Refracted Love in Alex Garland's Annihilation

Alex Garland's 2018 sci-fi horror film Annihilation, based loosely on Jeff VanderMeer's novel of the same name, explores the weirdness of love in the Anthropocene through the lens of transformation and self-discovery.

Refracted Love in Alex Garland's Annihilation
© Paramount Pictures

LENA: You aren't Kane, are you?
KANE: I don't think so. Are you Lena?

When we love someone, we plunge into the mystery of the unknown. We can never fully understand the other person. They always possess hidden facets, they are constantly evolving, they engage in relationships that are veiled from our view. Moreover, this cryptic side of our beloved transcends mere humanity. We encounter a dimension even stranger than the most arcane aspects of human experience: The other person is shaped by microorganisms in the gut, by genetic programs that predate humanity, and by myriad interactions with an inaccessible non-human realm beyond our wildest imaginings. As unsettling as this may be, if our love is genuine, we cannot shy away from this. In fact, it is through the act of loving that the weirdness of the other becomes most vividly apparent. Our love is either all-encompassing or not present at all. Especially when the other person falls ill or dies this dimension is hard to deny. And when we look into the eyes of the enigmatic other, we discover in the shimmer of their eyes our own weirdness reflected back at us—simultaneously terrifying and beautiful. When we love, we embrace our identity as the cosmic strangers we have always been.

The Rhythm of the Dividing Pair

Alex Garland's Annihilation, released in 2018 and loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer's novel of the same name, is a sci-fi horror film that explores this weirdness of love. The English philosopher Timothy Morton understands "weirdness", among other things, as an uncanny connection between unrelated levels, such as the connection between human historical time and geological time in the Anthropocene.[1] For example, a seemingly innocuous car ride to work or shopping, made possible by certain historical developments over the past two centuries, now has a planetary significance that affects developments far beyond the human spatiotemporal horizon.

This weirdness is initially present in Annihilation in one of its most radical forms, as a transformation that mercilessly destroys the integrity of the human individual—as cancer. It is no coincidence that the film opens with a biology lecture for medical students. Lena, played by Natalie Portman, is professor of biology at Johns Hopkins University. Her area of research focuses on the genetically programmed life cycle of a cell. It is worth quoting Lena's opening monologue:

This is a cell. Like all cells, it is born from an existing cell. And by extension, all cells were ultimately born from one cell. A single organism alone on planet Earth, perhaps alone in the universe. About four billion years ago, one became two, two became four. Then eight, 16, 32. The rhythm of the dividing pair becomes the structure of every microbe, blade of grass, sea creature, land creature, and human, the structure of everything that lives and everything that dies. […] The cell we're looking at is from a tumor. Female patient, early 30s, taken from the cervix.

Lena interweaves two temporalities: the planetary (or even cosmic) time of the cell, stretching back four billion years, and the human time of a young woman in her early 30s suffering from cervical cancer. The cancer that threatens this woman's brief individual existence is rooted in a primordial, monstrous power that reaches deep into Earth's history. Human life, which typically concerns matters such as relationships, careers, home ownership, and retirement planning, is ensnared in the "rhythm of the dividing pair," an ancient law fundamentally alien to us. Cancer is frightening and weird because it brutally confronts us with the truth of our non-human heritage.


Yet at the very heart of Annihilation lies not only the ominous specter of cancer, but also the love story between Lena (Natalie Portman) and Kane (Oscar Isaac). It begins amidst the comfortable, bourgeois domesticity of a quintessential intellectual couple (except for Kane's ongoing work with the military). Their days are spent cozily reading on the sofa and contemplating God's mistakes in the intimacy of their bed, all recounted through flashbacks.

Fate intervenes when Kane vanishes for a year on a clandestine military mission. Lena, pained by his absence, succumbs to temptation and engages in an affair with her married colleague, Daniel. When Kane finally reappears, he is a shell of his former self—deeply traumatized and almost unable to communicate. His return is marred by sudden illness, bleeding, and organ failure. It is revealed that his mission led him to Area X, a coastal region where a lighthouse was struck by a meteorite. From this cosmic event, the so-called Shimmer has been spreading—a mysterious radiance or aura emanating from the lighthouse that increasingly permeates the landscape, radically transforming all it touches.

Lena ventures into the heart of the Shimmer with fellow scientists (all female), confronts a version of Kane as a charred corpse, engages in a mesmerizing dance with her own doppelganger, and ultimately experiences her own metamorphosis. (The wonderful final dance sequence requires its own detailed interpretation.) Through her journey, Lena becomes someone new and eventually manages to destroy the Shimmer. Reunited at the military station—with Lena as the sole survivor of her squad—Kane has inexplicably recovered. They embrace, yet the Shimmer still flickers within their eyes. The enigmatic doubling they experienced in the Shimmer (“the rhythm of the dividing pair”) has not only separated them but, in a twist of cosmic irony, brought them back together.

