Annihilation’s ending isn’t exactly easy to grasp on first watch, mainly because it’s deliberately ambiguous.
Unlike Alex Garland’s previous film Ex Machina, everything isn’t wrapped up neatly at the end.
Where Ex Machina’s ending (where you could watch another, equally fascinating, three-hours if Garland chose to provide it, but you were still satisfied when the credits rolled) felt like a complete conclusion, Annihilation’s final moments require a bit more work, and a bit more thought.
It should probably go without saying, but spoilers follow – only read the following if you’ve seen the film on Netflix (it’s streaming right now).
To summarise – in Annihilation Natalie Portman’s Lena faces off against a weird copy of herself, kills it (or does she?) then comes back to civilisation, before a surprise final shot reveals she has the Shimmer in her eyes, which could mean that the copy survived and replaced her while we weren’t looking!
So, who is it in that final image, and what does the ending mean? The book it’s based on (Annihilation is a 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s the first in a series of books called the Southern Reach Trilogy) won’t help us, as it’s radically different to Garland’s movie. So, to explain the meaning of those last minutes, we’re going to need to delve deep into the rest of the film itself.
Annihilation’s release in the States led to a whole load of lengthy think-pieces about how the whole film’s a metaphor for depression and, while those themes are in the mix, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Annihilation’s not about depression, it’s about self-destruction (the clue’s in the title, guys).
Obviously depression can be an element of self-destruction, which is why it’s explored in the film, but it’s not the whole story. And understanding the whole story is the key to unlocking the mystery of the film’s ending.
Alex Garland’s Annihilation is about the self-destruction that’s at the heart of human nature. The impulse is literally in our DNA, as the movie clearly states, using actual science. This idea of our bodies’ built-in self-destruction mode (aka the ageing process, or disease) is also present in one of the missionaries – Dr Ventress has cancer, it’s why she goes into the Shimmer.
Self-destruction is also present in our desires – the things we do that we know are bad for our bodies, or our minds. That element is present in the story both in terms of the drug addiction Anya Thorensen takes into the Shimmer, and in the affair that damaged Lena’s relationship with Kane (Oscar Isaac), which inspired her journey. This idea of the bad things we do to ourselves is another theme that’s directly discussed in the film.
Self-destruction is in our psychology, as a side-effect of the grieving process, represented by Cass Sheppard, who has had to rebuild herself after losing her child to such an extent she feels like two different people (the person she was before, the person she is now), and as a result of depression – with Josie Radek’s (Tessa Thompson) heavy sadness causing her to self-harm, and to essentially commit suicide by allowing herself to be forever changed by the Shimmer into a flower person – this idea of something blooming from an abyss is one that’ll come back at the film’s end (the fate of Dr Ventress).
Of these characters that represent self-destructive states, Cass Sheppard is the probably most important in terms of understanding the ending. Of the Shimmer-team, she’s the only one who evolved away from her trauma (even if she still carries the pain of it), foreshadowing Lena’s potential journey at the end of the film.
Some of the clues Alex Garland gives us about what the film means can be found in the character names. In the original book, none of the characters are identified, so this is something he’s added. Cass Shepard is named after both a character from Greek mythology (Cassandra – who made prophecies that went ignored) and after a shephard, someone who guides.
When Cass tells Lena of her journey from one state of being to another; a person who outwardly looks the same, but has a completely different inner-world, she’s both making a prophecy and providing guidance.
Lena is in the Shimmer because she’s going through her own grieving process, both over the loss of her husband and – separately – the loss of her marriage. She blames herself for her husband’s predicament, because deep down she knows he’s put himself in this dangerous situation because of the affair she was having each time he went away (this isn’t overtly stated in the film, but it’s definitely there in the flashbacks).
Just as Cass had to confront the reality of losing her child in order to rebuild and move forward, Lena has to face her own trauma, caused by what she’s done both to herself and her husband; she has to move past her self-hatred. The question is, does she manage it?
When she’s faced with her doppleganger, the seemingly alien creature created by the Shimmer to mimic her behaviour, she could react in a million different ways – she could shake its hand, dance with it, hug it – Lena could have transcended her pain and connected with herself.
That she chooses to attack the creature reveals how she feels about herself. It’s a negative response – the problem is, the more negativity you feed self-destruction, the stronger it gets, with the doppelganger getting more powerful with each attack.
In order to defeat it, Lena has to incorporate her most disturbing experience in the Shimmer – witnessing her husband’s death. She uses the same method Kane used to kill himself, the grenade, to destroy her doppleganger – to literally self-destruct. She uses his death to kill herself.
Lena destroys her doppleganger, and the Shimmer, returning home to be debriefed. Or does she?
Here’s where the ambiguity on Annihilation kicks in – as with any film involving doppelgangers, there’s the potential to make a last-minute switch, to have the evil twin survive and not the hero.
The film leans into this, with Lena blacking out when she’s in the lighthouse – meaning that a switch could have taken place at any off-screen moment. The last shot seems to suggest that’s what’s happened, hence the audience confusion.
But here’s where what the film’s been telling us all along can help us understand what’s actually going on – trauma leads to self-destruction, which leads to more trauma. We can make the choice to rebuild, like Cass, transform like Dr Ventress or Josie Radek, or we can stay in the same state, like Lena – until circumstances force us to change.
This is definitely Lena we’re seeing, and she’s been changed by what’s she’s experienced… to a certain extent. By fighting self-hate with self-destruction, she hasn’t actually moved beyond the Shimmer, or her trauma – she’ll carry both forever. The film shows us this literally – when we see the Shimmer in her eyes she’s holding on to the memory of her husband, not moving past him – she’s embracing the self-confessed copy of Kane, not rejecting it.
Her attachment to her husband – and to her feelings of self-hate – are like an addiction, which is why it’s so interesting the Shimmer has also given her the tattoo (a symbol of an infinite loop, no less!) that once belonged to a drug addict.
So, the ending might look happy – Lena’s reunited with Kane! – but it’s actually desperately bleak, as Lena will never be able to let go of the past.
It’s the only conclusion that makes sense in terms of what’s come before it – this is a character who constantly punishes herself with memories of her transgressions, who confronts an image of herself with violence. By refusing to evolve, Lena may change, but she’ll always stay the same – that’s the tragedy of self-destruction, and Annihilation.