When I was a kid in the late 90s, a door-to-door salesman came to our house one summer afternoon. He was selling encyclopedias. A to Z categorized topics of interest spread across 5 books, 500 pages each. I remember my mother ripping the written check from the checkbook and handing it to him. I still use those books all the time to flatten my photography prints. Unfortunately for the encyclopedia salesmen, the proliferation of the internet has left reference books to taking up bookshelf space and collecting dust. Today, Wikipedia boasts the largest collection of human knowledge that is accessible for free (guilt-free, that is, if you donate each year). And though I wasn't allowed to cite Wikipedia in my college essays, it is an incredible resource for information. And best of all, it is constantly accessible with the supercomputer in my pocket.
Wy wife and I recently watched the movie "Annihilation", starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac. As soon as the credits rolled I found myself picking up my phone to Google the story's themes and motifs, as described by a critic or blogger. I was looking for the reflections of someone other than myself who had put thought and effort to digest the story and offer interpretation to me on a silver platter. It dawned on me that I've been conditioned to do this since high school, from when my friends and I would use SparkNotes in lieu of reading the book for English class. (I've now revisited those works of literature and appreciated them in their own contexts, outside of the command of the humanities teacher. Thankfully my use of SparkNotes instead of reading was the height of my teenage angst and rebellion. Anyways, back to Annihilation).
The plot, based on a novel of the same name, tells the story of Lena (Natalie Portman) and her team of scientists going into a force field of unknown origins to rescue her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), whose team disappeared inside the phenomenon. In the sci-fi movie style the plot presents truths about life as depicted by other-worldly happenings. The puzzling ending prompts the viewer to consider what is deeper and meaningful, as well as what story the screenwriter is communicating. At the very least, it should prompt the viewer to critically think. For me, the instinct to take the easy way out was seemingly instinctual for me. In the moment, I decided to refuse this desire to use my phone and take a moment to critically think. What happened was a lightbulb moment.
We saw another sci-fi movie, Arrival, in theaters a few years ago. When the credits rolled, I comically blurted out "I don't get it", receiving a response of laughs from the people sitting around us. But in all honesty, it was true, I didn't understand the ending. My iPhone was out within a minute and I was looking for a thematic explanation of the movie. The articles I read described the overall theme of the story as well as finer points that serve as Easter eggs for the detailed viewer. Time is circular. Okay, great, I understood that one. Her daughter had an illness and died in the future, which is actually the past. Yeah, didn't get that one. Unfortunately, I have little to no memory recall of the plot details that make Arrival stand out from other sci-fi plots because I did not work to connect the dots. In the same way that taking notes actually inhibits exertion of the faculty of memory, I was inhibiting my critical thinking by looking to someone else to consider these points for me.
Contrary to my response to Arrival, I paused to consider Annihilation before reverting to the ease of Google. What I discovered is that dwelling on the plot, characters, and relationships develop greatly increased the meaning that I found in the movie as well as the memory recall for the plot.
Lena's team, ultimately all killed, leave her alone and confronted with the source of the phenomenon. It a cancerous alien life-form that is spreading from the lighthouse. Kane has been killed and replaced by an alien lookalike. The mutation of the alien survives the destruction of the lighthouse and makes its way into the human base, through Kane and Lena, a mutated Adam and Eve. It is now free to spread into other humans in time.
Annihilation's ending and themes are what I kicked around inside my mind for a few days before feeling like I was ready for another opinion on the plot. At that point, reading the takeaways from others was a welcome addition to the discussion of the movie and sharpened my thought on the finer plot points.
The process of reflecting requires you to come to your own conclusions and increases the probability that you will remember the plot years from now. The next time you're with a friend, see how long it is before you Google a fact or the name of an actress. In my experience, it will be within the hour that Google is used. It provides an amount of knowledge that has never before been accessible for the entirety of humanity, and yet it is easier to critically think less now than ever.