Annihilation’s “The Shimmer” is a Parable for Travel, and Here’s Why

Vague spoilers for Annihilation to come. I don’t use any names or significant plot points. You’ve been warned!

Upon watching Alex Garland’s Annihilation, I did the natural thing and looked up every review and analysis I could. I didn’t find the ending to be ambiguous, I thoroughly enjoyed the subtlety of the storytelling, and I overall had a good time with it. I wasn’t looking for a positive or negative opinion on the film, what I really wanted was as many takes on the Shimmer as I could possibly find.

Annihilation is a film about four women who journey into the Shimmer an iridescent dome that expands in all directions out from a meteor crash site in the southern United States. The government, ever so secretive and skeptical, is studying the Shimmer and sending reconnaissance troops into it for research purposes — none of the groups have returned. One day, however, one survivor does show up, and promptly begins dying once they’re back on the outside. And now, the latest recon group is going inside to discover what secrets the Shimmer has to tell.

As it turns out, the Shimmer has many secrets to tell. Within it plants grow unpredictably and with perpetually changing structures and flowers. Animals look like hybrids between other organisms; alligators with shark teeth, bears with human skulls. The Shimmer has the ability to refract life, theorizes one character.

Just like a prism refracts light, the Shimmer refracts life, physically and it could be argued, mentally as well. What comes in the Shimmer is permanently changed, and what comes out is never the same.

While inside the Shimmer, characters note how they are changing. Some of it is imperceptible (tattoos appear from one person to another, and nobody comments or notices), other parts are obvious (one woman states how she can see her fingerprints move). Time flows differently on the inside as well, so for our heroines, a day inside is a month on the outside.

This is at once a crazy yet sound idea — the Shimmer is… Travel. 

You can’t go home again.

Travelers who stray near and far can relate to the feeling of reverse culture-shockin which adjusting to life back home is just as hard to adjusting to a foreign land. You’ve changed, and so has the world without you in it. Finding your place within it again can be difficult. But it’s neither good or bad, it’s just that…

Travel changes you…

Just like in the Shimmer, you feel yourself changing. You learn new things, from languages to patterns of behavior. After a few days somewhere new, you might pick up a greeting or phrase. One character in Annihilation even picked up a different accent. You understand a new part of the world a bit better. This is all magnified if you move somewhere new. Magnified doubly if you move to a place where the dominant culture is not your own. Adaptation becomes a matter of survival, and being able to thrive is a sign that you have mastered the world around you. The points between adaptation and mastery are a period of great growth, where travel works on you…

Mentally…

Imagine having to adapt to another way of life, another way of speaking, another way of walking, dressing, and eating. It’s almost as if other worlds inhabit you, instead of you inhabiting them. You live and breathe the world you are from, but wherever you go, you earn a bit of another world as well. Travel has been proven to challenge your brain, and when challenged your brain typically rises to the occasion. The benefits of long-term travel include greater creativity and problem-solving potential, probably the same benefits that our characters used to determine what was happening to them within the Shimmer. The mental benefits they gained only paled in comparison to the ways that travel affected them…

Physically…

Temporary periods of travel can affect the bacteria in your gut, from an overabundance of seaweed bacteria in Japan to a bunch of cheese bacteria in France. A single food poisoning event, not unlike my own once arriving to Spain, can permanently alter the bacteria in your stomach. In addition to the germs that coexist with you, travel can lower your stress, reduce the strain on your heart, and the exposure to different antibodies can boost your immune system. While the Shimmer was more likely to kill you than much else, exposure to it gave the characters different physical attributes. Ultimately, the greatest change to both our friends in the Shimmer and those who enjoy travelling is how travel affects them…

Emotionally.

Your personality changes. You can go from the tightest-knit introvert to the most carefree extrovert with extended travel (from a semester to a year in one study). It makes you more responsible and selfless, putting you in positions where you can gain greater empathy for those who choose similar life paths of immigration or work abroad. Just as one character in Annihilation grew from their experience by having something to come back to, something to improve upon, travel can put your life in perspective and give you tools to confront a problem once more in a different way.

And yet…

These changes are not always felt as a positive. They can be overwhelming, exhausting, and terrifying. One character in the Shimmer says, “I can’t bear it,” when faced with the way they’re changing. I know many people who, when confronting the demand to adapt or assimilate to another way of life, fight with and resist it. The experience can be painful, traumatic even. Culture Shock, severe cases called Paris Syndrome, can manifest physically into anxiety, shortness of breath, and various mental strains such as depression. A bad travel experience can ruin you. The order of your life, what you know to be yourself, is changed. The old you is gone, and you can’t get that back ever again.

But that is the nature of life. Leaving the comfort of what you know and experiencing something you don’t will always challenge you. It will change you. It will end you. The old you at least. What comes from that is something new, and hopefully it’s something that you can carry forth into the future. Whatever or whoever that may be.

What do you think? Did you see Annihilation? Are you gonna move into the Shimmer, or are you gonna stay in your comfort zone where it’s warm and safe? Honestly, I can’t imagine living in that world, it’s like living in the world of Pokemon.

Best,

Kristina

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It’s a rather mysterious movie. But one that deserves the watch and thought. Nice review.

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