Annihilation is a Science Fiction film based on Jeff Vandermeer’s best-selling Southern Reach trilogy. The film, which doesn’t directly follow the series, was written and directed by Alex Garland of Ex Machina and 28 Days Later.
In recent years there has been a staggering lack of thought-provoking science fiction, with most directors and studios opting instead to spoon-feed details to their audiences and endlessly hammer home plot points. Garland, who bucked this trend with Ex Machina in 2014, takes a different approach, continuing to raise deep questions in his films, even with the understanding he doesn’t necessarily have the answers to said questions. Applying such a method, while pouring on the gorgeous, and at times unsettling visuals, has allowed him to become one of the quickest rising stars in the Sci-Fi genre.
The plot of Annihilation follows a biologist and former member of the military after her husband, who has been missing and presumed dead for close to a year, resurfaces mysteriously. Moments after his return, he begins to seize and is rushed to a hospital, only to be intercepted by a unit of armed men in black SUVs -you know the kind. Lena (Portman) and her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) are then brought to a government facility known as the Southern Reach, which is stationed a few miles from an ever-expanding anomaly code-named “The Shimmer.” The Shimmer was created following an asteroid collision with an unassuming lighthouse. Unfortunately, little else is known about it as all teams and drones that have been sent in to date have died or simply never returned, and broadcasts have never been able to transmit beyond the phenomena.
After learning that her husband’s condition is the result of voluntarily venturing into The Shimmer, having done so understanding it was essentially a suicide mission, Lena is forced to confront her past betrayal. Throughout the film, we see a brief series of flashbacks, depicting Lena’s affair with a colleague just before Kane left for his mission. In one such flashback, she states that somehow Kane has learned of her infidelity. Thus, feeling beholden to her husband and wanting to understand what happened to him, she volunteers to enter The Shimmer as part of a team of five women -the first such unit to enter the phenomenon.
Inside the Shimmer, the women discover that all life within its reach undergoes a state of rapid evolution due to not only light and radio waves but even DNA itself being “refracted” onto one another. This leads to cross-species bred animals, dazzling new plant-hybrids, and more as the journeys through a mesmerizing, and at times horrifying path on their way to the lighthouse -the believed “center” of the anomaly.
So now that you know the premise, let’s get down to business and begin deciphering Annihilation
As always SPOILERS AHEAD
In order to understand Annihilation, you must first examine it with the proper context. The central theme of the film is self-destruction. Kane, devastated by his wife’s betrayal, took what was believed to be a suicide mission. Lena, tormented by what her actions have done to Kane, enlists herself as well. As for the rest of the unit, it’s revealed that Dr. Ventress has terminal cancer and no intention of returning. In spite of this, she does not consider herself suicidal. Instead, she remarks to Lena that “very few people actually commit suicide,” but rather they become self-destructive, IE smoking, drinking, or, as was the case with Lena, sabotaging stable relationships. Another team member, Sheppard, has never recovered from losing her young daughter to leukemia, the loss of which has caused her to suffer multiple bereavements, eventually losing her husband and even the person she once was in the process. Anya, meanwhile, suffered from addiction and substance abuse, while Josie routinely cut herself to “feel something.” This is summed by by Sheppard early on when she tells Lena, “You wouldn’t just sign up for this kind of thing if your life was in perfect harmony.”
So let’s talk about the bear in the room… and no, unfortunately, I didn’t misquote that expression.
After finding the old facility from a year earlier, now overtaken by The Shimmer, the group sets up camp and discovers some disturbing footage depicting the previous team going crazy. This footage depicts Lena’s husband, Kane as he cuts into the belly of one of his unit members while the man is restrained by their fellow team members. Peeling back the skin and muscle of the man’s abdomen, we see that the man’s intestines appear to be slithering about like fat snakes.
That night, a monstrous bear-like creature appears suddenly and drags Sheppard away. Despite Lena and Ventress’s best efforts, they are unable to save their comrade. The next morning, Lena discovers Sheppard’s body with her throat torn out. It’s a devastating blow for Lena esepcially as Sheppard was a character she was beginning to connect with –certainly more so than the rest of the group. Shaken by this loss, Anya and Josie want to turn back and escape while they can, while Ventress insists on pushing forward. Looking for support, Josie and Anya turn to Lena. This is a pivotal moment in the film as the group’s morale is dangerously low and trust is thinning rapidly. Rather than turn back, however, Lena instead lies about her intentions, stating that it would be faster to continue onward to the lighthouse and then travel down the coast in order to escape rather than turning back the way they came. This deception doesn’t take long to be exposed, however.
In the very next scene, the group stumbles upon what appears to be a recreation of Lena and Kane’s house, showing how even memories can be refracted by The Shimmer. A stone’s throw away, an overgrown playground reveals numerous humanoid-like plants, depicting men, women, and even children. Upon a brief study of these plants, Josie theorizes their shape is due to Hodge genes, genes found in humans.
