Annihilation was one of the most exciting sci-fi movies of the last few years: a plot that opens up slowly, many questions coming up while we watch it, and an open ending full of meaning. The movie, directed by Alex Garland in 2018, may need to be explained. In this article, we will provide an exhaustive explanation for your understanding.
You can watch the official trailer for Annihilation here on Youtube.
Annihilation plot & ending explained: what happens to Kane and Lena?
In optics, refraction is the phenomenon in which light or an electromagnetic wave undergoes a deviation from its initial direction when it passes through the interface between two transparent substances. In biology, replication is the mechanism by which a copy of cellular DNA is produced during cell division. In medicine, a tumor is a mass of tissue that grows excessively and in a disorganized manner compared to normal tissues, persisting in this state even after the cessation of the stimuli that initiated the process. What if the first phenomenon we described directly affects the other two? This is where the plot and ending of Annihilation want to lead us – let’s see how the meaning can be explained.
Something fell from the sky and crashed near a lighthouse. We don’t know what it is, and we’re not precisely sure where it crashed. From the impact site, a glow emerged, a sort of luminous bubble with an opalescent surface that slowly began to expand and engulf the surrounding area. Like a tumor. It is impossible to understand what the glow is and what happens inside it: the military sends drones and entire teams of soldiers, but no one returns, and nothing can communicate with the outside. Kane (Oscar Isaac) is part of the last team sent inside the glow, and he hasn’t returned for a year. His wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), a former soldier and biology professor at John Hopkins University, unaware of her husband’s mission, mourns his disappearance. Until one day, Kane materializes at the door of their room, pale and in a confused state. The plot of Annihilation just kicked off.
After exchanging a few words, Kane starts convulsing and vomiting blood. While Lena accompanies him to the hospital, military vehicles stop the ambulance and force everyone to get out. Lena is anesthetized and wakes up in Area X, a military camp built near the glow. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) shows her the expanding glow and explains that, currently, Kane (who is now on the verge of death) is the only one who has returned among all those who ventured inside. Determined to understand what has reduced Kane to that state and to find a solution to the glow that seems to devour everything, Lena joins Dr. Ventress and three other women from her team: Josie (Tessa Thompson), Cassie (Tuva Novotny), and Anya (Gina Rodriguez) in the first scientific mission (non-military) inside the glow.
Once they cross the surface of the glow, all the laws of physics, nature, and time cease to exist: time flows differently inside compared to the outside, different flowers grow from the same plants, twin deer with flowered branches instead of antlers appear in the woods, albino alligators with shark-like teeth roam, and strange fungi that appear to breathe grow on trees and walls. Until now, the plot of Annihilation hasn’t explained what is really happening, and we need to wait until the ending to have a full understanding of its meaning.
The glow is like a prism that can refract electromagnetic waves and reprogram DNA sequences of plants, animals, and fungi, creating terrifying mutations that are impossible in reality. The organic material of the three kingdoms fuses with the inorganic material of the few buildings in the area, creating horrifying amalgamations.
The closer they get to the lighthouse, the more the five women become aware that this continuous mutation also affects their bodies, as well as everything around them. Cassie and Anya are torn apart by a gigantic hybrid of bear and wolf, which, after killing Cassie, starts screaming “Help!” in Cassie’s voice. Josie resigns herself to the ongoing mutations and transforms into an anthropomorphic plant. Ventress continues her path towards the lighthouse, and Lena discovers disturbing new details about Kane’s mission. This leads us to the ending of Annihilation, which needs to be explained separately.
Arriving near the lighthouse, like a new Alice in Wonderland venturing into the White Rabbit’s den, Lena discovers that the real Kane has committed suicide, and the one who returned home is nothing but a copy. Then she encounters the source of the glow: an indefinable being that emanates from what remains of Dr. Ventress’s body (who arrived before Lena) and begins to shape a copy of Lena, just as it did with Kane. After an intense struggle with this being, Lena manages to overpower her copy by setting it on fire with a phosphorus bomb. This ignites a fire that destroys the lighthouse, the alien entity, and Lena’s copy, putting an end to the phenomenon of the glow.
