With spoilers, we take a closer look at what’s going on under the surface of Alex Garland’s spectacular Annihilation…
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
NB: This is your final warning for major Annihilation spoilers.
What exactly is the Shimmer? How does it relate to the lighthouse we see in the opening scenes? These questions and others, flying around like moths, help drive Annihilation to its psychedelic, boldly weird conclusion. In recent months, there’s been much talk about Annihilation and its shift from a theatrical debut and a more low-key release in Europe. Now that the film’s out, we can, thankfully, move the conversation on to a new topic: how smart and thought-provoking the film actually is.
Indeed, Annihilation brings to the screen the kind of plot and imagery that thoroughly deserves thought and dissection. There are moments of tension and outright horror in here, certainly, but like Garland’s Ex Machina before it, Annihilation favors character and story over explosions and bombast.
Not that Annihilation isn’t mesmerizing to look at. In America’s deep south, a bubble-like field of light has appeared – an unearthly event dubbed the Shimmer by scientists. Of all the expeditions sent to explore it, all have vanished, except for one soldier – Kane (Oscar Isaac), the husband of a scientist, Lana (Natalie Portman). With Kane gravely ill following a sudden reappearance months later, Lana joins a mission to journey into the Shimmer to discover its source, which happens to be the lighthouse we saw at the film’s beginning.
What follows is like a trippy amalgam of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. The further into the Shimmer Lana and her team venture, the more the cracks in their psyche begin to widen. Not long after they enter the Shimmer, psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) observes that every member of the group is damaged in some way. Lana’s seemingly motivated by her husband’s near-death; Radek (Tessa Thompson) has a history of self harm, and so on.
In fact, it soon becomes clear that it isn’t scientific curiosity that motivates this disparate group of women to head into the Shimmer, but self-destruction. Lana’s privately driven by the guilt of having an affair with a colleague – an affair that seemingly prompted her husband to head off on an earlier mission into the zone when he caught wind of it. Dr Ventress operates on a similar morbid energy; not only has she spent months assessing other soldiers and sending them off to their apparent deaths in the Shimmer, but she’s also suffering from terminal cancer. To her, the Shimmer itself becomes the embodiment of death: a spectre to be faced head on, to be met on her own terms rather than waiting passively for it to envelop her.
Dr Ventress notes that self-destruction appears to be written into our very DNA; just as our cells are programmed to degrade as they divide and replicate, so we drink, smoke, behave impulsively. The image of cells dividing is reflected in the effects of the Shimmer; Radek forms the theory that the field has fractal effect on everything it meets: it creates distorted copies, resulting in the surreal things dotted through much of the film: the psychedelic lichen, the people who’ve seemingly transformed into flowers, or the horrifying bear that emits the screams of a dying woman.
One by one, the group succumbs to the effects of the Shimmer, each in their own way, leaving Lana to confront the secret of the lighthouse alone.
Anyone expecting tidy, Hollywood answers from Annihilation’s third act may have been disappointed by Garland’s fever-dream freak-out of an ending. The events in the lighthouse are open to a certain amount of interpretation, given the lack of narrative hand-holding, but the clues are all there in those dying, deeply weird final minutes.
By watching a video camera left behind by the last expedition, Lana realises that the man who returned earlier wasn’t her husband, but a doppelganger created by the Shimmer itself; her real husband took his own life with a flash grenade, and captured the moment on the camera. We saw earlier what kind of effects the Shimmer exerts a kind of fractal effect on cells: here, in the heart of the anomaly, it appears to be able to create perfect copies of whatever stumbles into its path. After Ventress is seemingly absorbed by the Shimmer, we see that it attempts to do the same thing to Lana: a shadowy, featureless humanoid soon emerges, which copies the heroine’s every move.
Again, there’s a certain level of ambiguity in these final moments. Before her death, Ventress stated that the Shimmer was some kind of alien force intent on enveloping the planet. If so, we might wonder whether it’s hostile or whether, as a character suggested earlier in the film, it’s like a cancer – something that simply exists and replicates itself for its own purpose. There’s also the question of why Ventress wasn’t replicated, and why the Shimmer let Lana go as the lighthouse burned, seemingly without putting up much of a struggle.
For what it’s worth, here’s a theory: the Shimmer was looking for a healthy male and female human to infiltrate and send out beyond its borders. We saw at the beginning how the Shimmer came to Earth and began to grow and mutate within its own bubble; maybe it can’t survive in the conditions outside its own field, but can once it’s found a suitable host. Ventress was deathly ill and therefore probably unsuitable, unlike Lana. Sure, Lana may have destroyed her doppelganger, but we knew from an earlier scene that the Shimmer had already taken hold in her cells. It could be that the Shimmer allowed itself to burn because its job was already done: it would live on in the bodies of Lana and the cloned Kane, no in the outside world and – who knows – ready to further the Shimmer’s subtle spread around the planet.
All of this is surface-level stuff, though. Beneath the plot and its strange events, there’s the symbolic, metaphorical meaning of the Shimmer and the characters’ journey towards it. Strip away the layers of trippy sci-fi, and we’d argue that Annihilation is a poetic metaphor for the darker impulses that drive us as human beings. In one way or another, its characters are all touched in some way by evidence of guilt, depression or self-loathing; Lana herself, although she may consciously think she’s trying to save the world, or maybe at least find out a truth that can save her desperately ill husband, but the drive that underlies it all is at least partly self-destructive.
The Shimmer – or Area X, as the military call it – could therefore be read as a stand-in for depression: an invisible force that disrupts and changes from within. A lost sense of time; forgetfulness; despair, fear, anger, paranoia – these are all things the human characters experience in Annihilation, and anyone who’s experienced depression will surely recognize at least some of those emotions. The featureless creature in the lighthouse also reads as depression made flesh: a nebulous figure that shadows us, fights us, weighs down on us.
Taken this way, Annihilation is about a woman who journeys to the centre of her depression and self-loathing. Like Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan, she confronts her shadowy self and wins; the Shimmer is destroyed, but her journey into it will always leave a mark. The ominous final shot of Lana and Kane suggests they’ve come out of the experience as very different beings; whether they’re better or worse is left to us to decide.
Of course, there are doubtless other interpretations of Annihilation, too. There are some who’ve taken an ecological theme from the movie; others have suggested it’s a metaphor for disease. For this writer, it’s the themes of self-destruction and despair that ring through most clearly; whatever your interpretation, the very fact that Annihilation is capable of provoking so many different interpretations is surely a sign of a great movie.
The Shimmer may be gone, but we suspect we’ll be thinking and dissecting Annihilation’s events for many years to come.