Worlds Un/Like Our Own: “Annihilation” and “mother!”

To tackle the current social climate through popular art is a delicate task. Any attempt to correctly render the mistrust, uncertainty and helplessness of daily life in a “post-truth” age runs the risk of coming off as too on-the-nose or condescending, content to simply list our woes rather than address them. Ticking off obvious boxes can be satisfying but falls short of being cathartic, and is hardly ever memorable. In times like this, one can get a more authentic view of our times through the works that appear as a result of them rather than attempts to explain them.

Two recent films stand out: Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017) and Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018). Separate in genre and subject matter but equal in ambition and tone, neither is explicitly about contemporary life — in fact, they seem to stand completely outside of time. More importantly, they target the harrowing sense of impotence fostered by a culture in which we are in constant awareness of the evils around us yet stunned into immobility by the onslaught of threatening information.

mother!, a film which fully earns its titular exclamation point, is the more obviously symbolic of the two. An allegory about the disruptions that befall Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) after Him (Javier Bardem) allows some unfriendly visitors to their idyllic home overstay their welcome, the film is an exercise in edge-of-your-seat stress as seen through the eyes of a woman stripped entirely of her agency. Dealing with murky themes of religion, environmental chaos and patriarchy, it becomes unmistakably clear that Lawrence’s unnamed character stands for both Mother Earth and the Virgin Mary, and the film’s strongest motif is revealed as one about the degradation and total disregard towards all things feminine. Her motherhood is called into question by strangers, her authority over her home is repeatedly violated and her every last wish is denied by even those closest to her.

A still from “mother!” Niko Tavernise/Paramount

Annihilation, in terms of pure genre, is a much more conventional sci-fi film, following a team of women, led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and including biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), who venture into “The Shimmer”: a mysterious geographic anomaly in a Florida swamp that has inexplicably left Lena’s husband dying. Once inside, they encounter a space uncanny in its relation to our world; it is both recognizable, with earthly animals and flowers, and wholly unreal, with alligators baring shark teeth and different flowers budding from the same fluorescent stems. As they realize they might never understand their surroundings, the mounting pressure to find impossible answers changes them, causing them to turn on each other in increasingly destructive ways.

Both films, written and directed by men and centered around women, mirror the current sense of dread that rises from a lack of agency in a world out of our control. They deal with nature — one with biological modifications and outright changes in our being, the other with our relationship to the planet and its people. Impending doom is the burden at hand, brought about by a deadly combination of human folly and inevitable forces of nature. As we learn daily of worsening environmental disasters and sociopolitical calamities, it’s all too easy to find a heap of identifiable despair in two distinctly horrific films that speak to the anguish of the times. It’s interesting to note that both films end on somewhat hopeful tones, slyly reaffirming humankind’s persistence in the face of monumental change. What complicates both of them, however, is the question of how hopeful the future can be when the past and present are so gruesomely alive.

Juan Ramirez is a candidate for a degree in Media and Screen Studies from Northeastern University. He regularly contributes to The Huntington News as a correspondent and as a bi-weekly Arts & Entertainment columnist and can often be found manically attempting to convert friends and passersby into fellow film enthusiasts, to varying degrees of success.
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