The Queer Future of "Annihilation"
More and more, science fiction is exploring a future that queer STS theorists have posited for decades: what would it mean for humanity to have no future at all? These scholars, including Lee Edelman and Jack Halberstam, have theorized a turn towards death as a response to humanity’s problems. They recognize that many of our social and political structures simultaneously claim to support our well-being while sacrificing the quality of life of millions for this supposed greater good. In response, Edelman and Halberstam have offered an embrace of “no future,” rejecting the very idea of planning for the future and the Malthusian bargains such planning can instigate. Recently, films and books such as Cabin in the Woods and The Girl with all the Gifts have evoked this “no future” approach, telling stories of human corruption and failure that leave only one just solution: the end of humanity on Earth.
But with Annihilation, the new film written and directed by Alex Garland, this post-human genre has taken a turn, which leads us to the brink of a different kind of post-human moment, one which still has hope for (and through) a differently-human future.
In the film, an alien event referred to only as “the Shimmer” has descended onto a portion of the southern United States. Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist, is part of a team of scientists sent inside to explore the environment, discover its cause, and figure out how to stop it. But the team soon discovers that the environment they’re in is, literally, impossible: plants and animal species are hybridized in ways that, according to our knowledge of biology, they cannot be. What’s more, the environment also begins to work on their bodies and their tech. Time passes without their awareness, their instruments can’t read the natural world at all — and their own cellular structures begin to change in front of their eyes.
The future Annihilation posits for us feels to me like a queer one, a future in which the biological basis for what it means to be human is scrambled. While there is a pervasive queerness throughout the film — from the way that time passes differently inside the Shimmer, to the homosocial crew, to the constant references to unruly and uncontrollable cells — it’s the film’s rebuke of “the natural” that cements this feeling. Scholars and social justice advocates have long argued that what we think of as natural is socially constructed. But Annihilation pulls the rug out from under the idea that nature can ever be known at all, because within the Shimmer the rules of biology have been made literally alien.
During a scene that acts as the film’s fulcrum, the team comes across a set of plant structures that have grown, on their own, into the structural form of humans. The plants are beautiful — they look like a family playing in a yard — but also viscerally uncanny to the scientists. Plants, as we know them, aren’t able to grow like that. (The visual made me shiver in the theater; it reminded me of the first time I saw a family with queer parents, of the reeling feeling of “They can do that?”) Josie (Tessa Thompson), the group’s physicist, concludes that the Shimmer is a prism, refracting everything from light and sound to plant and animal DNA. The plants have human form because they have been spliced with human DNA. Examining them, Lena mutters, “It’s literally impossible.” Frustrated with her, Josie responds, “It’s literally what’s happening.”
When so much of the discourse of human rights relies on biological justifications — that women have the same physical capacities as men; that queer people were “born this way” — it feels radical for art to, in essence, break biology. If there is no biological standard for what makes a person, how else might we determine personhood? If family isn’t rooted in genetic lineage, how else might we find kinship? If society can’t be based in the recapitulation of the nuclear family, how else will we account for our mutual obligations? Queer people are used to asking these questions, but everyone else could stand to, also.
During the film’s climax, Lena and Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) both reach the originating site of the Shimmer. After descending a yonic tunnel into what can only be described as a womb, Ventress is almost entirely overcome by the alien forces inside. She tells Lena:
“It’s inside me now … It’s not like us. It’s un-like us. I don’t know what it wants. Or if it wants. But it will grow until it encompasses everything. Our bodies and our minds will be fragmented into their smallest parts until not one part remains. Annihilation.”
But where Ventress sees annihilation, Lena sees transformation. When she eventually returns to headquarters, Lena won’t characterize the Shimmer in the way that her government debriefer desires. She can’t say if the alien life is carbon-based like us; she resists his claim that it was set to destroy everything. Instead Lena insists, “It was changing everything. It was making something new.”
What she doesn’t tell him is that this something new also includes Lena herself. In this, too, I felt queer kinship with Annihilation, relating profoundly to Lena’s refusal to categorize, refusal to agree, refusal to be seen if her only option was to be seen wrongly. Only when she finally escapes her debrief, reuniting with the last person remaining from the Shimmer, is she able to find family again.
There is a danger, always, in science fiction and scholarship that deals with the post-human. Scholars can veer dangerously into arguments for population control or nihilism; science fiction can inspire fascistic disregard for life beyond the protagonist. We may desire to live radically in the present in response to what feels like a rigged system, but for all except the most privileged of us, failing to plan for the future can result in a failure of our ability to live, full stop. When lives are threatened by systemic and longitudinal threats, such as climate change, queerphobia, or poverty, a systemic and longitudinal response is needed. We need not sacrifice ourselves for an unspecified future of humanity qua humanity — and especially not for humanity qua rich, white men — but we do need to build a world in which we can continue to take care of each other, in our many different bodies and our many different families.
Annihilation is a reminder that we should stop thinking of biology in the way we so often do, as a limiting factor on our potential. We should stop justifying our societies (as well as their capitalist and imperialist superstructures) as something natural when even biology is constantly shifting under our skin. We should realize that we already have all of the resources we need in the world — food, safe energy, space to grow — just waiting to be distributed and prioritized in a better way.
We can be Josie, who, when faced with the knowledge that the Shimmer was already altering her DNA, decides to purposefully splice her body with the plants growing around her, choosing the direction of her new life rather than waiting for the world to end it for her. She becomes, impossibly, part of the garden. So for us, too, life abounds, waiting to be recombined, waiting for us to see in it a different potential, an impossible path. Queer failure is one option, but a queer future is another.