What does the end of Annihilation (2018) mean?
Annihilation directed by Alex Garland is an adaptation of the 2014 book by Jeff Vandermeer of the same name. The story centers on Lena, played by Natalie Portman as she and a group of explorers journey into a quarantined area known as “The Shimmer”. One aspect of the film that has led to its fair share of discussion is the meaning of the ending.
The film starts with Lena being interrogated in quarantine. She is probed about how she survived as she managed to survive for months on two weeks of rations. She is then questioned about members of her squad who were missing or dead. We see a meteorite crash into a lighthouse and this area will become a focal point for the film, the center of the Shimmer.
Lena is shown to be a biologist and military veteran and married to another military veteran. She is also shown to have struggled with infidelity with a colleague.
We’re then introduced to “Kane” played by Oscar Isaac her husband who had been missing for over a year. She immediately throws herself into welcoming him back before questioning where he’s been or why he’s been gone for a year.
Kane, notably, is unable to answer anything, even how he managed to get home. Kane then falls ill to the point of needing to be hospitalized.
But before they can reach the hospital, an armed military group stops their ambulance and spirits them away to a virtual black site dubbed, Area X
We’re introduced to the psychologist, Dr. Ventress played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who serves to introduce “The Shimmer”, a mysterious area that has been spreading for the last 3 years, from the same lighthouse seen at the beginning of the film.
Dr. Ventress also tells Lena that they’ve lost contact with every single team that they’ve sent into “The Shimmer”. Kane is an exception but he is also in a coma.
Lena volunteers to explore the area with the goal of finding something to aid Kane and is subsequently joined by physicist Josie Radek played by Tessa Thompson, a paramedic Anya Thorensen played by Gina Rodriguez, and Cassie “Cass” Pritchard played by Tuva Novotny, and Dr.Ventress.
The team sets off but gets quickly disoriented. They awaken having travelled for days but not remembering any of the details. They observe the various wildlife within “The Shimmer” all of which bares some sign of mutation.
Upon reaching a military base the group finds video logs of the doomed expedition, one features a soldier being cut open only to reveal his organs moving, like a worm or snake-like creature. The group finds his remains covered or perhaps blended with fungi where the footage was recorded.
When night comes, a horrifying creature, dubbed by fans as the Skull Bear, attacks the group and kills Cass. The next day, the group encounters some human-life plants and Anya realizes everyone is likely to mutate. She ties up everyone, vents her concerns, and baits the Skull Bear to attack. She is mauled and killed. Josie manages to kill the beast.
Following this, Ventress flees to the Lighthouse, Josie gives up the fight and becomes one with nature and Lena is left to struggle through it alone. On her journey, she sees what happened to Kane in another video. Notably, she sees his clone as the cameraman to his demise.
Lena finally makes it to the lighthouse where she encounters Ventress, who believes “The Shimmer” will consume everything. She then explodes into a sort of cosmic dust, leaving Lena to face a humanoid automaton that physically dominates her before she tricks it into killing itself in the same way Kane did previously.
She finishes her story and is allowed to leave quarantine. She confirms that the current “Kane” isn’t “really” Kane but he returns the question and she doesn’t answer. They embrace and the film ends.
Ambiguous endings have a bit of a bad reputation in film and television. For many in the audience, the desire for closure outweighs almost every other part of the narrative. For example, the ending of Sopranos vs. the ending of Breaking Bad. Both serve their narrative purposes, but while Breaking Bad’s ending is a definite ending and much beloved, the reaction to the ending of the Sopranos was much more mixed which is a risk one takes with ambiguity.
Tying it back to film, while many appreciated the endings of Inception and Blade Runner, fan speculation oftentimes disregards the narrative to focus solely on the importance of the ending when discussion arises.
Annihilation does have an ambiguous ending. But that very ambiguity serves as the crux of the film.
As mentioned before the film centers on the perspective of Lena. She’s the audience’s POV character. We learn about the loss of her husband and her grief more explicitly than any of the other characters and the camera rarely leaves her.
