This article contains MAJOR Annihilation spoilers.
It stares back at her. Eyeless though it may be, and blankly inhuman as it mimics each of her movements—her nods, her stumbles, and even her violence—it nevertheless stares back at her. That ending to Alex Garland’s Annihilation, in which Natalie Portman faces her double, her shimmering duplicate, and seemingly wins yet doesn’t as her eyes swim with a luminous ripple, is by design a difficult, provocative, and defiant conclusion. In an age of straightforward superheroics in which good conquers evil, here is a genre movie that strives for the mystique of 2001 and the ambiguity of any nightmarish art installation that might mirror what the Shimmer does to your body after the guts are cut open.
It is a perversely profound film and one that demands to be unpacked in many a conversation after it’s over. As we examine that troubling conclusion, and what it means in the larger context of a biologist trapped inside of an ecological and genetic blender, we must take a step back and consider what the movie Annihilation is really about. On the surface, it reflects many of the kind of John Carpenter-esque ‘80s sci-fi thrillers that probably inspired Garland in his youth. However, the film digs deeper than its premise about a woman entering an inexplicable bubble to save her husband’s life. In fact, the film is really about two mysteries: What is the Shimmer, and why would someone dare enter it? To understand the former, we must first consider the latter.
One of the most appealing aspects of Annihilation is that it follows five women, and scientists at that, who are entering a highly dangerous area out of a sense of intense curiosity. Rather than trying to rescue or kill anything particular within the Shimmer—a rainbow-colored blob engulfing Southeastern American marshland—their quest is one of knowledge and basic understanding of the unknown. They’re the wildly optimistic team of nerds you send in after all the Hicks’ and space marines never came back from LV-426. Yet there is more to their inquiry than simply a thirst for knowledge. Even Natalie Portman’s heroine, Lena, and her wish to save the life of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is deceptively simple.
As the conflict is framed via flashback from the perspective of a seemingly lone survivor, Lena is out to figure out what is ailing her inexplicably alive husband. The couple’s relationship is revealed via flashbacks-within-flashbacks, which initially suggest a deeply romantic marriage. In other words, she seems desperately relieved to have her great love back in her life when he inexplicably appears in their home 12 months after vanishing into the Shimmer.
Yet like Kane’s probable namesake—John Hurt’s Kane, who was also the first to die after a mysterious recovery in Ridley Scott’s Alien—a happy ending is not meant to be. And while nothing is in danger of bursting out of his chest, the idea that Lena “owes” something to Kane is the cryptically stated motivation that likewise informs her curiosity to enter the Shimmer. It’s slowly revealed that all of the folks who Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has profiled into entering the Shimmer are driven by more than purely a sense of duty or inquiry. In the case of the film’s central team, it is learned that Ventress herself is sick with cancer, and she is not merely aggrieved that she has sent so many brave men to their presumable deaths. Similarly, Tessa Thompson’s Josie is suicidal due to an existential void in her life, and Tuva Novotny believes she has nothing to lose after the death of her young daughter.
Before we explicitly understand Lena’s own motivation, we are misleadingly given reason to believe we know why Isaac’s Kane signed up for this suicide mission a year earlier. When Lena confronts Dr. Ventress about sending her husband to his death, Ventress curtly suggests that almost no one is suicidal; they’re simply self-destructive. It can come in the form of an urge to drink, smoke, overeat, or even wreck a perfectly happy career or marriage. Up to that point, the flashbacks of Lena and Kane’s marriage depict her as deeply in love with and committed to Kane, and pained by his cryptic and covert disappearances in service to his country. He is choosing his career over their idyllic marriage.
This of course turns out to be a lie. Despite both having been career military, Kane and Lena are quite different, with Lena perhaps mirroring her skeptical scientific peers more than Kane’s good ol’ boy, proper Southern Christian gent. Their disagreements on God also come to mirror their disagreements on the sanctity of their marriage. Lena, as we discover in further flashbacks, is having an affair with a co-worker behind Kane’s back whenever he is gone. While it is never entirely proven, Kane undoubtedly has realized that Lena is cheating on him, and the denial of this bitter truth is driving him to sign up for more reckless missions. That is why he is so stoically reticent on his last morning with his wife, knowing what she’ll be doing while he is gone. And that is what the perceptive Ventress is most assuredly referring to when she talks about a self-destructive impulse shattering a marriage.
