‘It wasn’t destroying, it was changing everything…’: Alex Garland’s Annihilation and Climate Change

Annihilation is a strange and disturbing film from Alex Garland based on the first novel of the same name in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which centres around the biologist and ex-soldier Lena (Natalie Portman) reeling from the recent loss of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), on a covert and obscure mission.

The story begins with the surprise appearance of Kane, who was presumed dead, and the sudden deterioration of his health following his return. This leads Lena to the Southern Reach, a military-come-scientific research base at the outskirts of what has become known as ‘Area X’ – a hostile area affected by an unknown environmental event and where Kane was exploring on his last mission. These discoveries persuade Lena to become part of the eighth mission, an all-woman team comprised of a variety of different skills and specialisms, who venture into Area X for answers.

The film has a great deal of popular appeal, from its position as one of a few women-led science-fiction or adventure films, to the great diversity of the cast (although this has been met with some controversy to the beautiful and striking, if disturbing, visuals and cinematography. However, what I found most striking about Annihilation was the way that many aspects of its narrative mirror the concerns we have about the environment and climate change.

The idea of a hostile earth inside Area X, changing in ways humans struggle to understand (and with a complete disregard for human life and civilisation), speaks to a deep-seated fear of our time. Despite the film’s ending and revelation of an extra-terrestrial origin, the imagery remains prescient for audiences today as Area X heals an earth seemingly damaged beyond repair by us, but does so by bulldozing over any we created. Annihilation is a story of environmental disaster, a parable of our current age in which the nature of that disaster keeps shifting and changing and remains fundamentally unknowable – just as the breadth and scale of climate change is only coming to be fully understood today.

The first visual of the film are of something hurtling towards earth, some sort of meteor or asteroid which streaks light and heat across space. These are familiar effects of disaster films gone by such as Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact (1998) and audiences feel prepared for what comes next: the destruction of earth, or at least part of it. However, the moment of impact begins this story rather than ending it. The object strikes a lone lighthouse with seemingly little damage and the familiar disaster film formula is immediately unsettled as the stricken lighthouse emits swirling colours and lights, accompanied by calm music.

Annihilation is a film which slips through genre classifications, unable to sit comfortably in any. Science-fiction, adventure, psychological thriller, horror, or disaster are all inadequate to express what exactly this film presents audiences with. Clearly this is not a quick obliteration but a slow devastation and insidious change. The catalyst for this change – the striking of the lighthouse – goes unnoticed and only garners attention when the area grows and consumes more and more land and communities, which struck me as a perfect representation of climate change in our current time. Much of the damage has already been done but we are only just properly waking up to its effects as they grow, worsen, and threaten more human life.

Following the impact at the lighthouse the narrative shifts back to normality, showing snapshots of Lena’s life both past and present. Moments depict her current job teaching medicine at a university, her previous job in the military, the relationship with her husband and colleagues, as well as her daily chores which are an apparent U-turn towards realism. However, despite the normality there is a creeping feeling that this world is not right which only develops further with the return of Kane. He appears grossly disturbed and a shell of his former self as Lena questions him about mission. His rapid deterioration of health is what lands Lena in the Southern Reach and eventually to the space of Area X. The uncanny feeling culminates in the sudden and arresting image of Area X’s barrier, the ‘shimmer’, which resembles a vertical oil spill of swirling colours and emits a discordant rumbling, serving as a constant reminder of its threatening presence which is only growing ever closer to the base. 

An interesting aspect of the film is the intrusion of the corporate and governmental into the scientific and the fight against Area X. The size, personnel, and resources at the Southern Reach facility suggest serious money (and power) behind the missions and investigation. Furthermore, the breadth of occupations and specialisms of the five women sent on this most recent mission: a cellular biologist, psychologist (Dr. Ventress [Jennifer Jason Leigh]), physicist (Josie Radek [Tessa Thompson]), paramedic (Anya Thorensen [Gina Rodriguez]), and geomorphologist (Cass Sheppard [Tuva Novotny]), illustrate similarly the amount of resources directed at this problem. The Southern Reach’s obvious monetary and political power should be an example of the time, money and status we should be redirecting towards the problem of climate change. Perhaps that is the most fantastical part of the film, that the big-guns of capitalist power are pouring money and resources into a cause which seems to be haemorrhaging funds, let alone making profit.

Once the eighth expedition are inside Area X it appears like a lush Edenic jungle, a stark contrast with the sterile and corporate Southern Reach and the relative scrubland the team walk through as they approach the shimmer. Area X’s thriving environment is a brutal reminder of what we are doing to earth. The extra-terrestrial force is healing and irrevocably changing nature and this is part of its malevolence for those at the Southern Reach. The force does not have any care or reverence for humans, as the physicist points out, “it refracts” everything in its domain, altering the DNA of plants, animals, and people; changing all aspects of nature be they animal, vegetable or mineral. Its disregard for the human race is what makes it threatening but also how it transforms so potently: it does not adhere to the hierarchy we have created in which the human and Anthropocene are at the top.