A Prism that Refracts Everything

In the fragments of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, he claims that all things in existence are barter goods against fire. Fire, in this context, embodies the universal currency of all being. What is Heraclitus trying to convey? Fire represents a devouring force, ceaselessly capable of giving birth to something new through its insatiable consumption. Restless and transformative, fire consumes until there is nothing left to burn or until it is extinguished. In destroying the old, fire simultaneously unveils light, warmth, smoke, and ashes, providing fertile ground for new life to flourish. Thus, Heraclitus perceives fire as a unifying force through what he calls “interchange” (antamoibé). Through the imagery of fire, Heraclitus illuminates the transient nature of existence and the harmony between creation and destruction.[2]

Annihilation also explores this interchange, albeit in a accelerated form so that we recognize it. "The Shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything," reveals physicist Josie Radek, a member of Lena’s expedition who ultimately chooses to merge with the plant kingdom in the Shimmer. This fusion symbolizes an inevitable merging that each of us will face, or that is always already happening. The Shimmer's "refraction" dissolves and blends the conventional contours of being, undermining our definitions and determinations. (Thus, the film is aptly named "Annihilation.") The shape-shifting alien of John Carpenter's The Thing now characterizes a place. The Shimmer's rapid transformations, however, only bring to light the continuous, albeit more subtle, changes already taking place behind the façade of our seemingly stable human world. To paraphrase Heraclitus, we are constantly engulfed in fire, even if we don't realize it.

What does this mean for Lena and Kane? Their love, altered by the Shimmer/Fire, becomes mysterious and uncanny. Within the Shimmer, they realize that their familiar, bourgeois existence rests on unstable foundations. Moreover, as their own doubles their individuality is strongly questioned. At the same time, a multispecies perspective emerges, in which plants, animals, and humans unite, and humans no longer reign supreme.[3] Lena and Kane have embraced their non-human origins, opening themselves to what we, as humans, have always repressed. The cancer cell at the film's beginning foreshadows this absence of solidity or security.

Annihilation also deals with the concept of health. Conventionally, we perceive health as the maintenance of our present condition. Health is a static construct rooted in fear and the desire for control. Driven by a longing for stability, we strive for health. So, actions in pursuit of health counteract life's inherent tendency toward change. Yet life constantly seeks novelty and difference, often at the individual's expense. In this sense, cancer, a subject fraught with misconceptions, is a catalyst of life. It is as devastating as it is beautiful. To wish for the ultimate triumph of health would be to wish for the demise of life itself.

(I fully recognize that this Heraclitean perspective may seem cynical to those affected by cancer. Acknowledging that cancer is not inherently evil, but rather a facet of life, is immensely challenging, if not impossible, in the face of the suffering it inflicts on entire families).

I don’t know

Even though it is primarily natural science that confronts us with these facts today, it is actually the task of art (for which the film Annihilation is an excellent example) to awaken our sense of this weirdness: the unity of becoming and passing. Science, after all, excels in overcoming the Other, in taming it, in integrating it into our rationality. "It's all about control," as Alice from the mesmerizing movie Don't Worry Darling would put it. So the most frequently uttered phrase in Annihilation is "I don't know." In the framing interrogation scene, the phrase serves as a leitmotif. The "I don't know" encompasses the entire plot of the film. Everything is submerged in a state of not-knowing, in a film where almost all the characters are scientists. But what does it really mean not to know?

Ignorance usually arises from a lack of transparency and light. In principle, ignorance can be eliminated and only marks the mode of not yet being discovered. So the not-yet-known exists somehow and somewhere within our world horizon, and there are ways and means to get behind it.

Knowledge becomes genuine knowledge only through reason. There is no unfounded knowledge. However, reason requires a clear orientation to fixed principles. In Annihilation, such an orientation is no longer possible. Ultimately, Lena no longer perceives herself as a subject capable of action who observes an externally available world into which she can penetrate with her human interests. This fundamentally distinguishes her from Lomax, the man (an agent? scientist? or both?) who interrogates her upon her return. Unlike Lomax, Lena has had a radical experience of otherness. Her "I don't know" is not ignorance in the conventional sense—that is, an ignorance that can, in principle, be overturned by research—but is a reaction to the fact that Lomax's questions are misguided in the first place.[4] The questions are:

Was it carbon-based or…?
What did it want?
Making what?

The questions what something is made of, what it wants, and what it makes fall entirely within the horizon of modern science. But what if there is something for which material composition, will, and causality have no relevance because the answers would be fixations that contradict the very essence of the object under investigation, which is constantly flowing and mutating?


They are one person
They are two alone
They are three together
They are fo(u)r each other
(Crosby, Stills & Nash, Helplessly Hoping)

To love without definitions, without fixations, without entrapment—without knowing… Lena and Kane had to be metamorphosed to face this very challenge. It means loving without focusing exclusively on the human dimension, since the concept of "human" is reductionist and isolating, neglecting the non-human facets that make up our existence. It means breaking up the human dyad, multiplying love into a multispeciesist prisma.

Alex Garland's Annihilation presents the idea of reinventing love which now appears as prismatic or refracted love. In the age of the Anthropocene, this may be the only viable form of love, one that embraces not only ourselves but also the worms that will eventually decompose us and give rise to something new.

  1. Cf. Timothy Mortan: Dark Ecology. For a Logic of Future Coexistence, New York: Columbia University Press 2016. ↩︎

  2. For deeper insights into this matter cf. my book Harmonie – Zahl – Mimesis, Tübingen: Attempto 2016. ↩︎

  3. Cf. Jørgen Bruhn & Heidi Hart: "Melting, Blurring, Moaning. Annihilation as Narrative Adaptation to Planetary Crisis?", in: Interdisciplinary E-Journal for Narrative Research / DIEGESIS. Interdisziplinäres E-Journal für Erzählforschung 9.2 (2020), pp. 1-15. ↩︎

  4. Cf. Rodrigo Inácio R. Sá Menezes: "Annihilation, Or The Anti-Nature", in Speculum 1, 45 2018, pp. 51–70. ↩︎