*warning: this review will contain a number of spoilers, so please stop here if you haven’t seen the film yet!
It’s been just over 12 hours since I saw Annihilation and I still have an intense feeling of awe. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this film could be the 2001: A Space Odyssey for my generation, it has that exact same feeling of “I just saw something beautiful but it’s going to take multiple viewings to better understand it.” Nevertheless, I believe I understand the gist of what director Alex Garland was trying to show us, so I’ll make my way as best I can.
Three years before our story begins, a meteorite crashed into a lighthouse inside a national park and immediately began emitting something dubbed the Shimmer. Imagine the iridescent surface of a bubble and combine it with endless flows and ripples. Now grow that bubble to gigantic proportions and you have a pretty good idea of what the border of the Shimmer looks like. Scientists have sent multiple teams in to explore this phenomenon, but no one has ever returned…until now.
I should mention the proper story actually begins with Lena (Natalie Portman), a former soldier and professor in cellular biology, being debriefed in an isolation chamber after the story is already over (dialogue implies she is the lone survivor). Apparently, she was inside the Shimmer for 4 months, even though Lena can’t recall that much time passing. The story then flashes back and reveals her husband, Sgt. Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been missing for a year. It turns out he was part of the last team sent into the Shimmer. Out of nowhere, Kane appears outside the bedroom, but something is off about him. He doesn’t remember anything and he suddenly gets really sick. Lena and Kane are taken to the facility studying the Shimmer and while Kane falls into a coma, Lena decides to join the next team going in (all-female as it turns out) to see if there’s some way to reverse what’s happening to her husband.
The team consists of Lena, Anya Thorensen (a paramedic), Josie Radek (a physicist), Tuva Novotny as Cass Shepherd, a surveyor and geologist, and all are led by Dr. Ventress (a psychologist who secretly has cancer and wants to know the secret of the Shimmer before she dies). I need to stop and highlight Dr. Ventress for a moment because she’s the closest we come to a human antagonist in the entire story (and I’m still debating whether the Shimmer is an antagonist or not). From the moment you meet her, at least in my experience, you instantly start to hate her. There’s something unnatural in her behavior even before entering the Shimmer, I’d almost go so far as to say she was exhibiting sociopathic behavior.
One great thing about this film is it doesn’t take too long to get to the action inside the Shimmer, but you should know that once the team is inside things get really weird really fast. For example, Lena wakes up in a tent, having no memory of making camp, and it turns out that somehow three or four days have passed and no one in the team remembers any of it. Then there’s the mutations: as Lena recounts, they start subtly. First they find strange new flowers that seem to be crossbreeds of different species (that shouldn’t be possible). Then Josie is attacked by a huge crocodile that has strange mutations in its teeth. Some of the mutations are beautiful: Lena comes across a pair of deer that have mutated into strange beings with flowering branches where their antlers should be, but some are absolutely terrifying. The hardest scene for me to get through was one where the group is twice attacked by a monstrous bear that somehow has part of its skull exposed. But that’s not the worst part of it: after attacking and killing Cass, it somehow absorbed part of Cass’ consciousness as she died (Josie speculates that the Shimmer is acting like a genetic prism that is causing the DNA of everything inside it to actively combine together) and now can use her final screams of help as a lure. What I mean is, every time the bear roars, you can hear Cass screaming and it was absolutely terrifying.
Of course, as in any horror film, one by one the team is picked off:
- Cass is killed when her throat is ripped out by the bear
- Anya is mauled to death by the same bear after suffering a psychotic episode
- Josie’s fate is….interesting. After Cass and Anya die, Josie is seen sitting outside, seemingly at peace. As she tells Lena “She (Ventress) wants to face it (the Shimmer) and you want to fight it. But I don’t want either of those things.” And as Josie talks and walks away, she begins to sprout leaves and branches and suddenly disappears altogether. I think she transforms into one of the people-shaped flower growths that have begun appearing. And I don’t think she died either; if anything, I feel like Josie transcended into…something else.
- Ventress makes it to the lighthouse before Lena, but something strange happens to her that I cannot adequately put into words (but I’ll address a theory I have when I wrap this up).
Lena finally arrives at the lighthouse, ground zero of the Shimmer and discovers a strange growth surrounding a dark hole and also an incinerated body sitting in front of a video camera. And this is when things go beyond “this is weird” to “what the f*ck just happened??” Because, as the footage reveals, Lena’s husband went inside the Shimmer and committed suicide with a phosphorous grenade while talking to…a doppelganger. It’s one of those situations where your brain races like “If that’s Lena’s husband sitting dead on the floor, then who or WHAT is lying in a coma back at the base??”
The next sequence is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, but I simply can’t put it into words. I’ve tried several times and it simply doesn’t do the moment justice. Suffice it to say that Lena is confronted by her own double, or at least something that is morphing into her double. But just as it gain’s Lena’s face, the real Lena puts another phosphorous grenade into its hands and triggers it, running out the door as it goes off. This incinerates the root of the Shimmer and causes the entire phenomenon to collapse.
Apparently, the Shimmer was some kind of alien life, but Lena can’t say what it wanted, if indeed it wanted anything at all. All she wants is her husband (and it’s interesting that she apparently neglects to mention that the man now recovered from his coma is NOT her husband but an alien duplicate). “Kane” confirms to Lena that he is not her husband, but upon ascertaining that she is the one the real Kane told him about, he embraces her and then something strange happens: his eyes begin to shimmer with a certain familiar iridescence. And after a moment, Lena’s eyes “Shimmer” too. And that’s where the story ends!
What does it all mean? I believe, that even though the phenomenon has collapsed, the Shimmer is still here, it’s just internalized inside two people now. Just like a pair of cells. As Lena told a class at the beginning: two become four, become eight, become sixteen…I think this is only the beginning before the Shimmer spreads through humanity, though what it will ultimately do I cannot say (though if you have a theory I’d love to hear it in the comments below).
Now as to the fate of Ventress, here is my theory: I think Lena was talking to her double the entire time and here’s why: when we first see Ventress in the chamber, you can clearly see that she has no eyes, but when she turns to face Lena, she suddenly has them. When Lena’s double is being made, the last thing to emerge are the eyes. So I think the real Ventress died, was absorbed by the Shimmer and now her double is here, but it can’t sustain itself because of the cancer in the original Ventress. That’s my theory anyway.
I wish I could explain certain parts better, but Annihilation is one of those films that needs to be experienced to be understood. Is it, as some say, too “intellectual”? Maybe…but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a movie that makes you think about what it’s trying to tell you.
One more brief note: in the middle of the film, there’s an extremely graphic scene involving some found footage (you’ll know when you come to it). I just wanted you to be aware that such a scene exists because it deeply disturbed me while I watched it.
Final thoughts: Annihilation is a brilliant film from Alex Garland and a must-see for fans of the science fiction genre.
What did you think of Annihilation? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Have a great day!
See also: Soundtrack Review: Annihilation (2018)
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Great review and some solid theories – I hadn’t thought about Ventress being a double, undone by the cancer. Makes perfect sense.
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it does! I turned that part over and over in my head on the way home from the theater and it finally dawned on me that Ventress HAD to be a double because of the eyes bit. I love films like this where everything isn’t spelled out for the audience and you’re free to draw your own conclusions on certain parts.
Glad you liked my review 🙂
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