Annihilation is now in theaters, bringing a very loose interpretation of the 2014 sci-fi novel by Jeff VanderMeer to the screen, from Ex-Machina director, Alex Garland. Annihilation has been causing something of a buzz with fans, who are discussing and dissecting its somewhat challenging final act.
Garland's Annihilation movie is almost nothing like the book, and since the film seems to be leaving a lot of viewers with many lingering questions, we're here to help. Read on for the Spoiler-filled breakdown of Annihilation's ending, and the deeper thematic meaning of the film's events.
The entire plot of Annihilation revolves around a government expedition by "Southern Reach." Years ago, the organization started investigating a national park and lighthouse that were covered in a mysterious translucent bubble called the Shimmer, which keeps expanding in size. Southern Reach has sent multiple teams into "Area X," only to have none of them return - save one: Kane (Oscar Isaac), who returned from the bubble with little memory of his experience in the shimmer, or anything about himself. Soon thereafter, his body begins failing.
When Kane's wife Lena (Natalie Portman) joins the first all-woman team headed into the Shimmer, they discover that the affected area is actually a sort of 'genetic refraction' system. Basically, the Shimmer absorbs DNA from every living thing inside of it, and refracts those genetic traits in beautiful (or nightmarish) new combinations, slowly changing all living organisms inside of it. It's a process that's constantly in flux, making DNA a sort of shifting sand, as represented in various moments like characters claiming their fingerprints are moving, or seeing that one soldier's inner organs writhing like snakes. In one horrific instance, the psychologist, Sheppard, is killed by a huge mutated bear creature; the next night, that same bear's vocal chords mimic Sheppard's screams while she was dying.
The purpose of this refraction process is finally revealed in the film's climax:
As Lena observes during her time in "Area X" (and later on, recounting her story to the Southern Reach team), the purpose of the Shimmer is not to destroy, but to create something new. Annihilation's final sequence doesn't hold the viewer's hands with explanation, but the seemingly confusing payoff is actually a thematic climax that's pretty well supported by the preceding story.
In the climax, Lena tracks expedition leader Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the lighthouse where the Shimmer first originated, after some mysterious object crashed there. Outside the lighthouse, Lena spots the dead members of her husband Kane's, team, where they presumably turned on one another out of madness. Inside the lighthouse, Lena finds the crater where the object crashed, and a tripod camera that reveals her husband's true fate. A we witness in the video, the Shimmer created a doppleganger of Kane, who was the mysteriously blank figure that returned to Lena: the real Kane went mad from the Shimmer, killing himself on camera by detonating a flash grenade in his own hands.
After making this discovery, Lena goes into the crater to see what Kane found down there. She discovers Ventress, who confirms that the crashed item was an alien artifact - one that will continue to spread, bringing annihilation to Earth. Ventress is consumed by a fiery light form the object, becoming an alien-like structure that looks like an eyeball with a flaming iris. When Lena stares into it, a drop of blood from her face is pulled in, giving birth to a freaky humanoid mannequin creature.
Lena tries to run from the crater, but finds the mannequin thing is already waiting for her in the lighthouse. The mannequin mirrors her every move, nearly crushing her to death when Lena tries to fight it, eventually knocking her unconscious. Lena wakes up next to the creature and tries a new strategy - she uses the mirror act to maneuver to the door, puts a flash grenade in the creature's hand, and detonates it. The creature burns as it transforms fully into Lena's doppleganger, and as the lighthouse burns, so do all the crystalline and mutated structures inside the Shimmer.
The film ends with Lena back in the Southern Reach stronghold, seemingly cleared of suspicion since the Shimmer is now gone for good. She goes to find Kane, who has recovered from his near death state. When Lena hugs Kane and asks if they are both still themselves, Kane answers, "I don't think so." We then see both of their eyes shimmer with alien light, as the film ends.
In Lena's case, we know she definitely isn't the same: it's revealed midway through the film (if you look closely) that the Lena who comes out of Area X now has the same tattoo on her forearm as her dead teammate Anya (Gina Rodriguez), suggesting the Shimmer has mixed elements of the women together into this new version of Lena.
The ending of Annihilation draws upon the deeper thematic arc of Lena confronting the reality of who she is, and what the nature of her marriage to Kane was all about.
As Lena feels the stresses of the Shimmer during her expedition, we learn through dreamlike flashbacks that she and Kane's marriage was far from ideal (despite early scenes of their loving chemistry). After her military service ended, Lena went through a major life shit to academics, while Kane remained a military man. As Kane drifted away into his missions and military secrets, Lena found intellectual attraction and attention from her also-married colleague, Daniel (David Gyasi), and they began an affair. Kane found out about it, which was the feeling of despair that led him to volunteer for the veritable suicide mission to explore the Shimmer.
Throughout Lena's expedition, Annihilation returns to a thematic idea of our lifetimes going through phases that change us into new sorts of people, while killing off the old versions of who we were. The final act and ending of the film brings this thematic idea together, as Lena and Kane have both been undone by the secrets and lies of their marriage, and have (figuratively as much as literally) become new people because of them.
Ironically, these new forms of existence rekindle the lost intimacy between Kane and Lena, by once again aligning their life circumstances - an imbalance that Daniel deftly identified as the problem that pushed Lena to have an affair in the first place. It's why Lena goes into the Shimmer: it was her actions that turned Kane into the broken shell we meet at the opening of the film, and it's up to her to restore him, and the balance in their marriage.
In the lighthouse, we reach that thematic climax as Lena learns that there's no way to truly save what Kane was, as his old self is (quite literally in this case) dead. Lena then has to confront what Ventress said to her in an earlier foreshadow scene: we (Lena, humans) have an almost inherent need to self-sabotage. The mannequin creature never really tries to harm Lena: it is essentially her reflection, and the harm she suffers (like nearly being crushed to death) is a metaphor for her own destructive choices in life. The final moment with the flash grenade (as the mannequin transforms into Lena) is actually the reverse of what is initially thought: Lena "self-sabotaging" one last time by killing her old self, now reflected in the mannequin creature.
Annihilation's final shot is dripping with irony and portent: Lena pays her penance to become something akin to Kane again, but their reunion isn't a happily ever after: they're both hollow shells of themselves - dual refractions of some dark experiences - and together in this new form, they are literally harbingers of greater doom and destruction to come.
What did you think of Annihilation? Let us know in the comments!
Annihilation is now playing in theaters.