Luminous beings are we. Not this crude ma—”
Yoda hadn’t been able to get out the whole sentence before the TV froze. My dad’s voice shattered the moment.
“Aha! Did you hear that? What heresy is that?”
Dad interrupted almost every movie we watched when I was growing up. It wasn’t habit—it was ritual. A character would say or do something that would raise a flag in my dad’s head, he’d pause the movie, and we’d talk about the underlying philosophy latent in the content.
He had excellent intentions: teaching his always-stuck-in-his-imagination son to think critically. I got lost in stories faster than you can lose your AirPods. My dad just wanted to make sure my love of fantasy didn’t poke holes in the bulwark of my faith.
So we paused the movie and discussed George Lucas’s presentation of the Force as evocative of Eastern Mysticism with a touch of Gnosticism.
I’m glad we discussed the content of a movie for all those years. But a movie—or any story—is more than that. It’s tempting to look at story and ask only one question: “What?” What is happening in a book or movie or art-in-general? It’s a question that wants to know the content. And it stops there. Then content becomes the ground on which we either dismiss or embrace a story.
“What” isn’t enough.
Evaluating a story only by “what happens” is a surface way to engage with it. And it’s an incomplete way to think about art of any kind. But we still do it all the time. It’s the reason those of us uninitiated into the modern art world walk into a modern art display and immediately turn around and walk out. The “what” seems obvious—paint splattered on a canvas. That “what” doesn’t jive with our expectations of palatable art, and so we walk out.
The same could be said of movies. The “what” of The Return of the Jedi is Gnostic-esque mysticism, and my dad objected to it. The “what” of a movie like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah turned off a large chunk of Christian movie watchers because they perceived it as nothing more than a misrepresentation of the biblical text. And, for secular critics, the “what” of Alex Garland’s recent Annihilation was too confusing to understand.
In neither case did the question “why” come up. Even if it did, the assumption was that Aronofsky’s watery Jewish mysticism perverted the Bible, or that Lucas’s secularism was on polemical display, or that Garland was getting too cute for his own good.
But none of those criticisms are accurate, or even helpful.
“Why” reveals a story’s moral premise.
To some, it may seem like I’m stretching the limits of entertainment too far—trying to make movies more than just a mind-numbing way to spend two hours. To an extent, that’s fair. It’d be hard to find much redeeming content in Hot Tub Time Machine 2.
But the fact of the matter is we become the stories we tell ourselves. I’ve written before about the power that story has over the human brain. And movies are, perhaps, one of the most powerful mediums through which stories shape our minds. But we often dismiss it as harmless entertainment.
When we come to the Bible, however, we readily accept the power of story and the importance of thinking critically about it. We’re more than willing to go beyond simply what’s happening in the text and ask why it’s there. If we treated the narratives of the Bible the way we do Hollywood, we’d gasp in affected shock at Lot and his daughters and demand a boycott of the content without ever stopping to ask why it’s there.
While the majority of movies are complete fabrications, they still carry the same mind-shaping power. If we’re not thinking critically about the stories we consume, we forfeit our ability to control who we become.
And it’s not just the evangelical world that struggles with digging into movies. It surprised me, for example, to see secular critical responses try and stumble in understanding Garland’s screen adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s book Annihilation.
Most reviewers wanted to talk about what happened in the movie—parsing the plot or trying to synthesize what the movie was trying to metaphor. No one, it seems, wanted to ask the more important question “Why?”
Why does the movie present its plot and characters in the way it does?
Stanley Williams is a fixture in the screenplay-writing world. He wrote the book The Moral Premise, which outlines the often-unintentional impulse writers follow to create a governing moral in a story.
We’ve all seen it. A Tide commercial comes on the TV presenting the poor housewife in sepia tones struggling to remove the grass stain from her son’s football uniform. As the voiceover announces the new Tide product, the color correction changes and the green blotch magically disappears.
“If you use generic brand laundry detergent, your clothes will remain stained and your life will be bleak. But if you use our laundry detergent, your clothes will become whiter than snow and your life will be filled with joy.”
That’s the moral premise. Simple, straightforward, and always in two halves.
Every successful story has one—even if the author didn’t consciously start out with one in mind. The moral premise isn’t always moral—“do this one good thing and good things will happen.” But if a story wants to succeed, the moral premise has to be there and it has to be consistent.
So when we as consumers sit down in a theater and dig into a tub of popcorn, we’re subconsciously preparing to be shaped by a moral premise. Which is precisely what I did three weeks ago when I sat down with fellow Fathom editor Collin Huber to watch Annihilation.
What’s Annihilation all about?
