Essays, Not Rants! 311: Beauty in Destruction
I saw Annihilation this week, which, y’know, shouldn’t really be surprising. I like Alex Garland as a writer (Never Let Me Go is heartbreakingly beautiful, Dredd is a solid action movie) and enjoyed his directorial debut in Ex Machina. Annihilation is science fiction replete with a primarily female cast, so it checks a lot of boxes for me.
And it’s a wonderful film, truly haunting with some moments of absolute horror, but one that is essentially devoted to the pursuit of the sublime, of that terrible beauty. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, but the trip to end is one that stays with you.
It’s also super clear that Alex Garland has played The Last of Us. No, plot points aren’t borrowed from Naughty Dog’s great game. There’s no fungal virus and it isn’t about the relationship between two very different people. But Annihilation, though based on a novel, undoubtedly draws on the video game in its portrayal of the world beyond the Shimmer.
The central plot of Annihilation deals with the Shimmer, a phenomena radiating from a crashed meteor wherein everything within its thrall gets, well, weird. The mystery of the Shimmer and what lays within is the big question of the movie and drives Lena and her team to investigate. Over time, it becomes clear that the Shimmer affects organic life somehow, and changes it.
A heads up, though, some minor spoilers for Annihilation are inbound. Unless you’ve seen the trailer, than you’ve already seen what I’m talking about (I hadn’t, and upon watching it now, wow, that thing reveals a bunch).
It affects people too. Lena and her team come across a prior expedition from about a year before. The members were affected by the Shimmer, and their bodies begun acting up. At the bottom of the pool they find the remains of a person who has since become almost plantlike and fungal and merged — grown — into the wall. His legs are still there, seated, but his entire upper torso has, for lack of a better word, flowered. It’s gruesome — his skull is several feet above his legs at the top of the 'plant' — but it’s also beautiful, in its own way.
The Last of Us (which, coincidentally, came out a year before the book Annihilation is based on did), features the same image. Over time, those infected by the fungal cordyceps will stop moving, settle down, and grow into their surroundings until all the remains is the vague silhouette of a human being surrounded by waves of fungus. While playing the game you will encounter these strange 'corpses,' sometimes moving them aside, sometimes just walking past. They’re grotesque, but at the same time beautiful.
The same can be said of how The Last of Us portrays its apocalypse. The world’s been ravaged by neglect and the Infected, and yet it’s somehow still beautiful. The flooded desolation of Pittsburg is tattered with trees and greenery growing through and around buildings; it’s all so lovingly rendered that the landscape of the apocalypse almost loses its despair and takes on its own serenity, grandeur. Consider the giraffes, and how amidst the bleakness there was such beauty. Annihilation has its share of abandoned structures and desolation, but the Shimmer speckles it with flowers and other bits of pretty. Somehow the abandoned is beautiful, even with the horrors inside.
What connects Annihilation and The Last of Us isn’t just the imagery (although, dude, those bloomed corpses are super similar), but rather how unique is how they portray destruction. Other similar stories with wastelands, be they the thousands-of-years-later ruins of Horizon: Zero Dawn or bombed-out town in your war movie of choice show beauty in contrast to destruction. Look at that shell of a tank, now look at the majestic tree next to it. For Annihilation and The Last of Us, destruction is intrinsic to beauty; it is the former that causes the latter: there is worth in the decaying frame of a half-sunken house, the corpse of an infected is as beautiful as it is terrible. It’s a haunting aesthetic, one that informs the incredible atmosphere of both works.
Addendum: A quick google shows that, yeah, Garland’s played The Last of Us and it’s one of his favorite games (alongside Bioshock). So maybe I’m not crazy about the influence the video game had on his movie, after all, artists steal.