‘Annihilation’, Explained

March 28, 2018
14 min read

Every year there comes a film that dares to engage the intellect of its audience. While 2018 is set to witness some of the biggest films, it has already been marked with a couple of movies that have set the bar high for all the following ones. ‘Annihilation’ is one such film. When I first saw the trailer, its stunning visuals, a deep reverberating tone and the all-female cast with Natalie Portman at the helm made me excited about it. What further peaked my interest was the fact that it was directed by Alex Garland. His last venture, ‘Ex-Machina’, was an incredibly stirring experience with strong performances and an unsettling climax. So, I was pretty taken by the idea of watching another trick coming out of his box. And what a trick it was!

The thing with ‘Annihilation’ is that it is too many things, all at once. It goes from depicting highly gross scenes to equally magnificent views. It is obviously simple at times and brilliantly mind-boggling at others (and that ending!). And while this can be a treat to some, it can also leave the audiences polarised about it. If you are going in to watch a sci-fi film with all the freaky aliens and the fantastic fight for humanity, then you will be disappointed. But, if you are more open-minded than that, then you’ll be captivated by the beautiful visuals and a mesmerising background score that perfects the tone of the film. And you’ll know that there is more to it than all that appears.


‘Annihilation’, A Summary

It starts with a meteor hitting a lighthouse and creating a field around itself, its boundary marked with The Shimmer- an incorporeal, shimmering rainbow-ish layer. Natalie Portman’s Lena is a biologist. Her soldier husband, Kane (Oscar Issac), went on a mission and didn’t come back. A year later, he literally appears at her doorstep, out of nowhere. He doesn’t remember much and is acting a bit weird. Suddenly, he becomes really sick, and while he is being escorted to the hospital, the ambulance is intercepted by some soldiers and Lena and Kane are taken away. That is where Lena comes to know that Kane’s last mission was to go inside The Shimmer. She joins the team of women who are tasked with entering the area and reaching its centre to find out all that they can about it.

The Book and the Film

While the film is loosely based on the book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, it is not quite the same. So, before you start debating on ‘the book is better than the movie’ issue, you should know that they are both very different from each other. The fact that Alex Garland chose to write the script without bothering to be completely faithful to the original source material says a lot about his intentions towards the story. Instead of turning it into a franchise (that it could’ve easily been), he decided to condense the material, gave it his perspective, his touch and created a standalone movie that is worth his name.

What Is the Shimmer?

Ventress tells Lena that the Shimmer appeared three years back, around the lighthouse, and since then, it has been expanding its territory. It is like an electromagnetic field with its effects limited to the area that comes inside its boundaries. In simpler terms, you could take it for a Wi-fi signal, of sorts. With its centre at the lighthouse, it is radiating energy all around it. Its effects are most magnified near the centre, and they fade away as one travels towards the periphery.

Keeping in line with the underlying themes (cancer and self-destruction) you can consider it a metaphor for cancer that has invaded Mother Earth. It is doing what the cancer cells do- destroying the original cells, and in the process, creating something alien to the anatomy of the Earth.

Is It an Alien Invasion?

The concept of an ‘alien’ entity is open to interpretation. What is not human, what we haven’t seen on the Earth, is all alien, basically. So, the ecosystem and the biology going haywire IS an alien event. But, can it be called an invasion? Lomax (Benedict Wong), the guy in the hazmat suit, asks Lena ‘what does it want?’ To which Lena replies that she doesn’t even know if it can want anything. The answer is repeated in the end when we see Ventress completely taken over by the Shimmer’s effect. She tells Lena that it wants to change everything from the molecular level. It wants to annihilate everything so that it can build something new. And that is the problem, right there. That’s what acts as a threat to humanity. Because if, slowly and steadily, the Shimmer takes over, then humans won’t be quite human anymore.

