Warning! Spoilers to follow for Annihilation. Come back later if you haven't seen it yet.
Writer/director Alex Garland has long been one of the most fascinating sci-fi storytellers in the film industry. He was brought into the medium when Danny Boyle adapted his first novel, The Beach, back in 2000, but he has since left an indelible mark with scripts for movies like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd. In 2013 he made his fascinating directorial debut with Ex Machina, showcasing an ending that still has us talking today, but now he has stirred up a whole new conversation among cinefiles with his sophomore effort, Annihilation.
The new film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by author Jeff VanderMeer -- but Alex Garland has notably taken some liberties with the source material, particularly with the end of the story. There are many things that go down in the third act of Annihilation that are not only very different than the book, but have the effect of changing how you see the events in the first two acts. So what is The Shimmer? What is the ultimate fate of Lena and Kane? That's exactly what we're here to break down today.
What Happens At The End Of The Film
The beginning of the end starts at The Lighthouse. After a long journey through The Shimmer, Lena (Natalie Portman) is the only remaining member of her team, and goes into the ground zero location by herself. Upon entering, she sees a charred body propped up against a wall, and a video camera pointing directly at it. Hitting play on the recording, she watches what she eventually learns are the final moments in the life of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). After a few shots of the area surrounding The Lighthouse, the video has the Army sergeant talking about losing his sense of self in The Shimmer, and telling a figure off-camera to find Lena. He then pulls the pin on a phosphorous grenade and kills himself -- leading the off-camera figure to reveal itself as Kane's duplicate.
At this moment, Lena realizes that her husband never actually ever came back from his mission -- but she is determined to complete her own. She finds the hole that was created by the crashing meteor that brought The Shimmer, and follows it down into the ground. It's in a cavern that she finds Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) sitting and muttering to herself. When the team leader notices Lena's presence, she asks about the last thing they discussed: needing to know what it was that was inside The Lighthouse. Like Kane, Ventress has lost herself within The Shimmer, recognizing the deterioration her body and mind, and dubs the spread of the extraterrestrial force, "Annihilation." Before Lena's eyes Ventress' form comes apart, and we see the energy that remains absorb blood from a cut on the protagonist's face. With this DNA a new form is created, featureless and reflective. Scared, Lena fires her gun into the creature, but it appears to have no effect.
Lena crawls back up to The Lighthouse, but is shocked to find the alien already there waiting. She attempts to escape, but finds that her efforts are thwarted by the being mirroring her every move. When she begins to understand the pattern, it begins to morph into her duplicate, but it's a process that is interrupted. Lena gives the entity one of the remaining phosphorous grenades, and it explodes after she leaves -- leading the duplicate to set fire to the core of The Shimmer and destroy it.
Back in the present, Lomax (Benedict Wong) wraps up his interrogation with Lena, trying to grasp the details of what happened in The Lighthouse. Lena can't speak to what the extraterrestrial force wanted, but notes that it wasn't destroying anything; it was creating something new. She is told not only that The Shimmer is gone, but that Kane has stabilized and that she can see him.
Lena goes to Kane's room in quarantine, but she approaches him like a stranger. "You aren't Kane, are you?" she asks. "I don't think so," he replies. "Are you Lena?" Without answering, Lena embraces the duplicate of her husband, and we see in his eyes that the Shimmer has not entirely gone away -- still left floating in his irises. He is not alone, however, as it's revealed that the Shimmer is still present in Lena's eyes as well.
So what does this all mean? What exactly happened? Let's dive in...
What Was The Shimmer?
As clearly stated by Benedict Wong's Lomax, the cause of the event known as The Shimmer was extraterrestrial. It landed with a meteor that crashed to Earth at The Lighthouse, and slowly began to alter the environment around it at a cellular level. That said, the movie also never assigns a specific intention to its presence, and because it can't exactly articulate, the goals are never made explicit.
This is not vague-ness for the sake of vague-ness, however. There is no clear mission to interpret from The Shimmer because there is no clear mission. Annihilation isn't the story of a destructive alien invasion, but rather the introduction of an entirely new nature that takes what exists, refracts it, and changes it. And while annihilation of the old is necessary in the forging of the new, it itself is an altered reflection of humanity's own self-destructive nature.
