By now you’ve heard how Alex Garland’s Annihilation shares little in common with its source material, the first novel of the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. Which means that even if you’ve read more of those books than Garland or his cast, you might not know what to make of the film’s final and confounding scene. So let’s talk it out.
Major spoilers for Annihilation ahead.
Annihilation employs a framing device wherein Lena (Natalie Portman), the biologist from the novel, is being interrogated by a hazmat-suited operative of the Southern Reach. After untold casualties, she is now the second person to return from the mysterious and seemingly dangerous Shimmer. But considering her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) came back with apparent amnesia and massive failing of his organs, she’s the first they can actually question about what lies beyond the bubble-like walls of this bizarre phenomenon. This means the entire film is told through Lena’s perspective. More specifically, it’s told by the Lena who survived the Shimmer. Which means her account may not be all that reliable. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
After three of her team were killed by the Shimmer’s beasts and flora, Lena ventures on to the lighthouse at its core. She’s in search of the source of the Shimmer and of Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the psychologist who led this seemingly suicidal mission. There in the lighthouse, she witnesses Ventress being overtaken by the enigmatic extraterrestrial entity that is the Shimmer’s origin. But more importantly, she finds another video message made by her husband, Kane. In this one, he is dirty and distraught, then kills himself using an incendiary grenade. Lena is shocked, looking at the scorched skeleton before her and trying to understand how her husband could have returned home, yet be here, dead. Then the video reveals a second Kane. He is clean and calm, and clearly the one who came into her home, confused.
Earlier, Josie discovered the Shimmer’s refractionary evolution influence, where human structure was being reflected into the growth pattern of plants, making flower figures that resembled people. In the lighthouse, we see this refraction take on its final, frightening form in a liquid metal figure that mirrors Lena’s motions. After a dangerous dance, she manages to escape it by setting the lighthouse on fire, which shatters the Shimmer.
Annihilation cuts back to Lena in the examination room, where she’s completed her story and asks to see Kane. Now both the audience and Lena realize this is not the man she married, but the reflection of him manifested by the Shimmer. Curiously, since the Shimmer’s destruction, his condition has stabilized. But will she want this Kane that is only a strange copy of her husband? Or does she want to confront the thing that led to her husband’s suicide? She goes to him, and he acknowledges that he is not the man she knew. Yet, she holds him, and hugs him. And in both of their eyes, there is the same other-worldy shimmer. And I’m not talking a metaphorical one of romance. It’s there and unnerving and meant to signal that whatever alien thing is inside of this Kane is inside Lena too.
This leads to two possible readings of the end of Annihilation. The first ties back to that nightmare bear. A creature of fur and exposed skull, it snatched Sheppard in the night, then ambushed the women in a shack. There, it howled with Sheppard’s dying cries. Josie later suggests that the refraction caused a part of Sheppard to live on in that bear. But it was her in a moment of terror, an echo of a call for help. It’s possible this same refraction put a bit of the alien creature into Lena. And because it did not die in panic, it’s a calmer but more mysterious element in her character. Plus, we already know that Lena spotted something different in her blood. By the film’s second act, Lena was already more than human alone.
The other option is that the Lena we see in the Southern Reach speaking to Benedict Wong’s interrogator is not the original Lena at all. Like Kane, she may be a replica of the person who went into the Shimmer. Meaning the Lena who tells the story is an unreliable narrator whose every statement can be called into question, especially the conclusion where the human Lena survives and destroys the alien threat single-handedly.
However, working against this second possibility is Kane. He spent nearly a year in the Shimmer, where Lena spent only a few months. In that time, the Shimmer did create a full replica of him, but one that did not really remember his time before the Shimmer. He remembered his house and Lena, but only vaguely. Yet the Lena in the interrogation room has a thorough recall of her life in the Shimmer and before, which included love-dovey moments with Kane, and a bittersweet affair with a colleague. Which suggests either the Shimmer got much better at replicating humans over that year, or that Lena is mostly human with a splash of Shimmer-effected biology.
Clearly, the end of Garland’s film is meant to be ambiguous and provoke debate. So what does it mean? Share your theory in comments.