The Science of the Shimmer

Unlike other films that either dumb it down or create a ridiculous logic for everything, ‘Annihilation’ stayed true to its science. It began with the simple facts about DNA, cancer, and refraction, and then fictionalised all of it, in its own rational way. It didn’t tread the path of stuffing in the scientific definitions of everything or using any fancy words that would confuse the hell out of audiences. They kept it simple and allowed the viewer’s imagination to work its magic.

We can cover some basic things, though. Like the intermixing of the DNA. We see that the ecology inside the Shimmer has gone haywire, with all sorts of inventive blending of the plant, animal and human DNA. Be it the set of different flowers coming out of the same stem, an alligator with the jaw set of a shark, a weird couple of deer with tree stems as their antlers, or the bear that cries like a human it just ate! The thing is that the Shimmer is acting as a prism and refracting every information available in its own twisted way. And DNA is, basically, information. So, plants are growing in the shapes of human body and humans are morphing into plants!

And then there are the duplicates. This idea is first hinted when Lena sees a couple of deer, moving together in perfect synchronisation. Then we see it happen with Kane and Lena. In fact, even the lighthouse should be a duplicate. When the meteor hit the lighthouse, it must have shattered the whole place. So, how come it is still intact? Reasonably, it is a duplicate.

The Metaphors and the Allegories

If I write about all the layers of this film, it’ll be material enough for another article! Every small thing matters. There is a subtext under every line. Scenes and dialogues echo throughout the film. For instance, the refraction theory. Before Josie verbalised it, the idea had been already incepted into our minds from the scene before Kane gets sick. He and Lena are sitting in their house and talking about his sudden return. Lena holds his hand, and the scene is shown to us refracted through the glass!

The meteor hitting the lighthouse is reminiscent of the time when billions of years ago a meteor hit the earth and drastically changed everything, killing the dinosaurs and bringing the ice age, and all that. So perhaps, this meteor strike is another overdue change in the ecology and environment. Like the extinction of one (or more) species and the emergence of the new ones in its place. In the similar context, the ending of the film points towards Kane and Lena as the Adam and Eve of the new evolution.

Although being a sci-fi, ‘Annihilation’ focuses more on the humane aspects. The biggest philosophy that a viewer can take with themselves is Change. We as human beings are constantly changing; our personalities are morphed according to the events that shape our lives. So, in reality, no one is really the same year after year. Bit by bit, all of us are changing. And we can’t stop that.

The beauty of the film is that it is layered with every theme possible, and it makes sense if you choose to see it with a single layer, or with all of them. Cancer, self-destruction, love, loss, marriage, or pure science; it is whatever you want it to be.

What Happened in the Four Days That Went Unaccounted For?

A theory circulating the Internet suggests that perhaps the team members were replicated to form new beings, who only had the memories of the originals. It must have taken four days to complete the process, hence the time lapse. BUT, if the replication was already done then why would they need to go further and not back? If the Shimmer has already done its work, then replicas would rather go out and about in the world, wouldn’t they? So, I’m trying to move beyond it.

What I believe is that time works differently in the Shimmer than it does in the outside world. As it was explained in the early scenes where Lena thinks that they have been out for weeks, but Lomax tells her that it has been months! The time lapse can be accounted to the moving from one time-zone to another because they are literally just crossing over. Like passing through the veil. And, because we don’t see the disorientations anywhere else in the film, it can be expected that maybe they have grown accustomed to the ways of the Shimmer, now.

The Tattoo on Lena’s Hand

When Lena is being debriefed, we see a tattoo on her hand. However, it wasn’t there before she entered the Shimmer, and she sure as hell didn’t get a tattoo in there. So, where did it come from? And what did it mean?

At first, it looked like an Eight, or an infinity sign, but a closer look dictated that it’s an ouroboros. We first saw the tattoo on Anya’s hand. And that was before she entered the Shimmer. The science of the Shimmer decrees all the DNA being spliced and scrambled together to bring out something new. As Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) puts it, the Shimmer acts as a prism that refracts EVERY thing inside it. So, the tattoo is just another effect of its refractive properties.

