Annihilation is the next mind-bending film from director Alex Garland, who made his directorial debut with Ex Machina back in 2015. Overall, the film lived up to its predecessor in introducing the audience to a thought-provoking story and some horrifying motifs. Like with most sci-fi thrillers, this film had much more going on under the surface than what was initially seen.
(Per usual, spoiler alert.) The first thing to note is Annihilation is a heterogeneous mixture of genres: the plot seemed to flow from thriller to sci-fi to horror back to sci-fi. The film grows progressively more science-fiction as it goes along, which helps explain Paramount Picture’s decision to release it straight to Netflix in the United Kingdom.
Annihilation features ex-Army-turned-professor Lena (Natalie Portman), who specializes in cellular biology. The story is told in a series of flashbacks/flashforwards spanning three time periods, with the bulk of the film featuring a mission into a place called ‘The Shimmer’.
The Shimmer is a giant dome-like phenomenon, whose surface is reminiscent of gasoline on water. It’s been determined the dome is a magnetic field slowly expanding to cover more and more of the southern coast. The Shimmer has been kept under wraps by the U.S. government (questionable, but we’ll carry on), thus all of our main characters are American.
We first see our heroine, Lena, pining after her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who disappeared a year prior after being dispatched on an Army Special Forces mission. Not the usual auspicious opening we often see with Portman, but I’ll discuss her character later. Our inciting incident creeps upon us as Kane appears at Lena’s house and quickly falls dangerously ill.
The Video Game Plot
Lena is transported along with Kane to the dramatically-named Area X, the U.S. government facility next to the Shimmer. There, she discovers her husband is the sole survivor of numerous teams that were sent to investigate the origin of the Shimmer, and decides to join a mission heading into the magnetic field.
Here is where the story begins to resemble a video game. The team’s mission is to traverse through the mutated landscape of the Shimmer to reach a lighthouse, the supposed origin of this phenomenon. As the story goes along, the party encounters progressively more challenging baddies up to the ‘final boss’ within the lighthouse. (Side note; if you’ve played The Last of Us, the mutations are very reminiscent of the Clickers.)
Alex Garland’s script writing initially surprised me, as Lena reveals the fate of her comrades in one of the opening scenes. She is being interrogated by the U.S. military, and is clearly disoriented from her mission. We can quickly surmise that she was sent into the Shimmer and somehow survived. While concerned this would be ‘spoilery’, it didn’t actually ruin the plot as I had anticipated.
The Self-Destruction Motif
Lena’s team members include cold psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin), linguist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson, Westworld), and anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny, Eat, Pray, Love).
We learn as the film continues that each woman is in a different state of self-destruction. Dr. Ventress has cancer, Sheppard has lost a daughter, Josie self-harms, and Anya is a former addict (although this is not embellished upon). Lena is guilt-ridden for having an affair, which she believes drove her husband to accept what she now recognizes as a suicide mission. This motif of self-destruction is further exemplified in the demise of each character.
Natalie Portman’s acting was exceptional, as usual. The image of Lena firing her M4A1 rifle at a mutated crocodile was the ‘girl power’ moment I was hoping for. I found Lena to be a very interesting character, and contrary to the typical, strong-willed woman that Portman usually portrays. Lena’s motivation throughout the film was love for her husband, yes, but it was overshadowed by guilt from her affair. She wasn’t a wholly ‘good’ character. She also manipulated her team members into continuing on with their mission, when they very well could have been better off turning back.
The Mutations Explained
The crocodile introduces one of several discussions about the genetic mutations caused by the Shimmer. The film is abound with scientific discussion about DNA, aging, and change. We learn from Josie that the supernatural bubble surrounding them does not, in fact, block radio waves and electronics, it scrambles them. The dome is doing the same for human DNA. Lena observes her own blood under a microscope and sees the cells have gained a glow similar to the surface of the Shimmer.
Things really kick off when the group reaches an abandoned military outpost. The group finds a strange array of human skeletons on the exterior, and once inside, discovers a sinister video recording that was left for the next group. In it, we see gruesome found-footage that I found to be overkill, but if the intention was to disturb the party (and the audience) it was successful. The team is understandably freaked out, and decide to stay in an outpost in the rear of the complex.
The genre quickly slips into horror territory as that night, Sheppard is brutally killed by a mutated bear (which, by the way, is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen), which later reproduces the woman’s dying screams. This is an interesting reflection of the state in which Sheppard lived—continually haunted by her final, painful memories of losing her daughter to leukaemia. The bear later replays Sheppard’s dying moments, which lures Anya out to her own death.
