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.



Mother and the Eternal Return

How is man to live in this irrational world?  It’s one of the foundational philosophical questions that every person asks, yet its ubiquity does not undermine the importance behind the inquiry: the exploration of man’s concept of himself and his place in the universe.  When we look to the cosmos, we find it is indifferent to our existence, and it is in this indifference that discord between the meaningless of being and our natural search for purpose clash. As Albert Camus noted, “Absurdity arises out of our attempts to make sense of a senseless world.”  Heavy with biblical allegories and overt critiques on humanity’s planetary abuse, Darren Aronofsky’s metaphorical thriller mother! (2017) is layered with existential inquiries.  Moreover, the film’s most interesting point comes when we focus on Javier Bardem’s portrayal of God.  Rather than playing to the normal divine elements, such as perfection and omniscience, mother!  takes an unconventional approach by granting God a human appetite, one that is undergirded by a longing for purpose.

The film begins with the ending of another story.  We see a woman immersed in flames; her body lay beaten and bloody.  The camera cuts to fire-damaged walls being wiped clean through divine intervention.  The universe is resetting. This is a visual introduction to the idea of Eternal Recurrence, an essential theme in the world of mother!   Eternal Recurrence has genesis in the idea energy never ceases. All of the joy, all of the heartbreak and mistakes, all of the accomplishments—even the little things, like the time taken to read this essay—will return to us in the exact way experienced before.  To put simply, once a life has been set in motion, existence recurs in a self-similar form for all eternity. The life you experience now will be lived an innumerable amount of times. As the plot of mother! unfolds, the audience realizes every action set in motion is the product of God’s will, which through the mythology of the Abrahamic religions has been portrayed consistently as unchanging and perfect.  The apologetic narrative is God has a plan. Nevertheless, Aronofsky challenges our theological presuppositions by playing with imperfection.

In the film, he tasks God as a writer who finds himself at a creative impasse. The repetition of life has weakened his creativity.  Because of this, we learn God creates each of his partners out of a need for intellectual and emotional stimulation, the foundations of ingenuity.  Nonetheless, what God once thought was an incredible talent for creation has, through many failed attempts, been revealed as nothing more than resignation to the fatalistic rhythm of life. Each decision in mother! digs God deeper into an existentialist trench and undoubtedly adds to the beginning of the next cycle of destruction, a narrative that is all too human.

Upon my first viewing of the film, the parallels to the fate of Sisyphus were hard to ignore.  According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus, the King of Corinth, was condemned to an eternity of hard labor and unending frustration.  During his life, Sisyphus was known for his wit, and according to various stories, he cheated death on multiple accounts by tricking the gods. Arrogance was the ultimate sin for Sisyphus, as he thought himself more clever than Zeus.  For this, Zeus designed a punishment to match the hubris of Sisyphus: endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down once he had reached the top. The French philosopher Albert Camus argued the maddening nature behind the myth of Sisyphus is the ideal illustration of the human condition.  Part of humanity is a want for inherent value—we need life to have meaning. And when meaning cannot be found, we experience what Camus calls the Absurd. In this context, the Absurd does not appeal to the illogical, but rather to the friction encountered when our search for meaning is met by a meaningless universe. Camus and other existentialists state there are three ways of dealing with the Absurd:  Suicide, religion (or other transcendent beliefs), or acceptance. Camus argues it is in the last option we find true freedom. Through the acceptance of complete mundanity, we find purpose in the unremarkable.  As Camus noted, “What counts is not the best living but the most living.”

This is the cycle of acceptance on which mother! is predicated.  Even with infinite power and being outside the constraints of time, God finds himself burdened by loneliness.  Because of this, he invests everything into his creations, not for an exercise in enlightenment but in hopes that someone will recognize his greatness.  He thrives on praise. This is evident during the final scene between God and Mother. When she confronts his insatiable pursuit of recognition, God responds by saying, “It’s not your fault. Nothing is ever enough.  I couldn’t create if it was, and I have to. That’s what I do. That’s what I am. And now I must try it all again.” This is a pivotal moment because it allows a peek behind the motivational curtain of God’s actions.  Up until this point, we have seen nothing but frustration as he loses control of his creations. God, from our limited knowledge of his nature in the beginning of the film, is a generous man. Contrarily, our initial impression of divine compassion is tainted by the selfishness displayed after the publishing of his book.  

However, it is in this final moment before the next reset that God experiences Amor Fati, the idea that all of the events in one’s life—including the suffering—is a necessary good. He is Sisyphus in this moment.  Knowing his freedom of will extends only so far and he has no way to change his fate, God is overwhelmed with a sense of contentment. Much like the conclusion Camus arrived at with Sisyphus, we have to imagine God is happy. He has embraced the Absurd through his acknowledgement of a fruitless life.  And while this resolution may sound bleak, acceptance is the only way to break free of the Absurd.

Mother! presents the viewer with the idea of eternal, unchanging life.  Through the pursuit of science, we know this metaphysical proposition is unlikely.  Rather than a continual loop, life is in a state of flux. It’s a condition of variability, most of which is out of our control.  Much like Aronofsky’s characterization of God, we spend most of our time alive with the thought that our existence is something exceptional.  However, the reality is much less grand: we are a happy accident. This is the paradox on which life is based. Because of this, we have to create our own meaning and be brave enough to live with the consequences of those actions, whatever they might be.