationwide famine the country faced.  During this time, the food was controlled by the government and rations were extremely limited.  Families of the middle and lower classes starved, while those in power never went without food. This is most likely why Ofelia finds the large grapes so appealing.  

Ignoring the warnings of the Faun, Ofelia cannot resist taking from the feast on the Pale Man’s table. This awakens the monster from his slumber, endangering Ofelia and the fairies.   In this particular scene, the Pale Man rips apart two of the three fairies accompanying Ofelia on the journey, which marks a turning point in the film, which signifies the death of her fantasy.  The Pale Man accomplishes what Vidal and most of the authoritative figures have tried to do for greater portion of her life. The entire cognitive illusion is shredded in the teeth of the monster.  

The final task comes with a grand realization for Ofelia:  death is not something to fear. After returning from the Pale Man’s lair, Ofelia is confronted by the Faun and is reprimanded for not heeding his warning.  This offers ostensibly one of the most important conversations of the film. Angered by the death of the two fairies, the Faun tells Ofelia, “You broke the rules and can never return.  You and your spirit will remain among the humans. You will age like them, die like them, your memory will fade and we will all vanish with it.” The Faun’s words reflect how Ofelia’s perception has changed.  For most of the film, Ofelia spends her time in the shadows, doing everything she can to stay hidden from the Captain. However, her identity begins surfacing through disobedience. With breaking the rules of the Faun, Ofelia is forced to confront her completely normal existence.  She is not special. She is not Princess Moanna. And she will die one day, being forgotten by all of those who came before and after her.

In this sense, the final task of retrieving her brother is Ofelia’s loss of innocence.  With the death of her mother, Ofelia sheds her fantasy, realizing that our connections are one of the only things that give our life meaning.  The physical existence that has been closed off from Ofelia comes pouring back in, and she knows that she must save her brother from the grotesque sensibilities of the Captain.  Stealing her brother, Ofelia heads to the center of the labyrinth, to the center of her mind. Each step taken breaks away pieces of the fantasy. Guillermo del Toro illustrates this through his use of color.  There are a few different palettes employed throughout the film, but the most striking is when analyzing the colors for the real world versus the fantastical one. Del Toro paints with blues, greys, and darker tones for reality.  In contrast, we see gold, amber, and vivid reds for Ofelia’s fantasy. Her imagination offers a color scheme that is a lot warmer and more inviting than the cool hues of Spain. With this in mind, we, as the viewers, see the colors of her fantasy seep into reality, offering a counterpoint to the cold world her stepfather built.  Each explosion offers a brilliant cloud of red and gold insubordination, lighting up the drab night sky and breathing life into the people of Spain. Conversely, this moment of freedom is Ofelia’s last. As she lay dying, Ofelia finds herself in Moanna’s Kingdom, reunited with her mother and true father. In these final moments, just as with most of her life, she clings to the idea of a fairy tale to help her cope with the unknown.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a film of polarity: it illustrates the stark contrast between our deepest desires and the pains of reality.  Through cognitive illusion and the power of myth, Guillermo del Toro explores some of the most burdensome questions humanity has to offer—identity, loss, and meaning.  The result is a poignant hero’s journey that appeals to the simplicity of our archetypal subconscious, reminding us that while magic is an appealing notion, we cannot run away from reality.