Annihilation, Buddhism, and How Stories Speak

A week or two back I went to see Annihilation with my father. It was a strange and interesting movie, and the further I watched, the stranger and more interesting it got. I came out of the theater already preparing to write a post trying to understand what it meant.

Before I could, a friend of mine popped up on Facebook chat and we had a conversation about it. I take this as one piece of evidence that talking with actual people is a really good thing, not just reading articles made for a general audience and frozen in time, incapable of response. That conversation drew my attention away from the question of what Annihilation meant, and towards the question of how we can understand what stories mean in general.

Before we can get there, though, I have to show you how I came to one possible understanding of what this story meant.

 

Buddhism and Annihilation

 

The whole idea, or at least a major one, of classical education is that teaches you to look to the classics. If work, or a piece of art, or a practice, or a set of beliefs took hold of an entire civilization and lasted for a thousand years, drawing generation after generation back to it, then there must be something in it worth learning about. My classical education, for many good reasons, has been focused on Western classics. While I wouldn’t have it otherwise, I do think it’s healthy for a well-rounded individual in the modern West to familiarize himself with Eastern classics as well.

I have found the Tao Te Ching and the tradition it represents pretty interesting, but Buddhism has been, for me, a tough nut to crack. There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is that Buddhism comes in some pretty extremely different varieties, and melds more or less well with other philosophies, ethical systems, and traditions of worship.

Here is what I think I understand, arranged in what I hope will be a helpful way, and relevant to understanding this story.

All things are impermanent. We are, for example, a temporary collection of molecules arranged in a particular fashion which will fade away. To live, we depend on a whole ecosystem of bacteria which do not share our DNA, and seem to have a mind of their own, but which cannot live without us. Our life is also sustained by what we take in, and what we put out becomes the basis for other forms of life. Nothing in this world is permanent, and the exact boundaries between one thing and another are an illusion. This is called anicca and it is one the three marks of existence.

Buddhism also holds that there is no permanent self—no soul that survives this body. Our own being, our self-consciousness, like our belief that other objects in the world are particular and separate from one another, is an illusion. We are a temporary collection of attributes which will one day cease to exist. This is called anatta, and it is another of the three marks of existence.

Despite the illusory nature of ourselves and of everything that exists, we find ourselves desiring these things, and desiring to keep them. Because they are constantly changing or being destroyed, we are filled with a particular kind of pain or frustration, a sort of suffering rooted in the fact that we can never be satisfied. This is called dukkha and is the third of the three marks of existence.

The goal of the Buddhist path is to escape dukkha and achieve liberation, known as moksha. This liberation from dukkha is achieved when you reach nirvana. Contrary to the way we sometimes use this word in the west, nirvana is not a state of ultimate bliss. It literally means “blowing out” or “quenching.” You achieve it not by reaching permanence, nor precisely by learning to love what you have when you have it, but more by ceasing to desire altogether.

When you achieve nirvana, you no longer have an attachment to this world, or to yourself. You escape the trap of reincarnation, and, like a candle, are “blown out.” You escape existence. You are annihilated.

 

Annihilation and Buddhism

 

I don’t think I understand Buddhism perfectly, and I certainly am not capable of capturing all the different varieties in a single explanation. I do think that this is a fair summary, however, of a basic form of Buddhism, at least as a Westerner might understand it.

Going into Annihilation, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It starts as a love story, as a story about soldiers and what they sacrifice to protect us. But the moment we enter the Shimmer, it becomes something else entirely.

The Shimmer is an alien force, something that came out of the sky in a meteor and spread to encompass some semi-tropical area on the Gulf coast. Its boundary shimmers, like some kaleidoscopic rainbow, or like the surface of a patch of motor oil. The inside is full of life, but life of a very strange kind.

Our first real introduction life inside the Shimmer is the discovery of a creeper along a dock leading to a boathouse. Its leaves and flowers are from a dozen different kinds of plants, but they all share the same vine. Somehow, multiple species exist on the same plant. Slightly later in the scene, our adventurers are attacked by a strange white alligator. When they kill it, they find the structure of its mouth and teeth are sharklike. Again, we find multiple species existing in a single creature.

A little later, we see a terrifying video left by one of the previous expeditions. A man’s insides were squirming, quite literally. His companions cut him open, and we see his intestines coiling like a snake. That which was supposed to be a non-sentient part of him, a mere organ, but organ on which he depended, had come alive. It had a life and motion of its own. Slightly later, we find the room where this was done. The man’s body has grown into two halves and crept up the wall. He is no longer alive in an animal sense, but he has become some combination of vines and colorful fungal growth, with an empty center.

