The Nightmarish and Sublime Beauty of the Undiscovered in ‘Annihilation’ (2018) and ‘Interstellar’ (2014)

 (Content warning for mentions of self-harm.)

There is something breathtaking about the unknown, frightening as it is. It is almost mystifying that though the undiscovered may often be unquantifiable and intimidating in its massiveness, it is unendingly alluring to humankind and we are relentlessly drawn toward it. To be captivated by something so unfathomable and evocative of anxiety is wholly counterintuitive, but can be better understood within the aesthetic and theoretical concept of the sublime. Sublimity has to do with visual experiences ending in complex emotion and the muddling of human instincts, and should be thought of as distinct from beauty. The former is much more complicated, as it involves equal parts horror and harmony or pleasure and repulsion. It is not opposite to beauty, but higher than it, though it is debated whether or not the two things are mutually exclusive. 

This idea of the sublime is present throughout the films Interstellar and Annihilation, which grapple with themes like inevitable death, destruction and renewal, and the tension between preservation and discovery. Both films follow missions into categorically sublime and unknown places — one into the far-flung bowels of another galaxy, populated by a series of fantastical planets and one mammoth black hole, and the other, earthbound, into a state park blanketed and altered by an ever-expanding alien force. That force, whose boundaries are predicted to swallow the planet, consumes and changes everything inside, and no one who has ventured in has ever returned. These missions are born of survival and the continued existence of humanity hinges on their success; however, there is an undeniable thrill for learning and pure exploration possessed by both teams.

A space station in orbit against a vast black sky. A small orb is next to it, and a large planet is illuminated in orange-yellow light in the foreground.
Image courtesy of Legendary Pictures

Visually, Interstellar uses shots of The Endurance cartwheeling distantly past black holes and blinking past planets to emphasize the unnerving enormity of outer space. Strange and unforgiving landscapes stretch for miles across every planet they touch down on, structurally confusing worlds that are almost dizzying. Careening into that unimaginable expanse of space, two years out from a wormhole that wriggles beside Saturn, Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) says that she finds space exploration riveting. This is because although they face great odds and probable death, they will never face evil, whether it be from humans or any other force. Sandstorm-worn Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who has more closely watched the natural world infect his family, asks whether she believes nature itself can be evil because he finds it karmatic and vindictive. But Brand is unswayed, responding that while she knows it can be both frightening and formidable, she does not think it is or can be evil.  

Rather than using literal vastness, Annihilation disorients through its nonsensical losses of time and visuals of intricate and unnatural mutations. The life that blooms within the borders of the park is scientifically and visually senseless. This magnitudinous change that the Shimmer enacts on the world is precisely what is both surreal and fear-inducing. The world assumes that it is driven by a motivation that can be morally quantified, convinced that it is sinister in nature solely because it is something they find terrifying and cannot understand. Like Cooper in Interstellar sees the cosmic and the natural to be cruel, the world believes that the Shimmer is evil and intentional. However, Lena (Natalie Portman) insists that it is only attempting to learn and understand in its own unintentionally harmful way. Rather than trying to destroy, it was only ever trying to make something new, even if that new is terrifying. She describes it as “dreamlike” to the team of bewildered scientists who interrogate her about her time within the Shimmer. Their leader questions whether she means nightmarish, but Lena says firmly that “sometimes it was beautiful.” She — like Brand — is beguiled by what is unknown to her, and has accepted the various emotions brought on by her experience with the unbounded. 

A woman wearing a dark green t-shirt with streaks of blood down her face and neck. She stares at a mysterious humanoid creature who has bright colours on the side of its head.
Image courtesy of Paramount

Though she is originally motivated to travel into the Shimmer because of the obligation she has to her husband, who is the sole survivor of any previous mission, she soon prioritizes discovery over self-preservation. Despite the likelihood of injury — if not death — Lena is overcome by her desire to journey deeper into the Shimmer and unravel its secrets, enthralled by its sublimity rather than totally afraid. This is in colossal contrast to Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez), who ultimately devolves into a primal, contentious panic as her instincts win out. Her psychological experience with the Shimmer is ruled by fear and not much else, which makes her perception of it decidedly lacking and devoid of sublimity. So often the sublime reflects back onto us what we project onto it, attaching itself in this case to terror or unease. 

In Interstellar, there is an analogous clashing of motivation and psychological experience between Brand and Dr. Mann (Matt Damon). Mann jeopardizes the mission and puts the survival of the human race in peril in order to save himself and avoid death, despite its inevitability. His experience is colored by desperation, while Brand continually prioritizes exploration over her own life and finds even the frightening to be beautiful. 

An astronaut stands in the center of a desolate landscape, with craters and an ashen grey sky.
Image courtesy of Legendary Pictures

Thorenson and Mann lose touch with themselves when their survival is truly threatened, and in both instances it is threatened by an unquantifiable, surreal thing — the inhuman and daunting. This mental splintering happens for each of them after a period of exposure to that thing. Thorenson becomes unstable just after the mission becomes perilous due to the death of one of her teammates. For Mann, it occurs when he realizes that his planet is unsuited for human life, essentially condemning him to death as there are no resources to retrieve any of the astronauts whose planets are unviable. This catastrophizing of their circumstances causes both to completely unravel and adopt violent tendencies. They villainize the sublime and those they are traveling with, becoming so unstable that they try to kill their companions. Thorenson and Mann have become the very incomprehensible evil that terrifies them, all because they so profoundly fear their own deaths and that which they cannot immediately understand. 

Here, it becomes apparent just how connected the sublime is to death, and by that extent, just how connected to the unknown death is. Death, or a fear of it, could be considered a marker of sublimity as the vast and unexplored is usually deadly, or at least precarious and dangerous. Death itself might even be sublime, as it is this massive unknowable thing that is just as beautiful as it is fearsome, always inevitable. Though death is the end of life, it is necessary for life to have any meaning, despite how counterintuitive it might seem to embrace it. 

Two women dressed in dark green outfits look upon an alien life form. A pair of legs wearing matching pants that are ripped stick out from the bottom.
Image courtesy of Paramount

Those in both films who react poorly to the sublime are those who have realized their instinctual anxieties about dying, whereas those who find the sublime admirable and beautiful are those who have in many ways embraced the inevitability of death. Aside from Lena and Brand, who have shoved their instincts far below the surface, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) finds the Shimmer and all of its sublimity to be harmonious and nearly peaceful, in spite of the attacks and injuries she suffered. In her reverence for the sublime, Radek chooses to fully merge with and embrace the Shimmer. Just before that final moment, as mutated plants sprout up from the scars that cross her forearm, she explains that while Lena and Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) want to fight or face it, she wants neither of those fates for herself. Instead, she wants to become it. Radek sees the Shimmer as a source of renewal where Thorenson sees destruction, just as Brand sees unexplored space as an opportunity for discovery where Mann sees it as a threat to the preservation of his life. 

This veneration of the sublimity and altered relationship to death is perhaps itself a form of self-destruction. Lena, Brand, and Radek chronically place themselves in danger without fearing for their own survival because of how their priorities have shifted. Because of the sublime, most of them have decided that death is inconsequential, and some of them even honor it. It is like Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) explains within the first half of Annihilation, that Radek is cutting herself as a means of feeling. The sublime makes us feel something far grander and more unbelievable than anything else, and it seems almost easy to make allowances for pain when the result is an extraordinary encounter. The sublime may be ethereal, but, as so magnificently demonstrated in Annihilation and Interstellar, it is impossible to experience without a complete suppression of instinct and total embrace of death and the nightmarish.