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  • Writer's pictureMary Kay McBrayer

6 Reasons why Annihilation is Horror: HeLa Cell Fan-fiction plus Aliens

Behold! six reasons why Annihilation is more horror than science fiction.

1. How long do I need to process what just happened to me?

Like the best psychological thrillers, in my opinion, Annihilation has me trying to unravel exactly what just happened three days after I saw it while running a low-grade fever and stress-eating M&Ms. My friend and I stared at each other at the end, and then she scowled and put on hand sanitizer because I'm a disgusting humanoid. First she said, "This guy sitting next to me is the LOUDEST fuckin' breather," and then she said, "I feel like we should have a processing session now. What time is it? Oh, no. Sorry. I have to go to bed."

So I held my keys like Wolverine as I ran full-tilt and coughing like I had the white plague to my Brave Little Toaster (which is what I have named my Kia Soul, aw), listened to happy music on my drive home in the hot rain, and then lay in bed like this, thinking.

Then I texted that caption to my friend Jeff, after saying I wanted to talk about Annihilation. And he said--listen to what this douche said to my fevered brain, no joke:

You're not dying. You're becoming something new.

I was wide-ass awake, then, let me tell you. Because, was I? Are we? Who is any of us, truly? What's the difference between dying and becoming something new? Is there a difference? Exactly. And any movie that sends me into an existential crisis at its resolution is NOT science fiction: it is horror. Or maybe both. What's the difference, truly. See?

2. Science

Reason number two of why Annihilation is horror and not straight-up sci-fi is science. I know that seems counterintuitive--like Mary Kay, did you know that the "sci" part of "sci-fi" stands for "science?" Yes I did, thank you, and no one likes a know-it-all. There are really two part of the science that render themselves scary, and they are the premise on which the movie's conceit hinges.

[spoilers start here]


Josie tells us when they're inside the shimmer that the shimmer is a prism. She explains it a little more, in case you didn't remember the definition of "refraction" from eighth grade earth science. I 'm pretty sure I only remembered for two reasons, 1, I was forced to sit by my crush and was hyper-aware of everything that happened when he was near. His dumbass frosted tips have been seared onto my squishy brain forever. And 2, refraction doesn't make sense. Just like most science barely makes sense. Oh, science makes LOGIC, but logic isn't the same as sense. Logic says, Can you grasp this concept? When you can, it adds another piece, like a Cirque du Soleil chair stacker balancing precariously on 40 chairs above a silent and tense audience. That's how I felt watching Annihilation. Like I was watching that guy who stacked 40 chairs do a handstand on top like it was NBD.

Don't get me wrong. It was a delight. But it was a delight because at any moment that guy's gonna come crashing down and I gotta see if he sticks the landing.

Refraction essentially happens when a prism bends a wave. Sometimes light waves. Sometimes sound waves. The most common form of refraction--or at least the one I remember most clearly--happens through water. It's why shapes look different when you see them through water. It's why sounds are muffled or distorted. If you were wondering why that glass of water showed up when Kane showed up, or why we see both Lena and Kane drink from glasses of water, IT'S FORESHADOWING. Or a callback. Depending.

In the shimmer, by the way ALL DNA is refracted. All of it. That's why plants grow in human shapes; that's why humans turn into plants; that's why all those flowers can grow on the same vine.

HeLa Cells

The second part of the spooky science is the concept of the HeLa cell. If you don't know The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks--first of all, why not? Go Google that shit. (It's amazing in a terrifying way)--here's a really oversimplified definition and origin story: In 1951, Henrietta Lacks felt something wrong. She went to the gynecologist. He took a biopsy of a growth on her cervix. He did not tell her that he did this. She died soon after due to a very aggressive cancer. Her cells are still alive to this day. They are so resilient that they are the basis of most experiments and vaccines.

Those are the cells that Lena introduces in the opening scene, when she's teaching her (very, very, enviably small and studious class) about cell division. You may also notice that in some flashbacks with Lena and Kane, Lena is reading Rebecca Skloot's book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, so you can rest assured that shit was intentional and it wasn't just me "reading too much into it," which I never actually do but am often accused of doing.

3. Body Horror

If seeing those aggressive cancer cells multiply onscreen wasn't body-horror enough--and how could it be, really, when it's so easy to dissociate from those alien-like shapes?--let's talk about that motherfucking alligator scene.

