Annihilation's Ending, Explained

WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Annihilation, in theaters now.

Annihilation, the latest movie from writer/director Alex Garland, hits theaters today. This is only his second film as a director, with 2014's critically-acclaimed Ex Machina marking his directorial debut.

The sci-fi thriller is an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, the first book in the author’s Southern Reach trilogy. It stars Natalie Portman (Jackie), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok), Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin), Tuva Novotny (Borg McEnroe), and Oscar Isaac (The Last Jedi). The movie is already receiving praise for its gorgeous visuals, palpable scares, and thought-provoking ambiguity.

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The basic premise of Annihilation is a simple one: Something has touched down on the West coast of the U.S., creating an environmental disaster zone referred to as The Shimmer. Within this zone, flora and fauna are mutating at a rapid rate. A number of military squads have been sent in to try to establish what is happening and what is causing it. However, the soldiers never reemerge from The Shimmer.

The one exception is Kane, who arrives back at his home with no idea what has happened over the past year. When he becomes severely ill, his wife Lena decides to join the next expedition going into The Shimmer to get answers. Lena is a biologist and ex-military herself, and she accompanies a psychologist, anthropologist, linguist, and a surveyor on their mission to reach a lighthouse which seems to be at the center of the phenomenon.

As the team enters the zone, they very quickly realize plants and animals are mutating and changing, but in a way that is similar to malignant cancer. A single vine-like plant they encounter early on has multiple different kinds of flowers; not just different colors, but different shapes and sizes as well. Soon, they are attacked by an immense albino crocodile that has concentric rows of teeth like a shark. All the lichen, moss, fungus, and mold on their trek is overgrown and multi-colored, giving the landscape an alien feel.

It becomes clear before long that the team is also being mutated. And we know something is really wrong when the linguist is killed by a mutated grizzly bear, which then takes on her voice…or at least her scream. We next see a number of flowering trees that have grown into perfect humanoid shapes, and it is mentioned that the trees likely have human Hox genes (those that control our body plan). Around this point, the anthropologist notes that The Shimmer seems to be a prism that reflects and refracts everything, from light waves to matter. The lines between living things are being blurred to the point that our characters are becoming the environment around them, and vice versa.

Only the psychologist and Lena ever make it to the lighthouse. While the audience knows from the start that The Shimmer is caused by something from space that hit the structure, it's only when Lena sees where the unidentified object impacted that she is sure of this, too.

From here, the interpretation of the scene becomes open to debate. There is definitely an alien presence warping everything around it, but it is unclear what the alien’s intentions are, or if it even has any goal other than to survive. Then, the filmmakers take it a step further and we see the alien(s) can perfectly emulate humans with just a small sample of their DNA.

Lena is the only character to make it out of The Shimmer alive, and much like her husband Kane, she has no recollection of how she escaped. When the two are finally reunited, Lena confronts Kane about him being a copy. He seems to acknowledge he is, and she responds by affirming she is the original Lena. However, when they embrace, the camera pauses on her eyes and we see they look almost ultraviolet.

To clarify, in the end they are both only part human, with the other part likely an alien fungus or virus. While the film's ending sets up a sequel, interestingly, Garland had only read the first book of Southern Reach when he wrote the screenplay for Annihilation. Thus, he did not plan a trilogy, though if this film proves successful, it's likely the studio will commission at last one follow-up.

In theaters now, Annihilation is directed by Alex Garland and stars Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson.

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