The choice of an ouroboros is an interesting one and is actually in sync with the various themes of the film. In one scene, Lena and Kane talk about life, where she says that ageing is not a normal process. That it is a defect in our genes. The ouroboros sign is the representation of regeneration, of the endless cycle of creation and destruction (subtext, annihilation). It also represents self-destruction (with the snake eating its own tail), another major theme in the film.

We see that after the alligator incident, there is a bruise on Lena’s arm. Perhaps, this is when the tattoo began to evolve.

What Happened to Everyone

Right at the beginning of the film, it is made clear that other than Lena, no one else survived the trip inside the Shimmer. So, the more pressing question was what happened to them?

Let’s break down the fate of all the major characters in the film:

KANE: When Kane first steps into Lena’s room, we know that something’s wrong with him. Then there is all the stuff we see in the video-camera. It is evident that the Shimmer is messing with everyone’s head, and well, all other parts too. Because he had been inside it for so long, the effect finally took a toll on him. Also, he must have encountered his doppelganger and that’d have blown the lid on him. So, he decided to end it there and blasted off himself. It is pretty clear that the man (or, whatever) that came out of the Shimmer wasn’t really him. Also, did you notice the change in his accent? Because Kane is the only one who survived from his group, we could say that others had been refracted in him.

ANYA AND CASS: This one is easy and pretty evident. They both died at the hands(!) of the bear. While being mauled to death by a bear isn’t something new (ask Leo di Caprio, he has ‘been there, survived that!’), it was the scene where the bear imitates Cass’s cry for help that gave me the chills. Hands down, that is one of the most unnerving and terrifying scenes that I have ever seen.

JOSIE: What happened to Josie was perhaps the only subtle thing that happened to any character in the film. While others met violent ends, trying to face it or fight it, Josie decided to succumb to it. After the bear attack, she is shaken by the bear’s replication of Cass’s voice. She voices that nothing could be worse than to be remembered by that cry as your last words. And she has no intention of going down that way, to be remembered that way. So, she accepts her fate that is inevitable, one way or another. She yields to it and as the flowers bloom out of the cuts on her wrist, she turns into a mutated tree.

VENTRESS: When Ventress realises that the refractions from the Shimmer are being magnified with every passing second, she decides not to waste time and continues alone towards the lighthouse. Finally, when Lena reaches there, she finds Ventress completely taken over by the Shimmer. Then, she tells Lena about the Shimmer’s intentions. And we see Ventress morph into something that really can’t be put into words. When I saw it, the one thing that came to my mind was, perhaps, one of the most spectacular phenomena in the universe, the conversion of matter into pure energy. It could very well be the end stage of refraction due to the Shimmer.

What About Lena and That End Scene?

The first thing that hints at ‘Lena, not Lena’ question is the glass of water that she puts down after taking a sip from it. And then there was the end, where Kane asks her if she is the real Lena and she doesn’t answer. And then, her eyes shimmer when they hug.

Lena’s fate is the only thing that isn’t fully explained in the film. And at this point, any and all explanations can be deemed right. So, without pointing our finger at one specific reason, let’s just cover the possibilities.

The basic thing that comes to mind is that it IS, in fact, Lena. But not quite so. We know that the moment they entered the Shimmer, the changes had begun in their DNA. At one point, Lena examines her blood and realises that the refraction has set in. Also, she was the only person in the team to reach the epicentre of the Shimmer and come out of it alive. So, it is plausible that being at the focal point of all the refractions, the effects were magnified in her. Hence, even though she survived the whole thing and came back, she wasn’t exactly the same Lena who had entered the Shimmer.

The other theory is that it was the real Lena who died in the lighthouse. When she is in a gracefully dance-like tussle with her humanoid copy, there is a brief blackout after which Lena wakes up next to her double. And, again, because she was at the heart of the Shimmer the mutation/transformation mustn’t have taken much time. So, it is a possibility that in that blackout, Lena and her doppelganger were swapped! So, it was the copy that came out of the tower, not the original.

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