Director Alex Garland returns to high-concept sci-fi with his latest film, Annihilation. We explore what happened to Lena (Natalie Portman) in the ending and what it means for the Shimmer as well as future adaptations of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy.
Annihilation follows Lena, who's still grieving her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who left on a covert mission on year prior and never returned. When Kane mysteriously returns one day, he and Lena are taken in by the organization known as Southern Reach and brought to a location only known as Area X. From there, Lena is told about the Shimmer, an unknown phenomena that began when a lighthouse was struck by something and has been spreading for three years. Though Southern Reach has sent teams into the Shimmer, no one ever returned - that is, until Kane.
Major spoilers for Annihilation follow.
Unfortunately, Kane is grievously ill, so Lena joins an expedition into the Shimmer in an effort to potentially save her husband. The expedition is lead by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and also includes Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). However, once they enter the Shimmer, they immediately lose their memories of their first six or so days, and they begin to notice how different the vegetation and animal life is all around them. As a biologist, Lena is able to explain that the cells of everything within the Shimmer are mutating at an alarming rate. While some of the mutations are beautiful, others are horrific, like the creature that kills Sheppard, and then is able to replicate Sheppard's cries for help in order to lure and attack Thorensen.
Related: Who's In The Cast Of Annihilation?
While the entire Shimmer is full of weird things, Annihilation truly gets strange once Lena catches up to Ventress at the Lighthouse and discovers the source of the Shimmer. There, Lena discovers the Kane who returned home isn't the same man who left, and Ventress has been overtaken by the thing in the center of the hole under the Lighthouse. Then, a mirror-Lena is created, and the true Lena is able to escape the Lighthouse only after using a bomb to destroy the creature, which sets fire to the source and brings down Shimmer. Lena returns to Area X where she's interrogated by Lomax (Benedict Wong) at Southern Reach, after which she's reunited with Kane. At least, that's the way it appears at first glance.
A great deal happens in Annihilation and for those confused by the ending, we explore what exactly it all means and how the final scenes can be interpreted.
The Shimmer Explained (This Page)
The Shimmer Explained
In the beginning of Annihilation, we're shown something traveling through space, breaking through the Earth's atmosphere and falling from the sky to crash into the Lighthouse. Based on this, we can assume the source of the Shimmer is alien, but we don't exactly know the makeup of this alien thing. When Lena is asked by the Authority whether it's carbon-based or sentient, she simply states she doesn't know. Nothing in Annihilation suggests the source of the Shimmer is alive in the sense that it contains consciousness.
We know that wherever the Shimmer spreads, it changes the landscape and the creatures within it, but the movie suggests this is simply its nature, not a conscious decision. This is evidenced when Lena explains her fight with the mirror creature and says she didn't think it knew what it was doing, it simply mirrored her movements. The reason the Shimmer mirrors Lena and the environment surrounding it is explained by Josie Radek, who figures out the Shimmer is a prism. But instead of refracting only light, it refracts DNA - the DNA of plants, animals, humans, etc. This means, when DNA enters the Shimmer, it's changed, which explains why Lena's blood and the internal organs of the man in Kane's expedition are changed.
As we see throughout the movie, the mutations and changes to the environment, as well as the creatures, become more intense the closer the expedition gets to the Lighthouse. The alligator Lena's expedition faces early in the movie merely has mutated teeth, whereas the nightmarish creature that kills Sheppard and Thorensen has been changed to a much more extreme extent, so that it's nearly unrecognizable. Further, the human-shaped plants are an example of a relatively mild mutation, while the crystal-like trees closer to the Lighthouse are evidence of a much more extreme mutation.
But, once Lena - and, by extension, the viewer - gets closer to the source of the Shimmer by going inside the Lighthouse to explore the crater left by the alien's crash landing, Annihilation moves beyond relatively easy scientific explanations. So, what exactly happened inside the Lighthouse?
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