Dude, that was my jam. From the time Josie got snatched through Natalie Portman emptying a round into a mutant alligator's mouth without fucking blinking to the screenshot of the rows and rows of alligator teeth... yes. All. the. so much. yes. It's when we get to see the characters figuring out the science/logic of it. We even get to watch her take a swab from the alligator's mouth FROM INSIDE THE ALLIGATOR'S MOUTH. Yoooooo.

More body horror? How about that guy's intestine's swirling around. How about Kane cutting him open in order to record it for evidence to the next expedition. How about that guy exploded into vibrant lichen in the swimming pool. Ol' girl's fingerprints changing. The mutant bear that stole their friend's dying scream after biting her throat out. That same bear mutilating the tough girl.

Do you need me to keep going?

4. The Uncanny or Fear of the Unknown

So let me unpack that bear scene toward a new point: what the fuck? Here's the text exchange between my friend Emily and me:

Me: Will I like Annihilation?

Em: Omg it's so good

I loved it

5/5 stars

Me: I was gonna try to go tonight but I'm very hungover (edit: sick. I was actually very SICK.)

Em: Like you're going to feel like you're on drugs

yeah maybe wait til you feel better

I can't learn: I went anyway and was extra-disoriented because of it, which both added to my fear of the unknown and also gave me a very postmodern, just-go-with-it experience, which was actually kind of perfect for this deceptive sort of world. Basically, I was HP Lovecraft's total target audience. The moment we hear their friend screaming downstairs, we know it can't be her, but also, because nothing in this world can be what it is, can it be her?

Rodriguez races down the stairs just after her verbalized crisis (Do we all go crazy and kill each other? or do we go crazy and kill ourselves?), and she, of course, gets herself killed in doing so. It's the untrustworthiness of her own senses that disorient her into overthinking her actions. Being out of her mind, or unable to control her actions, is Rodriguez's weakness. Note: we have almost no information about our characters, but this film is not very character-driven. We actually do watch it because we want to know what the fuck is going on. Nuance? Nah. Complexity of inner monologue? Pass.

Mutant/alien exotic beasts?

5. Doppelganger, Twin, and Alien

In case you didn't already know this about me, aliens are in my trifecta of evil shit I can't handle. Sure, I have other, more rational fears, like parking decks. And mirrors. It should however be henceforth known to all that I UNDERTOOK ALL THREE OF THOSE while watching Annihilation AND on cold medicine, y'all.

I'm basically invincible.

But anyway, once Lena gets to the lighthouse, she sees the videocamera with the recording of her husband blowing himself up, and his doppelganger recorded it. We know from seeing the duplicate plant/deer earlier that he's a new twin. (No, it doesn't make sense, you just have to go with it. None of y'all's asses had problems with the myriad plot holes in The Shining, so sit down, damn it.) Besides, this has been a sensible, human fear since Sigmund Freud wrote about it over 100 years ago. Sure, we understand it a little better now, but it's been a thing for a long, long time; it's not just me being fussy.

In case you were wondering what my reaction was to seeing Kane first die and then step in front of the camera lens, here's the actual footage:

And after the psychiatrist vomits herself into shards of light to become a weird synesthetic alien, I WANTED to sink into the floor, y'all. MARY KAY DOESN'T DO ALIENS. Especially ones that imitate your every move JUST BECAUSE and probably have no motive.

No motive? Are you for fucking serious right now? How am I supposed to dream about Oscar Isaac in peace when there's an alien copying every damn thing I do? For no reason!?

6. The Monster Comes Back in the End

This idea of the monster being put to rest for only a short time is one that every horror theory text I've ever looked at agrees on (Clover and Cohen, at least!): if the monster is really dead, then it's not a truly scary movie. In Annihilation, we're led to believe--and I say this because, as you know, nothing is what it is--that the Kane in our world is a duplicate and that Lena is herself, but she's been in the shimmer, so all her DNA has been refracted. All of it. Like when you wear bug repellent with Deet.

Their eyes even shimmer at the end when they embrace, despite that they hardly know each other anymore, if they ever really did. This leads us to certain questions, uncomfortable ones like, How much has changed within them individually? Is the alien really dead, or has it changed both of them enough to reproduce itself? If the alien is chaotic neutral on the D&D alignment, is that worse than being lawful evil? Is the alien coming back?

And most importantly... are there now TWO Oscar Isaacs? (Fingers crossed on those doubled chances, am I right?)

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