Lena may hate herself, and co-worker Daniel, but she sleeps with him anyway, just as Kane enters the Shimmer anyway, knowing it is likely to destroy him—and it does by making him doubt he is even what he considered himself to be: a man. Presumably a happily married one, at that.
The human impulse to destroy ourselves is central to Annihilation, because that is what the Shimmer is doing on an ecological scale. Like humanity, it is mutating and changing at a cellular level what seemed to be a paradise. Our inability to stop what Lena variously compares to “tumors” or “dementia” ravaging this land is intentionally evocative of humanity’s inability to stop the pollution and devastation that has given way to climate change. Entire species and ecosystems are being devastated, and eventually rising temperatures will flood and bury marshland and coastal areas alike beneath the waves… yet, we seem incapable to do anything but watch.
Our collective urge to destroy our environment is echoed in the Shimmer’s sci-fi effects on a coastline, and in Lena’s inability to do anything but let her marriage rot. The guilt of which is why she “owes” Kane, and finds herself in the grips of the Shimmer.
Which finally brings us to the end of the movie. The extraterrestrial Shimmer, introduced as a foreign entity from space, has made its home inside of a lighthouse, and as it turns human bodies into exploding fungi sculptures, it has transformed its base into an elephant graveyard of human(ish) bones. The central lair, the Shimmer’s pit of despair, even rather overtly resembles the alien spacecraft architecture that H.R. Giger designed for Alien. So it is fair to say that this is an alien being with at least some form of sentiency, otherwise what happens when it attempts to “double” Lena would never have been possible.
Due to the video tape the real Kane left behind, we come to realize that the Kane who appeared in Lena’s home was an imposter; a biological duplicate of the real man who committed suicide when confronted with a Lovecraftian truth about how artificial his self-identity is. While the effects of the Shimmer manifest in different ways the further away from the lighthouse you are (kind of like a bad WiFi signal), causing some creatures to have simple mutations and others to swap genetics by even the slightest touch, inside the Heart of Reflective Darkness, it actually is able to create an exact replica of its host.
So like Kane before, the Shimmer in all its cosmic glory begins to take the form of Lena, and slowly but surely duplicates everything about the biologist’s physiology, including motions that begin to resemble modern interpretive dance (or at least a Harpo and Groucho Marx routine). We learn from Lena’s narration with fellow scientists after the fact that she came to the conclusion that the Shimmer does not wish to “destroy” or even truly annihilate Earth; it wants to change it. However, as Dr. Ventress told Lena, it is an entirely human phenomenon to seek, intentionally or not, self-destruction. That impulse, to seek annihilation, is within us at a biological level.
And so it is that by duplicating the genetics of Lena, the Shimmer not only doubles her physicality, but also her psychology: It is Lena’s urge to destroy her marriage, to enter the Shimmer, to continue on to the lighthouse when others want to turn back, which compels the Shimmer to, in essence, commit suicide. Fueled by Lena’s violence and anger after she flees the lighthouse, her double does in actuality what Lena already did in spirit; she burns her home down. And so also like a species destroying the planet that gave it life, the double casts fire to the belly of the beast, seemingly destroying all of the Shimmer that has spent years growing in size and complexity.
Within minutes, the human desire for self-destruction has caused the Shimmer to seemingly destroy itself. That is what allows Lena to live. Of course, this being a genre movie, there is a twist. Despite knowing that the Kane in isolation is not her real husband, Lena seeks him out for an embrace in the movie’s final moments before revealing that there’s something aglow, and we’d dare say shimmering, in her eyes. In traditional sci-fi/horror parlance, this is the “twist” to reveal the Shimmer is not gone. Yet there might be some real significance here too. The deeper into the Shimmer’s influence, the easier it is to bleed and blend genetics by a simple touch. This can lead to horrifying results like the bear that rips out Cass’ vocals then absorbing them; or something as graceful as how Josie became one with the foliage.
Yet just as the Shimmer enveloped Lena’s human tendencies, the unknowably alien force’s ambivalent impulse to “create” and “change” is now in Lena. She is not the same woman who entered the Shimmer, and she is able to create something new with this man, who is not her husband. Either that or the bubble is about to start growing again.
So do you agree with our explanation? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below!