The Philosophy of Science Fiction: A Case Study
Annihilation – Transferable Identity
Watching the movie Annihilation’s trailer filled me with wonder. Perhaps skeptical wonder. When it comes to science fiction, I am critical. But the moment Alex Garland’s name appeared on the screen, much of my anticipation fell away. Garland’s pervious movies include Ex Machina, Sunshine, and 28 Days Later and he is a director that understands science fiction.
Annihilation did not disappoint. Through Garland’s unique storytelling abilities, he weaves a story together that, while creating instant spoilers at the start (we see Lena (Natalie Portman) sitting in a room, being questioned in an obvious post-event fashion), is able to create a high level of tension through a thought provoking cinematic experience.
Annihilation follows Lena, a biologist, who specializes in cell genetics. After her husband’s mysterious return (after having been gone for a year on military duty), he becomes seriously ill with multiple organ failure. Lena and her husband, Kane (Isaac Oscar) are taken against their will to a base that stands on the edge of what has been termed “The Shimmer;” an area that is bordered by a multi-colored, opaque barrier. In an effort to save her husband’s life, Lena, along with a team of four female scientists enter the Shimmer to try and decipher its secrets. However, Kane is the only person in four years to have made it out of the shimmer.
Soon after entering, the group discover that the first few days have passed without their knowing (only the decrease in food rations hints towards this). Lena also discovers that organisms are mutating in bizarre ways (plants that should not grow on the same branch do, alligators with rows of teeth like sharks). The movie begins to take a darker and more horrifying turn as the crew of scientists discover a video from the previous military group (Lena’s husband, Kane, included among them) where they open a man’s stomach to reveal a moving, eel-like entity “swimming” around the man’s insides. From there, Lena and the others experience stranger and stranger instances of “mutation” or shared genetics among creatures.
At a key moment in the movie, the character Josie (a physicist acted by Tessa Thompson) is suddenly aware of what the Shimmer was doing, or at least in part. As the group nears the ocean (and a lighthouse where the shimmer began) they see plants growing in the shape of humans. Josie explains this to the others: The Shimmer refracts not only light and sound (things we exclusively think of when dealing with refraction) but DNA. These plants, she predicts, have the human hox gene encoded into their own DNA. (The hox gene is what provides humans with the humanoid build.) Josie says, “the Shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything. Not just light and radio ways. Animal DNA. Human DNA. All DNA.”
It is from this moment on that we begin to truly see the deterioration of the group members. Fingerprints move and shift like water. They describe the way they feel as “early onset dementia.” Slowly, each seems to lose who they are, their identity. This idea comes to full fruition when Lena enters the lighthouse and is confronted with a creature that behaves and acts like she does, eventually turning into her; a mirror of sorts, another copy of her or her identity.
The discussion of identity is an interesting one, and one that, in a variety of research fields has been heavily debated. Many of the concept’s roots stem back to early Greek philosophy when Plato describes our acceptance of ourselves and our reality, comparing our normal and accepted reality as “being in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light.” In his analogy, one’s identity is able to change once they realize their current situation and make efforts to understand it for being false, and moving out of the cave (which deceives the individual) and into the open field.
Other philosophies have tried to make sense of how we understand ourselves and what we experience. Early-Modern philosophy (circa 1500-1800) created opposing views of where a person’s identity comes from. These divisions were termed either rationalists or empiricists. One believing knowledge and identity stem from inherent truths, the other from strict experience, respectively. Philosophers like Hume during this time argued that personal identity stems from a “bundle of perceptions,” that is to say, what we experience is an ever-changing bundle that helps to define who we are. Locke simplifies this (in part) by arguing that a person is a self-aware individual, who has reason and reflection. Contemporary discussions have turned towards a focus on consciousness, where we derive our identity from, scientifically. This still brings about many unanswered questions as a person’s “consciousness” is still undefined and recent scientific discussions still have no solid evidence on whether humans even have consciousness.
However, the genre of science fiction has recently taken great strides in attempting to understand how identity is important to individuals, and community. David Kyle Johnson writes about how Doctor Who (a popular science fiction character, whose body regenerates into a new “person” thirteen times) could be the same “individual” in the same way that we are the same person at age ten and now “because we have the same soul.” He later says that “the ‘soul’—as first defended by Plato (429-347 B.C.E) and later defended by Descartes (1596-1650)—is the immaterial part of you.” Other authors discuss the concept brought about through the cyberpunk movement within the science fiction genre: are we a computer simulation? what happens to our identity in virtual reality? are we the same person? Nick Bostrom imagines these possibilities, jokingly arguing that because we can never really know our true objective reality (pulling from Descartes Meditations) that we “are almost certainly in a simulation.”