Mutation is a central theme of the film. From the beginning we are shown Lena teaching a class on cellular biology, with an image of cells dividing and multiplying projected on a large screen. When she tells her students that what they looking at are cancer cells, their reproduction becomes immediately sinister. The ascribing of pathology is was creates the fear. The cells do not know they are killing their host; they simply reproduce and divide as their corrupted DNA instructs them.

Fast forward to inside Area X, where mutations abound in all the living organisms and Lena is unable to fathom the reasons behind or effects of them. Multiple different flowers grow from the same stem, a crocodile with concentric rows of teeth like a shark are some of the seemingly harmless, if disturbing, mutations in the natural order. When discussing these changes Ventress asks “A pathology?” and Lena replies “You’d sure as hell call this a pathology if you saw it in a human”. This exchange is poignant as climate change deniers claim that temperatures have always fluctuated since the dawn of time and this current increase is purely nature’s way. But by applying Lena’s logic we have a definitive rebuttal to such claims: it may be natural or nature’s innate response to our existence however, like our own rising temperatures resulting from entirely natural microbes, this does not mean it is not pathological and should not be treated.

Lena comments in her mission debrief that “mutations were subtle at first, but grew worse as we moved closer to the lighthouse”, closer to the epicentre of Area X. This of course mirrors the increasing effect of climate change we see in our world as we leave the central, western superpowers and look towards the global south.

As we journey away from our own Southern Reach, the powerful and rich western governments, we see the severer effects of climate change in already marginalised countries and communities: flooding, displacement, droughts, famine to name a few. In the west we remain on the safe side of our own shimmer as we welcome hotter summers but ignore the devastation elsewhere in the world. The changes happening at the lighthouse and in Area X were never subtle to those living there they are only subtle to those not living it every day, those who can view Area X’s destruction from the a balcony at the Southern Reach, watch the shimmer undulate and theorise on its cause whilst flirting and cracking jokes with their colleagues.

When discussing these mutations during her debrief Lena states “it wasn’t destroying, it was changing everything, it was making something new”, a claim which can be applied to the earth under climate change. We often hear laments of ‘mother nature is dying’ or ‘we are killing the earth’, usually accompanied by images of power plants billowing out smoke or layers of plastic rubbish covering the sea. Whilst these images are undeniably upsetting and highlight that it is our actions that are effecting the earth, the idea that we are killing mother nature is not true. Despite our best attempts to personify earth it is not a sentient being, it is a network of complex systems which are changing and adapting to the new conditions we throw its way. It is perhaps more accurate to say that mother nature is killing us.

The Southern Reach’s misunderstanding of Area X is akin to our own misunderstanding of climate change. David Tompkins in his review of VanderMeer’s novel in the Los Angeles Review of Books refers to Area X a kind of “hyperobject”, too much for humans to perceive and similar to a black hole, the Big Bang or climate change as it is so vast and complex we cannot reliably or fully comprehend it. Nature will always exist, earth will endure, we are the ones who will not survive the changes it makes to do so. Just as Area X moves unstoppably outwards enacting changes to the environment, only openly hostile when antagonised.

What is perhaps one of the most disturbing things about Annihilation is that each member of the eighth mission end up resigned to their fate as victims of Area X. From the horrific footage of the seventh mission and the gruesome ‘madness’ they endured, to the deaths of Ventress and Radek the acknowledged inability to fight or control the force behind Area X becomes apathy. This response is one we often see mirrored in our world as how many times have you heard or been part of a conversation where someone makes a comment like ‘yeah I know climate change is bad and all, but what can we do about it anyway?’. Watching out own powerlessness and apathy played out onscreen is uncomfortable and we sympathise with those who give up when faced with a foe much more powerful than them. However, we also root for Lena as she is the only character to actively fight against Area X, in fact she is such an anomaly for her fight she is treated with suspicion when she returns to Southern Reach.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, perhaps those watching this film should take a cue from Lena: instead of giving in to apathy we should fight tooth and nail against the devastating effects of climate change, unless we want the earth to become an increasingly hostile place. That is what Annihilation is showing us, Area X and its mutations are a chilling representation of humanity’s destructive power, aestheticised and reflected back at us as a monstrous enemy only we can defeat.


Updated: Dec 31, 2020

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‘It wasn’t destroying, it was changing everything…’: Alex Garland’s Annihilation and Climate Change | The Digital Fix