Anya’s demise was arguably herself. She grows painfully paranoid, unreasonable, and violent (all symptoms of a bad drug trip) after realizing Lena is connected to Kane (who they saw in the video footage cutting open one of his comrades). She knocks out and ties the rest of the team to chairs. Anya ultimately leaves the women defenseless when the bear comes calling again, though she does redeem herself by returning to fight the monster. She is then killed by the bear before she can destroy it.
The Shimmer Isn’t Evil
An important thing to note is the fact that the Shimmer is not exactly evil. It’s a living thing (can’t exactly classify it as one of the animal kingdom) that simply wants to go on existing. The state in which it exists is harmful to the Earth’s environment, but it isn’t through any malicious intent on the part of the entity.
Let’s take Josie’s mutation as an example. (You’ll recall in her debriefing, Lena couldn’t explain what happened to her, but perhaps I can.) Running with the theory that each character’s end reflected the state in which they lived, I find Josie’s to be the most thought provoking. It was stated earlier in the film that Josie self-harmed to make herself ‘feel alive’. After the death of Sheppard and Anya, Josie realizes she doesn’t want to end up like them, but she doesn’t want to go back to her prior existence, either. She accepts that she is changing and that the Shimmer is a place that makes her feels something she hasn’t before. It was this choice that accelerated her change into one of the ‘flower people’, for lack of a better term. So while you can argue she isn’t alive as a human being anymore, neither is she dead.
The Lighthouse & Doppelgängers Explained
Now we come to the climax of the film (or the ‘final boss’, if you will). Dr. Ventress has abandoned Lena for the lighthouse, and left without any companions, Lena follows. Her sojourn to the coast is one I enjoyed; the effects were beautiful (if a little overdone throughout). Once inside the lighthouse, Lena can see the hole near the roof where a meteoroid of some sort came through and made a stupidly scary hole in the ground.
Lena watches the videotape that has been left, and we discover that ‘her Kane’ has killed himself with a flash grenade, and a doppelgänger has taken his place. We can presume at this point the ‘real’ Kane is dead, and the copycat Kane is who she encountered at the opening of the film.
Lena descends into the creepy hole in the ground (a stereotypical horror film no-no moment, if ever I saw one) to find Dr. Ventress in an underground cavern. She is absorbed by a cloud-like entity, that begins to shape into a human form. Lena panics, shoots it, and flees. The bullets do nothing, and the two stand off inside the lighthouse.
It’s interesting to note that this new entity is not aggressive, nor does it copy what Lena does–it mirrors her. This lends more credence to the theory that the Shimmer isn’t ‘bad’, it just wants to exist. The tin-foil being gradually begins to shape Lena’s face. This prompts Lena to give the doppelgängers a remaining flash grenade, which goes off, destroying the creature and the lighthouse. The Shimmer disappears.
(You may wonder why the doppelgängers began to turn into Lena when it was Dr. Ventress it absorbed–this is because it obtained one drop of Lena’s blood in the cavern under the lighthouse.)
So after all that, I was still wondering what the heck was going on. The answer lies in the title: annihilation. ‘Annihilation’ mean ‘to destroy’, but if you take a look at the definition from a physics perspective, it means ‘the process in which a particle and antiparticle unite, annihilate each other, and produce one or more photons.’ Two things combine to create something new–which is exactly what happened with the beings inside the Shimmer.
The Ending Explained
When Lena and doppelgänger-Kane are reunited, she asks him if he is really Kane, and he answers, ‘no’. He then asks if she is really Lena, and she doesn’t reply. While this meant to be a bit more ‘open-ended’, it was crystal clear to me that yes, our ‘ending Lena’ was definitely the ‘original Lena’. But the really interesting question is, are you still the same person if your DNA changes? Physically, no, but Lena has retained her memories and experiences. This moment was hinted upon in one of the opening shots when we see Lena and Kane’s hand mingling through a glass of water–their hands are distorted; we can’t tell where one begins and the other ends, and though they are changed, they are still hands.
One little nugget you may have missed: after the crocodile-shark attack, Lena observes a bruise on her arm. In the debriefing, we can see the bruise has become a tattoo of an infinity sign. Coincidence? I think not–recall the conversation Lena has in the intro regarding the genetic flaw with aging. Could this be be a hint that her new mutations will prevent her from growing old?
Final question–who’s the real hero of this movie? My answer is Dr. Ventress, and let me tell you why. When Kane encountered his doppelgänger and then decided to kill himself, he did so with a flash grenade. It was also this method that Lena used to destroy her own aluminium-foil clone. So why did the lighthouse catch fire and burn? My theory is that it wasn’t the grenade that did it. When Lena’s doppelgänger absorbed Dr. Ventress, it also absorbed her cancer. It was this Earthly genetic mutation that ultimately killed the Shimmer.
*Images property of Paramount Pictures