Even if you saw Annihilation when it first hit Netflix a month ago, you probably haven’t been able to forget its most powerful scenes. Ostensibly a sci-fi mystery about a meteorite and the strange shimmering micro ecosystem it creates, Annihilation quickly reveals itself to have pure horror at its heart.
Compared to most blockbuster horror, Annihilation mostly eschews the more primal, kinetic style of jump scares or the trauma of blood and violence in favour of a more cerebral, psychological horror. That approach is nothing new, and recent films like A Quiet Place and Get Out have done wonders with high-concept stories and a complex approach to scaring their audiences. But writer and director Alex Garland sets his film apart even from them, by grounding his tour de force moments in what is arguably the root of all horror: the uncanny.
Back in the day, Sigmund Freud famously wrote about the uncanny, exploring its German etymology to argue that it was something familiar which has become unfamiliar. In other words, the most uncanny and frightening occurrences are when the natural, expected order of things is disrupted and subverted. Now that definition is broad enough to cover all manner of horror staples, from a vampire showing no reflection to a serial killer appearing from the shadows, but it was designed to describe a more subtle brand of the unexpected.
The uncanny is not just a shock of horror, a moment of fear, it is better understood as a mood, and Garland conjures it with incredible skill in Annihilation. Much of the credit should also go to Jeff VanderMeer and his Southern Reach trilogy of books for creating the original and terrifying ideas we see on screen.
These moments begin subtly: the five soldiers and scientists stand outside the Shimmer in awe and then Garland cuts to Lena (Natalie Portman) emerging from her tent. At first glance it’s a familiar and simple cut that you think you’ve seen a million times, skipping all the boring details of setting up camp and jumping to the next interesting moment. But as we quickly learn, this same jump in time has happened within the team’s heads as well. Six days have passed without any of them registering. The most familiar and natural thing for any person, the passage of their consciousness through time, has been pulled from beneath them.
They continue, and discover what seem to be differing species of flowers growing from the same trunk. The familiar becomes unfamiliar. It’s the same as the real world, but just a little different. It’s that prickle on the back of your neck when you come home and you just know that somewhere, a door is unlocked, or a window left open when it shouldn’t be.
As we later learn, the explanation for this anomaly in the flowers’ growth aligns with the very definition of the uncanny. The Shimmer behaves like a prism, but where that refracts light into a rainbow spectrum, the Shimmer refracts living DNA. The building blocks of human and plant life are effectively put in a blender and mixed up until something new emerges: the familiar becomes unfamiliar.
The most terrifying example of that idea is of course the now-infamous bear scene, something which will surely haunt future generations of film fans. When we first see the bear, snatching away Shepherd (Tuva Novotny) in the gloom of night, it scares us on a primal level. It’s big, it’s powerful, it’s got sharp teeth and claws, and it could quite easily eat any of us for breakfast. When we see it again it’s changed. Now, instead of a powerful roar it screams with the final, dying noises of Shepherd, sounds that are crushed and distorted as if she is trapped somewhere in the beast’s mind or mouth and is still trying to get out.
In an addition to the original story, Garland takes two scary but familiar and known things – a grizzly bear and the dying screams of a friend – and combines them to make something truly chilling and very unfamiliar. If something this uncanny and fearsome can be created through the chance refractions of the Shimmer, then anything could happen. The entire environment becomes a ticking bomb waiting to explode in unfathomable ways.
The final scenes find Lena reaching the lighthouse where the meteor struck and confronting one of the trademarks of the uncanny: the double. Nothing is more clearly representative of the familiar made unfamiliar than an alien version of yourself, and this is precisely what spawns in the obsidian furnace in the bowels of the lighthouse.
There is of course the subtext of the double representing internal struggles, something foreshadowed within Annihilation when Lena and Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) talk about the difference between suicide and self-destruction. Ventress argues that suicide is rare; what is far more common is people making impulsive choices which they know, consciously or subconsciously, will lead them towards ruin. It’s hinted that all of the team share that impulse, so when Lena confronts the alien double of herself she is literally acting out her own self-destructive instincts.
When I finished watching Annihilation I took a deep breath and turned out the light. I walked up the stairs and for the first time since I was seven I looked over my shoulder, fearing and expecting that there might be something there. That’s the power of horror and the power of the uncanny, to make somewhere as safe and familiar as your own home into somewhere full of fear. That’s the power of Annihilation.