Collin was planning to review the movie for TGC, and I wanted to watch it with him in order to dialogue about what the movie was saying and why it was important. Neither of us had any clue how it would play out.
As the stunning visuals and hauntingly-familiar-yet-completely-alien soundscape latched onto my brain, I kept trying to reach for a pause button. I wanted a moment to stop and ask, “What’s going on here?”
Part of that is because Annihilation is an intensely cerebral movie. You know from the outset that it’s going to make you think—an early scene features Natalie Portman’s character Lena opining about the nature of life and the division of cancer cells.
As the plot unfolded and I encountered the repetition of that cancer-esque theme, it became more and more important to ask not just “what” but “why?” Why is the pervasive theme of senseless mutation central to the plot? And how does it inform the moral premise of the movie?
The next day I read several reviews of Annihilation that aimed to unpack what the movie was about. The disparate perspectives were almost comical. One writer argued that the movie was about cancer. Another said it was about the evils of climate change. Interviews with Portman and Garland surfaced the theme of self-destruction.
Still others didn’t bother to wonder about the metaphor at all—they chose to gripe about the ending not wrapping up cleanly.
No one seemed to wrestle with the deeper issue at play in the moral premise of the movie—probably because, with a screenplay like Annihilation, it’s rather difficult to nail down. Over and over again, however, Garland’s script brought up the concept of self-destruction. Cancer itself is an on-the-nose literal depiction of the abstraction.
Why does Annihilation talk about self-destruction?
But it’s not enough to simply say, “Annihilation is about self-destruction.” Sure. That’s what’s in view on the screen. Garland even says that’s what his movie’s about. But with any moral premise—with any story at all—there’s both what it’s about and what it’s saying about what it’s about.
Homeliticians call this the subject complement construction. There’s the subject—what we’re saying—and the complement—what we’re saying about the subject.
In a movie like Annihilation, we’re proud of getting at the subject but stop before getting to the complement. It’s much much harder.
There’s a moment in the movie where the lead character Lena (Natalie Portman) asks the expedition leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) if they’re committing suicide. No one’s ever gone into the alien shimmer and come out alive.
Ventress responds by stating the central thesis of the movie—the subject: Few, if any, of us ever really commit suicide, but nearly all of us self-destruct. In a call-back to an earlier scene, Ventress points out that self-destruction is an impulse programmed into our very genetics. We sabotage a happy marriage in adultery, drink ourselves into oblivion, or charge headlong into an alien space that unmakes all life.
This is the heart and soul of the movie’s plot and character arcs because it forms the first part of the moral premise. But the movie won’t make its point about self-destruction until later. Following one of the most unsettling scenes I’ve ever experienced in cinema, Lena is talking with another party member, Josie Radeck (Tessa Thompson). They lost a second member of their party. Their DNA is fragmenting and blending. The line between individual humans and even between species hasn’t just blurred—it’s altogether vanished.
Faced with imminent annihilation (roll credits), Josie muses over the choice we have in facing our mortality. We can either go into it with fear, and be remembered only in terror. Or we can embrace it, and leave behind something of beauty.
With that sentiment, Josie captures the whole moral premise of the movie. She embraces the Shimmer’s refraction of her DNA and—presumably—transforms into a plant-analogue of her human self.
Lena will go on to the center of the Shimmer where her own self-destructive personality will ultimately bring about the death of the alien space itself. But by that time, the movie’s just proving its point.
If we humans, who are by nature destroyers of ourselves and everything around us, fight unavoidable annihilation, we will experience and leave behind only destruction. But if we embrace the catharsis of non-existence, we have the chance to leave behind some kind of beauty.
That’s the moral premise. That’s both what Annihilation’s saying and saying about what it’s saying. It’s both the what and the why. And it’s a statement pregnant with implications.
Finding the “why” unleashes wonder.
If we’re going to watch movies critically and appreciate what they’re doing to our brains, we need to be willing to ask the question and do the work of finding the moral premise. When we do, we’ll get profound insight into the questions that our world’s asking.
With the moral premise in hand, we can wonder with Alex Garland and with the world what value there is in life. We can ask what kinds of beauty are worth striving for prior to our own annihilation.
For Garland, the only catharsis in living is ceasing to exist, and the only value our lives have on their way to self-destruction are moments of sporadic (if mutated) beauty. As Christians, that should give us plenty to talk about.
When we engage with story as critical participants rather than passive consumers, we have a chance to move past the surface. The world is longing for a kind of transcendence. It chases it in art and stories. Thinking critically about the movies we watch doesn’t mean trying to find Jesus in every scene. But it does provide us a window into the questions our world’s asking about life. And we can address that ache with the words of the Great Storyteller.
Cover image by Conner Murphy.
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