Annihilation: The Lighthouse
By Kristin Grady
Do we all have an innate urge to self-destruct? The characters in Annihilation (2018) faced death in various ways and ultimately accepted their impending demise as they entered the Shimmer. The lighthouse sequence presents a choice Kane, Dr. Ventress, and Lena must make: to die by their own hands or live and understand more about the universe around us. Three parts are mirror images of this existential ambivalence, reveal the true reflective nature of the alien force, and how Lena overcomes these self-destructive tendencies. Unlike the other members of the expeditions, driven to their own demise, her need to understand becomes her salvation. Real life examples such as the negative effects of military service and the potential of immortal cells solidify this metaphor.
Kane’s Noble Self-Destruction
Differing data from the US Department of Defense and the Uniformed Services University Center for Deployment Psychology presents active military suicide rates as lower and higher than the general population, yet these figures could be a much more due to under-reporting of suicides in both demographics. Kane’s self-immolation in the first part of the lighthouse sequence must be difficult for any veteran or active duty member to watch, because statistically, someone close to them has ended their own life. Military spouses in particular must have had the polar inverse emotion of their tearful reunion in the beginning of the film. The perpetual, sisyphean cycle of violence in which he was caught inevitably ended in his own self-administered demise. But, why?
In no way distraught, Kane appeared to take his life out of duty to his country (and Lena), possibly because he thought it would destroy the alien force. Foreshadowing the last part of the sequence, perhaps Kane realized the reflective nature of the Shimmer and his instinct was to destroy it, like punching a mirror. His mirror-self (the part of him that wanted to live) was released back to be reunited with his wife, a vacant reflection of who he was before and eerily reminiscent of many traumatized veterans.
Lena’s reaction to the video revealed her true motivation throughout the film. She screams in horror not at Kane’s death (which was obvious before he pulled the pin), but at the image of his doppelganger moving in front of the camera after. Lena realizes the alien version of her husband had returned home, but she doesn’t spend much time crying about it. Almost immediately after, she approaches the comet impact hole, seeking answers. Ostensibly, Lena volunteered for the mission either out of guilt or duty to Kane. She didn’t collect specimens because she thought they would heal him, she wanted to study these unique organisms. Earlier flashbacks in the film show Lena and Kane’s relationship had degraded since she left the military, choosing to search for a cancer cure rather than perpetuate militaristic aggression. Her path had diverged long before entering the Shimmer.
Vanished Into Havoc
“Cry, Havoc! And let loose the dogs of war…” – Mark Anthony, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
“Havoc!” Roman generals would cry towards the end of battles when their side had already won, thereby releasing the army to rape, pillage, and murder away. Down in the comet-hole, Dr. Ventress was in the center of the impact crater, facing the shadows on the cave wall, vaguely referencing Plato’s Cave. Her face is shadowed as she mutters: “It’s the last phase. Vanished into havoc. Unfathomable mind. Now beacon, now sea.” The first two sentences could apply to the alien force taking over the planet or the cancer taking over her body. Maybe both, like a bloodthirsty Roman infantry charging with intent to obliterate.
She raises her gray-pallor face to the light, skin grown over her eyes, leaving her blind. The last two sentences are from a Samuel Beckett novel Molloy, about two characters who turn out to be the same character. “Beacon” is another word for lighthouse, which keeps ships from crashing into the shore. Ventress sees no end to this “unfathomable mind” full of unanswered questions, vacillating between nothingness and a light of being. Carl Jung said the sea is “a favorite place for the birth of visions”, metaphorically it’s also Nietzsche’s void. Where Ventress sees nothingness, Lena eventually sees potential. Kane, Ventress, and Lena all went into the lighthouse looking for the source of the Shimmer and found themselves reflected there.
“It’s inside me now, it’s growing…” Again, could be about the alien force, could be about her cancer. Dr. Ventress had accepted her own death long before the mission and probably assumed all along that the Shimmer was a cancer growing on the earth. She had to see it for herself and saw nothing there. Only more questions and the terrifying possibility that the world will be consumed by the void, “fragmented until there’s nothing left.” A beam of fiery energy shoots out of her mouth and consumes her body with a strangled scream, thus ending her pain and uncertainty. Lena knew the Shimmer was inside her blood since she broke down crying in front of her microscope. The last part of the sequence slowly draws out her understanding of the Shimmer, that it’s not malevolent if she’s not.
Dancing With Myself
Lena lets out a scream of terror/battle cry as she shoots the metallic humanoid born of her Shimmer-infused drop of blood. Her reaction is just as much a primate instinct as military training. Fear of the unknown makes her run from her reflection, but Shimmer-Lena feels her stronger need to understand, and makes her stay. After her assault rifle has no effect, Lena’s next weapon of choice is the camera tripod, literally using the memory of Kane’s demise to fight with herself. Feels like that metaphor is obvious. The guilt she feels over her infidelity and his suicide tears her between the beacon and the sea.
Shimmer-Lena knocks out Lena. She gazes at the sun streaming through the comet entry hole when Lena comes to, as though she’s studying where it came from. Lena attempts to run out the door, but Shimmer-Lena presses her body against Lena, suffocating her into unconsciousness. She’s testing herself. Running from the truth will eventually strangle her. When she regains consciousness a second time, Lena’s head is bleeding (Traumatic Brain Injury?) but she seems to slowly accept that she’s in control of Shimmer-Lena. As they circle around each other, in a dance of dueling selves, Lena figures out what must be done. When their hands touch, the silver-iridescent being dissolves into a sobbing, desperate mirror image of Lena. She kills the part of her that wanted to die.
In the beginning of the film, Lena is presenting a study of cancer cells at Johns Hopkins. These immortal cells were based on real life cells taken from cervical cancer patient Henrietta Lacks in the 1950’s, without her knowledge or consent. Henrietta’s cells had a genetic mutation that allowed them to reproduce indefinitely rather than die off, providing an invaluable resource to cellular biology research. Since the discovery of Henrietta’s immortal cells, scientists have found ways to engineer and cultivate more. Unlike Henrietta, Lena had a choice to change the course of human history, with the Shimmer-assimilated cells in her body. She could have chosen Kane’s fiery way out, but her need to help humanity won.
Dr. Ventress’s understanding of the Shimmer was influenced by her impending mortality. She assumed it was cancer which would eventually kill the host planet, rather than a new kind of immortal cell. Lena returns to Area X unable to articulate her experience and understanding of the Shimmer. At the end, the glimmering reflection in her eyes shows something in her knows and her self-destructive urge is gone.
Kristin Grady is a freelance writer, video editor, and graphic designer in Hollywood. Check out more content on imaginationforsale.blog!
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