Stories about cancer are usually about dying: the process of dying, attempting to live while dying, how one’s dying affects the people around them, dying in contrast to everything we know about human life. It’s relatable, somehow, despite the foreign feeling. Everyone has known someone with cancer, everyone has felt the looming threat of death in the back of a happy moment. Yet, as a cancer survivor, none of these stories ever got to the heart of my experience. I was diagnosed when I was eight, and the type of cancer I had (acute lymphoblastic leukemia) combined with my age made my survival almost guaranteed. Even if I did have a risk of dying, I doubt I would have fully understood that. I resigned myself to the fact that my story, and the fears that came with it, will never be told. Then I saw Annihilation. Despite never dealing with the human element of cancer directly, Annihilation asks a question very few cancer stories try to answer: what happens when you live?
Annihilation is a 2018 film directed and written by Alex Garland and loosely adapted from a novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. The film follows a group of female scientists as they venture into “The Shimmer”, an anomalous zone covered by a strange rainbow-colored field. As they venture further into the Shimmer, they find that wildlife has mutated to a disturbing degree, and that if they don’t find a way to stop the Shimmer from spreading, it will not only overtake themselves, but the world.
Cancer is everywhere throughout the film. Our main character, Lena, is a biologist who studies cancer, Shepherd, the teams anthropologist, lost a child to leukemia, and Ventress, the team’s psychologist and de-facto leader, was recently diagnosed. Mutations in the flora and fauna are described as “malignant, like tumors”, with their DNA “refracting” on to the DNA of other lifeforms, causing bizarre aberrations to appear. The Shimmer creates nightmarish things, but it takes from what already existed in our world.
“So it was alien?” An interrogator asks Lena.
“I don’t know.” She answers.
“What did it want?”
“I don’t think it wanted anything.”
“It attacked you.” He states.
“No,” She retorts. “It was mirroring me. I attacked it.”
The Shimmer is a planetary cancer, and it’s horror comes from not what it is but what it is not. Cancer doesn’t want anything. Cancer isn’t a virus, or an infection, or an injury. Cancer isn’t something that acts upon you, cancer is you. The enemy is not in your body, it is your body, and the only way to survive is to destroy that part of you.
Self destruction is another common theme in the film. Everyone who enters the Shimmer deals with it in some way. Lena cheats on her husband, Josie struggles with self harm, Thorensen is an addict, and Ventress is willing to take risks due to her impending death. The only person who isn’t particularly destructive is Shepherd, and that seems to be because she is already, in some way, destroyed. As she says in an earlier scene in the film, she is dealing with two bereavements, the death of her daughter, and “the death of the person [she] used to be.” All of these behaviors are shown as harmful, for obvious reasons. Yet, there lies the horrible catch-22 of cancer: self-destruction is the only option. If you cannot self-destruct, you cannot survive.
The “alien” at the end of the film appears as a faceless monster throughout Lena’s battle with it, but in the end, it takes on Lena’s form. It’s her own body that she destroys with the grenade. When she comes back from the Shimmer after seemingly destroying it, she is left changed because a piece of her is gone. She cannot remain the person she used to be. And as she embraces her husband, a fellow survivor, their eyes have a Shimmer. As long as you remain alive, the cancer, in some way, lives too.
When my chemo treatment ended, I wondered why I felt no different than the day before. The medicine, the instrument of self-poisoning that seemed to do more harm than good, was gone forever. I thought I was supposed to feel free. Yet, as I grew up, I realized that the chemo was never the villain. I never feared dying when I was in treatment. I thought I feared suffering, but in the end all I feared was myself. The experience is behind me now, but it never quite leaves.