The entire film is a meditation on our existence, and it starts laying down its heaviest themes early -- beginning with the classroom lecture about the ever-splitting cell, and continuing into the bedroom flashback with the discussion of the fallibility of god. Our cells are constantly dividing and refreshing, and yet we age and die, which Lena posits isn't logical. Going further, the movie argues this flaw extends to a natural impulse in our humanity -- specifically an impulse that drives us to self-destruction.
In terms of illustrating this in the characters, Alex Garland is far from subtle in this arena, with Tuva Novotny's Cass Sheppard laying out most of it during the boat ride through the swamp, and the rest coming out naturally in the story. Cass lost her daughter and sense of self; Gina Rodriguez's Anya Thorensen is an addict; Tessa Thompson's Josie Radek cuts herself; Jennifer Jason Leigh's Dr. Ventress needs answers before cancer kills her; and Lena is an adulterer. These are flaws and tendencies not only carried into The Shimmer by the women, but what brings them there in the first place.
As Josie points out in the second act, though, none of them are the same after they cross the pearlescent walls of The Shimmer, now always in constant mutation with the environment around them. We ultimately see this manifest in multiple ways in the area, like tattoos shifting between characters and the "malignancy" on the wall, but the most significant and fascinating are the concepts of life and death (The ouroboros that appears on Lena's forearm halfway through the movie isn't just a cool design). Within The Shimmer, it's presented that there is harmoniousness between the two states -- beautifully represented in the duplicated deer with flowered antlers that Lena spots while searching for Cass' body -- but also clear extremes. On one end of the spectrum there is the horror of the decomposing-yet-living bear, practically the embodiment of violent slaughter that even absorbs Cass' sheer terror as it is ripping her throat out. On the opposite end there is Josie, who chooses not to fight or resist the nature of the environment. Relieving herself of her self-destructive impulses literally leads beautiful flowers to erupt from her scars. There is no alien insidiousness or aggression -- everything is simply a refraction of what already exists.
This is all perceptible within the events at The Lighthouse as well, and furthermore it's part of Lena's account during her interrogation. After the "annihilation" of Dr. Ventress, the core of The Shimmer creates a duplicate of Lena from her own DNA -- but it's an echo that doesn't do anything more than imitate every move that she makes. Because Lena attacks the duplicate, the duplicate attacks her, which is not only another perfectly literal illustration of self-destruction, but serves to illustrate the nature of the alien as part of the environment around it. She makes a different choice than Kane, using the phosphorous grenade to burn the duplicate and by extension the entire Shimmer... but not every remnant of the incident is turned to ash.
Who Are Lena And Kane Now?
Before their individual experiences in The Shimmer, Lena and Kane were a mostly happy couple, first meeting in the military and living a good life together. Lena having an affair with her colleague (David Gyasi) caused them to start drifting apart, and drove Kane to take the mysterious assignment at Area X. Because of these events, they were already well on the road towards changing as a couple and individuals, but the end of Annihilation they go through much more than just emotional growth.
For starters, Kane -- the man that Lena fell in love with and married -- dies. As seen on the video camera left inside The Lighthouse, he lost his sense of self, and committed suicide my detonating a phosphorous grenade in his lap. As part of this, it's revealed that the post-Shimmer Kane we first met in Lena's house at the start of the film isn't actually Kane, but instead his duplicate. Based on what we see, it appears that he initially struggles to adapt to the world outside the alien environment, but following Lena's return and the destruction of The Shimmer is able to stabilize and function properly.
A different case entirely is Lena, who is still herself, and not the duplicate that was created in The Lighthouse. That said, the final shot of Annihilation clearly shows that she has not left the experience behind. While The Shimmer has disappeared and all traces appear to be gone, Lena's cellular modification has continued, as seen within her eyes. The implications of this are left to be interpreted (Alex Garland has said he has no interest in making a sequel), but it's pretty easy to guess that her life with Kane won't just continue on as though the whole ordeal didn't happen. It's hard to determine the full effect of her transformation, but one might imagine that she spends the rest of her life with swirling fingerprints and maybe even squirming guts.
Annihilation is a film that was specifically designed to stir conversation and debate within its audiences, and surely there will be those with thoughts different than mine. Hit the comments section below to leave your own perspective on the film, and tell us what you think about the existence of The Shimmer and the ultimate fate of Lena and Kane.
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NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.