Eventually, an explanation is given. The Shimmer scrambles signals—not just radio signals, but DNA as well. The boundaries between one species and another are impermanent. The Shimmer mixes their fundamental structure, their being, and causes them to grow and change into something else. We even see flowery shrubs that have grown to resemble the outlines of human beings.

The boundaries between one thing and another are impermanent and illusory. This is anicca.

Over the rest of the movie, each of the other members of the expedition are killed. Two are slaughtered by a bearlike lifeform that lives in the jungle, and it takes one of their dying screams into itself, becoming the sound by which it is recognized. But these deaths are less interesting in themselves than in how they lead to the deaths of the others.

First, the death of a physicist named Josie, who keeps her arms covered for most of the movie. She used to cut herself, and the scars now line the entirety of her forearms. After her companion’s scream is stolen by the bear, she makes the decision that she would rather go out on her own terms. She doesn’t want the only thing that remains of her when she dies to be a primal scream, an ugly thing, a thing of terror and despair. She wants to leave something of beauty in the world when she goes.

As she explains this to our protagonist, small shoots emerge from the cuts on her arms, buds tipping each one. As she walks away, still speaking, branches are sprouting everywhere. We know what is happening, and we can’t stop her. She turns a corner, and when we catch up, she has become one of the flowery shrubs in the shape of a human. Out of the crowd we see, we don’t even know which one she is.

The last living companion is a psychologist named Ventress who has picked the members of every previous expedition. She is dying of cancer, and that is part of why she decided to join this mission, and of why she chose to keep going once the others began to die. When our protagonist, Lena, catches up with her, she is inside a lighthouse at the center of the Shimmer, the place where the meteor fell and created this world.

The lighthouse is important. It is a place, quite literally, of enlightenment. When Lena enters, we see the sun shining through the hole where the meteor entered, and it is pointing to a black abyss where the meteor continued on its way. In the lighthouse, Lena sees a charred corpse sitting cross-legged in what, given what has gone before, immediately struck me as a Buddha-pose. There is a camera pointed at it. Lena begins to watch.

Her husband, Kane, who appeared at her house at the beginning of the movie after a long absence, is talking about the Shimmer’s effect on him. He takes a white phosphorous grenade, adopts the Buddha pose, and immolates himself. Then a second Kane appears from behind the camera, apparently dumbstruck by what he has just witnessed. It is unclear which of them, if either, was actually the real Kane. The one who died appeared to have Kane’s memories, but the one who lived acted as if he was shocked to see a second Kane.

Finally, Lena enters the black hole, the empty path of the meteor. When she descends, there is no rock at the center, no tangible object from which the Shimmer radiates. There is a platform, and a series of tunnels going in all directions. Standing on the platform is Ventress. After a brief conversation, during which Ventress expresses her belief that the Shimmer will come to encompass the entire world, and we do know it’s spreading, she vomits forth a stream of light, and then she dissolves into it. I say a stream, but it becomes a mixture of streaming light and glowing orbs.

What happens next is striking. The light gathers into something like an eye, into which Lena gazes. We star directly into it, and it looks, as my friend said, like a mandala. Then a drop of Lena’s blood enters the mandala, and suddenly it takes on a humanoid shape. The surface of the being is one vast mirror. Lena shoots it, but this has no permanent effect. It appears to chase Lena up into the lighthouse, where she confronts it.

Each move Lena makes is matched by the mirror-creature. She treats this like it’s a mere tactic of the being, and tries to run away. It’s more like a fixed law, as the thing imitates her even in her running, and ends up pressing her to the door with the same motions by which she attempts to open it. Crushed by the weight of the creature, Lena faints. She falls backwards, and the mirror-being falls with exactly the same motions, and lands just as she lands. Lena was freed from the creature’s weight not by fighting it, but by accepting the rules by which it functioned—willingly or not.

When she comes to, she engages the mirror creature in a dance. This results in her grabbing a white phosphorous grenade. She puts it in the creature’s hand and pulls the pin. Their hands joined, it at first appears that she will stay there and die with it. At the last moment, she runs. Behind her, we see the mirror being standing in place. A change ripples across it, and it becomes Lena, standing sad and alone as her twin departs.

The immolation of the being is strange. It is not consumed. It does not panic. It thoughtfully approaches some creepers on the wall and touches them, deliberately spreading the fire. Then it turns and descends the tunnel to the hollow beneath, to the emptiness. There it sits on the platform and adapts something like a Buddha pose. The fire spreads, and both the being and the lighthouse are consumed. By some strange subterranean connections, these are connected to other things in the Shimmer as well, and every unearthly thing Lena can see is also consumed. We soon learn that the Shimmer is gone entirely.