Her grief is a motivator as she has been “unfaithful” to her husband and she blames herself for his death believing him to have taken a suicide mission into The Shimmer. When confronted in the Shimmer, she chooses to fight it. She’s nearly killed until she accepts it, accepts what is happening, and then adapts as necessary to survive.
When returning to Kane it is known both by Lena and the audience that the Kane she is with is not “her” Kane. Not the original man. But on that same note, she’s not “his” Lena. The individuals they were before exploring the shimmer are gone.
The film asks the audience to engage with a metaphor. The Shimmer while being in a literal sense, an alien zone of mystery, also represents a variety of concepts.
The Shimmer as Cancer
The topic of cancer is a recurrent one in the film. Lena starts the film discussing cancer with her students. Ventress is dying of cancer. Cass’s daughter died of Cancer.
The topic of cancer is a difficult one to broach despite its presence in the popular conscious. Cancer’s nature as a corruption of the normal fits “The Shimmer” The various mutations seen within its borders serve as examples of the unrestrained mal-formation of what would be considered normal. “The Shimmer” reconstructs and reconstructs but the creatures it makes are seen as hodgepodges of life at best and corruptions of nature at worst, as seen with the Skull Bear.
“The Shimmer” as an entity doesn’t do this out of malice though. Much like cancer, it just reproduces, endlessly. Its nature is to reproduce whatever enters it.
The Shimmer as “Self Destruction”
The five women who enter “The Shimmer” all come with their own various problems. Ventress is dying of cancer, Josie is a self-harmer, Cass is still grieving the loss of her daughter, Anya is an addict, and Lena feels guilt for her failings as a wife.
When confronted by the nature of “The Shimmer” Cass and Anya meet violent ends, Cass, by random chance, and Anya, by giving into rage. Josie wishes for anything but that and peacefully becomes a plant within “The Shimmer” arguably a suicide and arguably an acceptance of the reality they’re faced with.
Ventress and Lena both soldier on, but between the two of them Ventress is dying and thus views “The Shimmer” as inevitably ending the human race. Making humans inhuman.
Lena, confronted by the automaton, tries to fight it but reaches a level of self-acceptance and an acceptance of death. She destroys herself by mimicking what she saw Kane can do and with that acceptance of destruction, she’s able to escape. The meaning can be, you must learn to accept yourself as you are but also you can argue it is, ego death, the death of oneself, or a sense of self.
Lena does, when asked if she’s really Lena, refuse to answer.
The Shimmer as “Relationships”
One of the more compelling theories as posed by Dan Olson of Folding Ideas, is that “The Shimmer” is representative of the nature of “relations to others”.
Within “The Shimmer” the audience is shown the refractive nature of the area. How it doesn’t necessarily directly copy anything but instead blends elements. In a literal sense, it contains, impossible plants and hybrid animals such as the Shark-Gator and the Skull Bear.
But within “The Shimmer” the audience also sees how people and their connections affect each other. One notable example is the tattoo. We first see it on Anya, in passing. but the film begins to pay more and more attention to it especially when the soldier with the snake insides is on screen and the same tattoo is present. And we see the same tattoo on Lena at the end of the film.
By this, we can see the same instance of people literally leaving their marks on each other. But aside from that it broaches a more philosophical definition of self. For instance, when Kane asks Lena if is she really Lena, is she the same person she was before she left? Yes and no. She may have the same consciousness and memories but physically she has changed. When interacting with others their actions and words serve a similar function as the Shimmer.
It can be seen in groups where members adopt actions to show affiliation, and couples who’ve lived together for a while adapt to each other’s shortcomings both molding and being molded by their partner. Parents are forced to change for their children and children by their parents.
All these serve as cases of “The Other” influencing “The Self” but not necessarily in a negative manner. “The Shimmer” and thus the ending can be read as an acknowledgment of the growth or at least alterations Lena and Kane have made to themselves. The refractions they’ve reflected on to each other.
What do you think? Leave a comment.