Eventually, the group travels inside Lena’s “house” and we see Lena stop to study several of the pictures hung on the walls. To me, this would’ve made for a perfect way to reveal Lena’s connection to Kane, but the film takes a different approach. As Lena studies the home, Anya takes a seat in one of the chairs and begins to examine her hand, seeing that her very fingerprints are moving. This takes Anya’s paranoid state into overdrive and will lead to some callous actions that night.
As the others unpack for the night, we see Lena conducting an experiment, pricking her fingertip and then examining the blood sample under a microscope. To her dismay, she finds that her cells are dividing rapidly, with the new cells possessing The Shimmer’s iridescent glow. Fearing how the others would react to this discovery, she decides to keep the information to herself.
That night, with the rest of the asleep, Anya riffles through Lena’s bag and discovers the trinket she’s been carrying with her throughout the film. Inside, she discovers Kane’s picture. Driven the point of madness, she proceeds to forcefully capture her three remaining companions and bounds and gags them for good measure. When the women awaken, she exposes Lena’s connection to Kane and demands to know who all among them knew. In truth, only Ventress was aware, having screened each member of the team before setting out on their mission. Paranoid that she cannot trust anyone, Anya states that she’s going to find out if they’re still “them.” To do this, she will cut each of them open just as Kane had done. With Lena being the obvious culprit in her mind, she decides to start with her.
As she approaches Lena with the knife, slowly pressing it to her belly, Sheppard’s agonized cry bellows from outside. Relieved and overwhelmed with emotion, Anya drops the knife and rushes out the door. We then hear a scream and a quick, demented roar.
With the three women still tied to their chairs, the mutated bear stalks into the house and begins to circle them, even going as far as to get right up against their faces and growl softly in a voice that mimics Sheppard’s voice pleading for help. Centering on Josie, the bear prepares to strike. It’s then that Anya returns and distracts the creature, unintentionally sacrificing herself in the process as she is viciously mauled by the bear. It should come as no surprise that this scene is the most uncomfortable in the film.
With the bear momentarily distracted, Josie is able to retrieve her gun and then put the beast down before it can kill Lena. In the immediate aftermath of this horrific scene, Ventress declares that she’s leaving immediately and heading straight to the lighthouse, even if it means going alone in the dark of night. Josie, on the other hand, speculates that because everything, even DNA, refracts within The Shimmer, that the bear may well have absorbed part of Sheppard’s consciousness in her terrified, agonizing final moments. Whether it simply took on the traits of her voice or her actual consciousness in that moment, thereby dooming both her and the bear to agonizing torment for the rest of its days is a matter of speculation, but if true, what a horrifying existence.
Unable to resist any longer, Josie gives in to The Shimmer, sprinkling blades of grass along her scars as green buds begin to sprout from her flesh. Then, before Lena can stop her, she wanders off and is never seen again, though her disappearance among the planet-human hybrids suggests she ultimately became one herself.
Later that day, Lena arrives at the lighthouse, discovering a charred a stationary camera just inside its door. Turning on the camera, she’s greeted once more by Kane’s face. His voice is still foreign, a mixture of strange accents, and his thoughts are profoundly confused. This state is due to his proximity to the lighthouse and the drastic amount of time he’s spent inside The Shimmer. Simply put, the closer you get to the lighthouse, the more drastic the changes become. This is because everything is moving toward a point of singularity, which explains why Kane now has a strange accent, having picked it up from one of his unit members, and why when we see Lena being questioned back at Southern Reach at the beginning of the film, she has Anya’s serpent eating itself (visually mkaing an 8) or “infinity” tattoo on her left forearm. This hits both on the ideas on self-destruction and a point of singularity. This is a clear juxtaposition to the beginning of the film wherein Lena states during a lecture that cells multiple and divide, allowing 1 to become 2, and 2 to become 4, and so on, creating the structure of life. The Shimmer, however, appears to work in the opposite. The closer you get to the lighthouse, the more the cells are blended together to become one new entity.
Back to the footage of Kane: in the recording, Lena sees Kane talking to someone off screen, discussing how he used to be a man named Kane and now he’s not so sure anymore. He then asks, “Was I you? Were you me?” Unable to deal with his conflicted state any longer, Kane instructs the figure to go find Lena and be with her, then ignites a phosphorous grenade in his hands, thereby killing himself. Lena watches in horrified silence as the figure just off-camera steps forward and is revealed to be the Kane who re-appeared at Lena’s house –the same Kane who now lies in a comatose state back at Southern Reach due to massive organ failure.
Lena’s husband, the man who took his own life at the lighthouse, possessed self-destructive tendencies due to Lena’s betrayal. He loved Lena but could not face what she had done. This new Kane, who sought out Lena as instructed, did not possess this self-destructive nature as his memories are not purely Kane’s, having copied Kane’s form close to a year after Kane first entered The Shimmer. This means any memories of Kane’s he might possess are blended and confused with the memories of all those who entered The Shimmer with him.