Back in the real world, a scientist in a hazmat suit is asking Lena questions. Earlier in the movie Ventress had stated that they weren’t sure whether the phenomenon was religious or alien or something else. Responding to her story, the scientist confidently declares that the thing must be, in fact, alien. He asks Lena what it wants. She says it wants nothing. But he points out that it has destroyed everything it touched. She says know, it didn’t destroy things, it changed them. But it had attacked her. No, it had only mirrored her—she had attacked it. He asks if it’s dead. That doesn’t seem to be an appropriate category.

From the moment Josie chooses to become one shrub in the Shimmer among all the rest, I began to wonder if this story was Buddhist. She escapes the horror of reality by escaping existence. Ventress also seems to reach both a literal and metaphorical enlightenment when she accepts her own annihilation. At the center of the phenomenon is nothing, because nothing truly exists. Everything is only a temporary state of things, an illusion. The key to escaping the pain, the anger, the loss that everyone in the movie feels seems to be accepting this.

The path to moksha, to escaping dukkha, is the path that leads to nirvana—to annihilation.

 

How Stories Speak

 

I laid out a far briefer version of this to my friend, who responded by saying that she didn’t think the Shimmer was supposed to be a good thing. Sure, it was beautiful, but look how sick and twisted so much of it was. There was a rot at the heart of all that life.

I understand that perspective. Looking at the raw effects of the Shimmer, it’s terrible. I could never write a story where this was a good thing. But I didn’t write this story.

Lena escaped, unlike the first two members of the expedition, and unlike seemingly every other expedition before. She did this by learning to play by the rules of the Shimmer. Josie escaped the fate of the other members, and came to a place she could accept, by letting the Shimmer do what it does, and becoming a part of it. Ventress found enlightenment at the emptiness in the center of the Shimmer’s source.

Those most at peace are those who learned to play by the Shimmer’s rules—to accept anicca, the fact that the distinctions between things are illusory and all existence is impermanent. They achieved peace by letting go of their desire to escape, to survive, to fix things—at least, for the most part.

When asked how she survived where others had not, Lena is uncertain, but says that maybe she had something to do, some reason to come back, where others did not. This reason does not appear to be defeating the Shimmer as saving the world. She could have died doing that, and besides, that attitude is adopted by the scientist interrogating her, who comes across as overly aggressing and overly simplistic in his thinking. The one who has seen it all and survived, the one we have sympathy for, rejects his perspective.

Neither does her reason seem to be to see her husband, Kane. He is alive, and she greets him, but she says, “You’re not Kane, are you?” Perhaps this is the double, and the “real” Kane is dead. But he replies, “I don’t think so. Are you Lena?” She doesn’t respond, and it doesn’t seem to matter. They embrace as if they were Kane and Lena. They do not see one another as threats, as opposed forces. And then we see the reason why.

In each of their eyes, floating in their iris, is a small, circular Shimmer.

Their experience has changed the way they perceive the world, and who they are. The terrible things they have done to each other no longer matter. They no longer care. They have accepted the impermanence of things and let go of their desire for it to be otherwise. They have accepted life as it is.

There is another concept in Buddhism, though I’m not sure it’s universal. This is the idea of the bodhisattva, a person who has achieved moksha, or come right to the edge of it, but refuses to cross into complete annihilation. Instead, they go back in order to teach the rest of the world the way to moksha. We must all escape suffering, escape our illusions. We must all embrace annihilation. That, at any rate, is my understanding of it.

It struck me in having this conversation that what I cited as evidence for my reading was telling—who seems to be happy? Who survives? The answer is, those who follow the rules. You are rewarded for proper behavior.

I think this is something of a general principle in storytelling. Stories communicate ideas not just by straight up telling you, but by showing you different kinds of behavior, and outcomes of that behavior.

This is often both far more primitive and far more complex than simply having a moral—the wrong or right things the characters do aren’t simply moral, but involve virtues like prudence, wisdom, decisiveness, or willingness to accept reality as well. The good or bad that happens to them isn’t simply the work of angels or the work of demons either—disasters may come from an enemy, but may also come from our own foolish behavior, or from the vicissitudes of life. Stories don’t just tell us how to be the good guy and how to be the bad guy, they just lay out a picture of what life is like by portraying the results different behaviors get.

This simply how stories work, and not a statement that all stories that do this have a good idea of what behaviors really do lead to what outcomes. We often notice that movies have unrealistic outcomes, and we can tell a mere daydream fantasy when it rewards someone simply for existing, and in spirt of their terrible character flaws which out to result in disaster. We also know when we’re watching propaganda, because there is no complexity in outcomes and all good things result from the good guys’ behavior and all bad things result from bad guys’ behavior. This is the grammar of storytelling, and it doesn’t ensure that the content will be correct.