Annihilation is therefore all the more important because of its treatment of identity. At a pivotal moment in the movie, the group finds themselves confronted with a bear that had recently killed one of their party members. As the bear breaths or growls, the screams of the dead woman are heard—her cries for help, her moaning in agony. After the encounter, Josie says, “I think that as she was dying part of her mind became part of the mind of the creature. Imagine dying frightened and in pain and having that as the only part of you which survives. I wouldn’t like that at all.” Here, the audience is made to move away from the notion that the Shimmer refracts light, sound, and DNA, but that take Josie’s earlier words more literally: The Shimmer refracts (scrambles) everything. Not only material things. Personality. Identity. The “soul” that Johnson discusses, pulling from Plato and Descartes becomes scrambled and distributed within the shimmer.
The word annihilation has two definitions. The first definition is mentioned by the group leader, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), towards the end of the movie, saying, “our bodies and minds will be fragmented into their smallest parts; until not one part remains. Annihilation.” Here, annihilation means total destruction or obliteration. This definition is interesting as it leads the audience to believe that what the Shimmer is trying to do is destroy. However, our experience so far has been almost the exact opposite: mass creation in new ways.
The second definition involved converting matter into energy. While a direct translation of this may not be helpful, used as a metaphor, it can help shed some light on the movie’s treatment of identity.
The group of scientists experience a variety of strange encounters within the Shimmer; however, the most notable (and concerning for them) are the changes that are taking place within them. Not only does their personal identity begin to change (e.g., all members losing parts of their memories, fingerprints moving “like water,”) but it is transferred, or echoed out into the shimmer. Lena inherits on her arm the tattoo of another member of the group, for instance. But we cannot stop there. The members seem concerned (to put it mildly) that they are losing who they are. Their identity—the very think that makes them who they are—is being stolen from them and put into other things: each other, plants, animals, anything that exists within the shimmer. In this way, we can see the purpose or relevancy of the second definition reframed as such: the conversion of a person essence into other entities.
This of course isn’t all the shimmer refracts. But I think that it is the one that we should focus on. Science fiction has the unique opportunity to ask big questions and provide insight into how we can go about answering those questions. Annihilation, however, does not try to answer questions of identity (i/e., what gives us our personal identity, how is that identity altered or changed, etc.). These questions are rather provided a medium to explore their meaning. What does it do to a person when their identity is stripped away from them? How do we cope with memory and the potential loss of one’s identity through amnesia?
After recalling a particular memory where Lena sits on her couch with her husband, reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, we watch as she screams into the Shimmer. Like Lacks (famous for having her cells taken illegally to improve medicine) Lena feels parts of herself being stripped away. Her identity isn’t merely changing (and not at a gradual rate that we, as people, continually experience) but being replaced, altered, removed. Dr. Ventress says, just before leaving ahead of the group to go to the lighthouse, “we are disintegrating, our bodies as fast as our minds. Can’t you feel it?” The meaning behind Annihilation then becomes one of self-reflection, through the loss of identity. Perhaps asking the question, “what can we do within our limited and ever-changing experiences?”
Like much of science fiction, the philosophical undertones drive the story. Sci-fi hopes to explore meaningful concepts and how they could or do effect our lives. Annihilation complements the genre wonderfully (albeit in horrific ways). It forces us to recon with our own ever-changing identities through experiences and shows us the catastrophes that can befall any person, when their identity is stripped away from them. Annihilation doesn’t hope to answer questions of identity—in fact, there are many unanswered questions within the movie—but rather, hopes to bring to light the complexities of such concerns.
Bostrom, Nick. “Are You in A Comupter Simulation?” Science Fiction and Philosophy from
Time Travel to Superintelligence, by Susan Schneider, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, pp. 20–23.
Hume, David. Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1978.
Johnson, David Kyle. “Is the Doctor Still the Doctor—Am I Still Me?” Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside, by Courtland Lewis and Paula J. Smithka, Open Court, 2013, pp. 41–52.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. ed. P. Nidditch, Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1975.
Plato. The Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Dover Publications, 2000.