Stopping the tape, Lena hears Ventress’s voice coming from the small impact crater of the asteroid. Having already come this far, she decides to investigate. Inside we are shown a mad and rambling Ventress with most of her facial features absent until Lena addresses her. When she turns back to face Lena, all of her facial features have returned. Similar to how Josie gave herself to The Shimmer, Ventress has surrendered to the central being at the lighthouse. At that moment, a long string of brilliant light erupts from Ventress’s mouth, flowing wildly about the room as the woman’s body shrivels and then vanishes into the tail-end of the light. With Ventress gone, the string rolls into a dark, iridescent orb before Lena, who can’t help but be mesmerized by the undulating essence. Staring deep into the strange form, a single drop of Lena’s blood is pulled into its core. From there, a single cell appears, and then begins the rapid process of dividing and multiplying until it begins to take a humanoid shape.
Horrified, Lena first attempts to kill the figure by shooting it, only to discover it has no effect on the figure. She then turns and attempts to flee, only to be stopped at the door by the figure. Inside the main room of the lighthouse, the figure proceeds to perfectly mirror Lena’s every move, even striking her when she tries to escape via force. This tense scene continues for what feels like several minutes as Lena comes to understand the truth: this figure is becoming like her, just as the fake Kane became like him. No longer resisting, she walks calmly to Kane’s bag and removes a phosphorous grenade. The two hold it within their hands, and it’s then that the figure begins to take on Lena’s physical appearance. This contact is important. It’s not simply that the figure takes on her physical form but what else it’s taking with it. During this contact, Lena is additionally transferring her self-destructive tendencies. We never seen this exchange occur between Kane and his doppelganger, which might explain why he remained so destructive to the end. Lena pulls the pin on the grenade. Then, just before the it explodes, she breaks from the contact and dives to safety. But not her doppelganger.
Turning back to find the figure silently watching her as it burns with a brilliant, white hot flame, Lena scrambles to her feet and flees the lighthouse. With her gone, the figure then turns back to Kane’s charred body and proceeds to reignite it, along with the walls of the lighthouse itself. Finally, before giving into the fire, the figure returns to the central point of its tunnel and burns everything to ashes. With the lighthouse and alien creature destroyed, The Shimmer fades, and Lena returns to Southern Reach.
In the closing moments of her interrogation, we see that a glass of water Lena drinks from continues to change and mutate after she drinks from it. Likewise, we learn that the fake Kane has awaken from his coma. When she’s done answering the scientists’ questions, she is allowed to see Kane so long as the two stay in their quarantined room. Upon seeing the fake Kane, the two timidly embrace, their eyes becoming alight with the waves of The Shimmer. This could suggest either that the real Lena died within the Shimmer, or that she simply has been changed by it. To me, it’s clearly the latter as when she examined her blood during her last night within The Shimmer, she determined that her cells were already changing. This, coupled with the fake Lena not being fully formed when it died, suggests she is the original Lena, and that at her core she is herself, though how much of her true self remains is obviously debatable.
Some key observations
Ventress accepts that self-destruction is part of human nature and believes that in order to create, we must first destroy. Before her essence evaporates into the blinding white light that eventually takes on Lena’s form, she tells Lena that she has let the alien force inside of her and that The Shimmer will continue to expand until it destroys everything, reaching annihilation as part of the next stage of evolutionary change.
As for why Lena is able to return when no one else -other than a comatose Kane- had, Lena provides us some very important context during her interrogation. “I had to come back,” she explains. It’s simple, sure, but if you look deeper, there is some validation to it. While everyone else who entered the Shimmer did so understanding they weren’t likely to come back –some even surrendering to it while inside– Lena refused to do the same. She still loved her husband and felt she had something worth holding onto, as such, she never fully gave into singularity with The Shimmer.
During a second watch, a particular line from one of the flashbacks echoed in my mind during Lena’s confrontation with her doppelganger. When Lena breaks off her affair with her colleague, he states, “You don’t hate me. You hate yourself.” Lena never denies this, and in a way, she quite literally confronts herself in the lighthouse during the climax, first utilizing violence and then attempting to run away from the problem. When those methods fail, she is forced to ultimately deals with the problem by letting go of her guilt and moving on.
Although the Shimmer has been destroyed, Kane and Lena are still alive, or at least some form of Kane is. When the two are reunited in the closing moments of the film, Lena confirms with Kane that she knows he’s not the actual Kane. He responds by asking if she is the actual Lena. Again Lena does not respond, but I don’t think this is because she’s an entirely fake Lena. Rather, it’s because she’d already observed her body changing on a cellular level within The Shimmer, and the transference of her self-destructive tendencies have essentially made her into a new person, both physically and mentally. So now, with both of them changed, she now sees the potential to continue her marriage with her doppelganger husband as he is unaware and unconcerned with her past discretions. Still, the shimmer of light in their eyes could suggest that the process of The Shimmer is simply starting over, and that annihilation could still be a very real threat. Whether this would occur by simply replicating endlessly until it expands, this time from their very beings rather than a lighthouse, or if by their reproducing it would expand through their bloodline is left to debate
And that’s Annihilation deciphered. There’s more nitpicking I could do to breakdown about the symbolism of this scene or the framing of that shot, but I think this review conveys the entire premise, as well as the crucial details necessary to understand and piece together the story. But, if there’s something I’m missing, let me know in the comments below!