Linking horror and synth

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

Analyzing Annihilation’s soundtrack and the unmitigated fear it produces while viewing

*Spoilers for the movie Annihilation

Annihilation is the first movie in a long time to actually scare me. The movie doesn’t use cheap jump scares; instead, it taps into our fear of the unknown, our anxieties around ideas beyond our reality and imagination. The soundtrack, by composer Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow of the band Portishead, extends these themes through its eerie sounds.

The movie centres around Lena, a biologist and former soldier in the United States army, masterfully played by Natalie Portman, who is trying to find answers about the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her husband (played by Oscar Isaac) and his sudden reappearance. Lena sets off, alongside a crew of experts, to explore an area called “The Shimmer” where her husband was sent as part of a covert military operation.

Many unexpected and reality-bending things happen inside The Shimmer: a person’s consciousness is folded into a bear’s body, trees shaped like people decorate the land, and the crew’s DNA mutates in inexplicable ways. Since the movie is cleverly written, none of it seems ridiculous. Everything feels grounded within the movie’s world.

Every scene inside The Shimmer feels deliberately tense. It had me questioning every plot point, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling. The music is mind-bending. It includes so many strange noises, and amplifies the emotions of every scene inside The Shimmer with shocking sounds.

My favourite scene is near the end of the movie, when Lena reaches the lighthouse from which The Shimmer originates. Dr. Ventress, a psychologist and leader of the crew, loses her senses and starts changing, transforming into a strange creature made of light and colours. Lena’s blood gets sucked into the multi-coloured void-creature, creating a featureless human-like figure that mimics Lena’s every move.

The evocative track “The Alien” plays during this part. The bass-heavy synth sounds are contorting and pulsating—I originally thought it was the sound of the creature talking. As the creature ominously mirrors Lena, the music becomes continually more layered—strings, a choir and ambient noises start getting mixed in. I was enthralled by this moment; the theatre’s sound system was blaring with all the enveloping sounds, and I could feel the seats shaking.

When Lena finally escaped from the lighthouse, I cherished the silence that came after. It made me feel safe. Great music utilizes loud sounds and silence effectively, using pockets of calm to bolster moments of raucous sounds. The silence creates a space for meditation and reflection.

Synthesizers used for the scenes inside The Shimmer sound simultaneously aggressive and passive. This dichotomy helps convey fear, because unlike string or other such instruments, synths don’t make sounds physically, but rather electronically. Playing a note on a synth produces electronic sounds, usually conducted through a electronic oscillator, unlike a physical object hitting a string.

Sci-fi and electronic music have almost become synonymous. Movies like Annihilation, Ex Machina and both Blade Runner movies revolve around a fear of technology and the exotic, so it’s no mistake they all feature synth-heavy soundtracks. Electronic sounds are unnaturally consistent, at least compared to acoustic instruments, creating a synthetic vibe and texture.

Blade Runner 2049 similarly uses synths to communicate fear. In 2049, people fear the Replicant population, sentient androids manufactured to have human-like abilities, because of an uprising a few years back. Replicants are socially marginalized and used for slave labour. The soundtrack, composed by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, also uses loud synths to intensify the dystopian atmosphere, augmenting the movie’s themes. By the end, the music sounds melancholic and sweet.

Annihilation and its soundtrack resonated with me on a deep level. The film’s existential horror and ambiguity still have me thinking about the narrowness of human reality. The movie’s sci-fi trappings are elevated by great writing and an amazing soundtrack; it’s visually memorable, the characters are complicated, smart and subvert many genre clichés. The movie’s soundtrack transcends the sci-fi movie template, while retaining the memorable aspects that fans of the genre love.

The films asks many questions unexplored by other surface-level alien fiction: What if we can’t handle the reality of other species? What if alien species have no concept of good and evil? Should we question our sense of rationality? What makes us individuals? The movie never answers these questions, giving us room for interpretation and analysis. For now, I’ll listen to the memorable soundtrack and reflect about the meaning of Annihilation.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

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