This is why I look at Annihilation and see it as sort of a vindication of what seems like a pretty harsh Buddhist take on the world. Those who accept that existence is suffering find peace, and find it by either going out of existence, or by no longer being attached to it and returning to spread these truths. By the rules of the story, that is the perspective that is rewarded. That is what it encourages the viewer to accept

 

Other Readings

 

There are several other ways to read this story, and even though I think mine is pretty valid, I don’t think it’s anywhere near complete without several of these others to flesh things out.

Derek Rishmawy points out here that Annihilation does a very good job of capturing the truly Other. Often sci-fi movies portray aliens as something pretty relatable—they have the same desires we do, the same fears, the same motives for their actions. Often, they even resemble us physically. Annihilation truly captured the idea of the entirely Other, of an entity that was not humanoid in appearance, or even really personal in existence. The Shimmer is more of an ecosystem, and it is neither good nor bad in our categories.

I think this something very important for us to capture. We live in a very humanist age, when everything is measured in terms of man and what man can do. In Scripture, however, we find encounters with God that are terrifying, that defy our understanding of what the world is like. We realize in these encounters that we are not the center of the universe, not the measure of all things. Ultimate Reality will not bend to our will. Reality has to be confronted, accepted, and adapted to. Stories like Annihilation do a good job of portraying this sort of encounter.

Here Sonny Bunch looks at the movie in terms of body horror, among other things. I clearly trend towards the philosophical end of movie analysis, but this is something important as well. How do stories provoke unsettling and horrific feelings? In some cases, by doing freaky things to the human body. This teaches us something about how we think and feel as humans, and something about the world we live in when we’re doing that.

In this article, Film Crit Hulk spends time talking about the distinction made in the movie between self-destructing, which all of us do to some extent, and suicide. He grapples with issues of self-harm and suicidal thought, and with the pain of changes in life, and takes us through how the movie processes this. I’m not sure if this is in tension with my reading, or merely adds depth to it.

Here are two philosophical readings. One of them looks at the movie through a Nietzschean perspective, seeing the Shimmer as the circumstance that creates a new ubermensch, or a pair of them, and Adam and Eve that are the next step in evolution beyond Homo Sapiens as we know it. The other reads the movie in terms of existentialism and the inherent limits of science when it comes to tell us how to actually live. I commend that portion of the article in particular.

This last article struck me with an intriguing thought, an important qualification to this whole review. I interpreted this story in terms of Buddhism, but that author was quite capable of tackling some of the same issues about the nature of our temporary existence and how that squares with our desires, and did so in Western terms.

The West and the East have, to a certain extent, been very isolated from one another for a long time. Most of what Westerners know of Eastern philosophy is filtered through Westerners trying to grapple with it while using Western categories. There is certain to be misunderstanding. This also means that a Westerner is quite capable of grappling with things in what seem like Eastern terms to other Westerners, but may just be variations of Hegel or Nietzsche, or some other Western philosopher that resembles our picture of what the East is like.

So whether my reading of this movie as Buddhist is right is an entirely different question from whether the Buddhism I think I know is actually Buddhism, or whether that was what the director intended as he adapted it from the novel he drew it out of.

Finally, the strongest alternate reading I found doesn’t have a blog post to go with it, but came from my friend’s perception of the film: it’s about cancer. It begins with Lena introducing a class to cancer cells, a topic they will be exploring throughout the semester. In a conversation between Lena and Kane about whether God makes mistakes, she talks about how aging and death is a disease, and if our cells were slightly altered, we would be immortal. That, I believe it is implied, is more or less what cancer—something thriving too much in a body that can’t take it. Ventress has cancer, and the Shimmer certainly seems analogous to a cancer, and everything in it seems cancerous.

The cancer reading has a lot going for it, and certainly seems more explicit and intentional than some of the others. I don’t quite know how to square it with my own view, or whether a deeper exploration of that reading will destroy mine entirely. That’s one reason I think this is a good film—it’s saying a lot, and it will take multiple viewings to really get a grip on it.

In some ways, I think that’s what the point of a story is. It’s not just to teach you what the right path is, but to lead you back to reality and make you think about it. Stories are the breath we take, the moment of silence where the rest of life is set aside, where we are asked to look at reality as if it were something else, something separate from us. They help us to process what it means to be.

That’s why I think stories in general are valuable, and that’s why I think Annihilation in particular is one worth watching, whether or not the portrait it paints is one I ultimately believe is an accurate description of reality. It speaks to us about what life is like, and we get the chance to compare that to our own experience. We get to know life better and more deeply than we did before.

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