In quarantine at the base camp, Lena reunites with Kane’s doppelganger (completely healed after the end of the glow) and embraces him, aware that she herself is no longer the same as before.
Annihilation: the movie meaning
It’s difficult to try to have the meaning of Annihilation fully explained. Three years after the great success of his debut feature film, Ex Machina (although some sources confirm that he also directed most of the film Dredd in 2012, based on the 2000 AD comic), screenwriter and director Alex Garland decided to bring the first novel of the Southern Reach Trilogy (composed of Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance), a new weird science fiction saga written by the award-winning Jeff VanderMeer, to the big screen. However, he and the author agreed to extensively modify the original novel in order to create a different and standalone film.
In Annihilation, the plot itself is not particularly interesting, as it follows the meaning and the shape of a familiar and recurrent structure. What is captivating is the way Garland manages to reshape many elements of this structure (much like the shimmer does in his film), making them original and intriguing. The ending of Annihilation has effectively explained why the movie is conceived in this way, and what’s its meaning.
The film goes beyond being a metaphor about tumors, death, and fear of the unknown. It owes a lot to the works of John Carpenter (starting from the essential The Thing to the less expected Starman and Prince of Darkness), the body horror logic of David Cronenberg, and the surreal nightmares of R.H. Giger (it’s impossible not to think of him during the scene where the fused skeleton with the wall and the mushrooms is discovered). Garland presents his film as an irrational nightmare: a chronicle of a direct encounter with the Lovecraftian unknown, something that frightens us because we cannot comprehend it. Beyond what happens within the shimmer, what stands out is the way Garland (an experienced screenwriter, not a novice by any means) chooses to portray the outside world, the real world. In the flashbacks depicting Lena and Kane’s lives (including her betrayal), the actors’ performances are mechanical, the expressions less expressive, and the dialogue banal, if not downright ugly, as if paradoxically there is more humanity after the various transformations.
This is particularly interesting in relation to the question posed in the ending of Annihilation, which needs to be explained: why was Lena able to defeat her doppelganger while Kane wasn’t? Why were they the only ones to emerge? It appears that was the alien’s plan from the beginning. The alien is not defeated (as we might think based on human logic) because now Lena and Kane’s doppelganger are the alien: the only two characters in the film who entered the shimmer with a purpose rather than a self-destructive impulse, the only two who emerged from it, even though they were annihilated and transformed into something different. The new Adam and Eve, whose future moves are unknown. Will they bring change? Or will they bring destruction? Change and destruction have never been concepts so closely linked as they are now.
The visual aspect of Annihilation is the most surprising element of the plot and plays an important part in the context of its meaning. After a nearly minimalist debut film, Garland indulges in an unsettling psychedelic delirium that reaches its peak in the final thirty minutes when Lena encounters the alien and witnesses the creation of her doppelganger. These are long, essentially silent sequences in which the lights and terrifying sounds emitted by the creature become almost hypnotic until the appearance of a humanoid figure (opal-like, akin to the surface of the shimmer) of Lena’s doppelganger, which doesn’t seem to be malevolent. Instead, it reflects Lena and only attacks when attacked. The direction is completely different from Ex Machina, a testament to Garland’s great versatility, establishing him as one of the directors to closely watch in this field. Although the computer-generated imagery is not excellent in the central part (although great in the ending), the effort to create a new visual world is commendable. While it builds upon the foundations laid by the giants of the 1980s, it manages to establish its own autonomy. Considering the film’s modest budget, any shortcomings can be forgiven.
Intended for the big screen, Annihilation scared Paramount Pictures to the point that they sold the international distribution rights (excluding the USA and China) to Netflix, to the initial disappointment of the director. It is one of the first cases (along with The Cloverfield Paradox) of a mid-budget entertainment film ending up on a streaming platform after being designed for the cinema. Released in theaters in the United States on February 23, 2018, Annihilation arrived on Netflix for streaming on March 12 of the same year in all countries where the service is available. This sparked a heated debate about the usefulness of this distribution method, which could lead this type of film to disappear from cinemas. However, to this day, Annihilation stands as one of the best examples to demonstrate that high-quality original films can be found among Netflix’s offerings.