Annihilation Ending Explained – A detailed dissection of Garland’s mind-bending sci-fi

Annihilation Plot Summary

Annihilation is a sci-fi thriller that follows a team of scientists who are sent into a mysterious and otherworldly area called the Shimmer. The Shimmer is an alien entity whose expanding zone causes the natural laws of biology to enter a state of constant flux. Lena, a biologist and the protagonist of this story, volunteers to join the expedition into the Shimmer. Her husband, Kane, who initially ventured inside, inexplicably returns as the sole survivor from that expedition.

Kane is in a rough way though. He’s suffering from memory loss, he’s terribly ill and he’s also coughing up blood. Kane has been infected by the Shimmer, and believing it may be connected with extra-terrestrial lifeforms, Lena embarks on a mission to save her husband by travelling into the Shimmer, joined by four other women who have their own reason for the journey.

Inside the Shimmer, the team experiences bizarre and hostile creatures, mutated landscapes, and lost time, leading to a trippy and mind-bending journey – and one twisted ending!

What is the Shimmer?

The Shimmer is a mysterious, expanding zone that alters the DNA and physical properties of everything it encompasses. It acts as a prism for genetic material, causing mutations in plants, animals, and humans. In the film, it’s suggested that it originated from a meteorite that struck a lighthouse. In a way, The Shimmer is similar to the alien in The Thing, given it’s an entity capable of copying and impersonating the DNA of any being it comes into contact with. With the Shimmer’s zone constantly expanding though, one could argue that its purpose here is nefarious.

Why do the other women go into the Shimmer?

Each woman on the squad has a specific reason for journeying into the Shimmer, which becomes more evident as the movie progresses. Dr Ventress is suffering from cancer but is also racked with guilt after sending men off to their deaths inside the Shimmer. Josie Radek is suicidal due to being aimless in life and it eats away at her. Meanwhile, Cass Sheppard is grieving over the loss of her daughter. Finally, Lena has her own reasons for journeying in, coming from a desire to find out the truth about Kane.

Throughout the movie, we see snippets of Kane and Lena’s marriage, leading us to believe it’s the perfect coupling. However, Ventress sows seeds of doubt as she suggests Kane willingly left Lena to go into The Shimmer.

As the film progresses, the pair’s fractured relationship comes into view during a crucial discussion about God. Lena leans fully into science, while Kane embraces a religious viewpoint. Alongside this clashing of world views, it’s revealed that Lena was also having an affair with one of her co-workers, which shows that their marriage had serious issues. This also leans directly into the themes of Annihilation, which touch on duality, reflection and destruction.

That final point ties into the film’s title too, as Lena’s selfish desire and infidelity, caused her to “annihilate” the marriage. Deep down, Lena regrets what she did to her husband, while Kane willingly throws himself into this mission knowing it could kill him.

What is the significance of Lena’s tattoo?

Lena develops a snake-like tattoo on her arm while inside the Shimmer – a tattoo that other characters are seen with earlier in the film. This symbolizes the Shimmer’s blending and refracting effect, suggesting that parts of other people within the Shimmer are being integrated into Lena. It’s worth pointing out that it could also represent the Ouroboros, an ancient symbol depicting a serpent eating its own tail. This is often interpreted as a symbol for the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, something we see at the end of the movie with the alien creature.

What happens at the Lighthouse?

The lighthouse acts as the beating heart of the Shimmer. Symbolically, lighthouses are often seen as guides through dangerous territory, but with Annihilation that symbol is twisted and gnarled (much like the flora and fauna inside the Shimmer) to depict a source of distortion and disorientation. This is also where the alien meteorite originally struck, which initiated the Shimmer in the first place.

Oscar’s videotape shows that the Kane who came to Lena’s home was not the real Kane but a version of him from inside the Shimmer. The Shimmer reacts differently depending on how close to the lighthouse it is. Like Kane, the Shimmer establishes an intimate connection with Lena, this time coming from a drop of her blood.

The Shimmer morphs into a mirror image of Lena and appears before her, eventually mimicking her every move. After a sequence of trippy and beautifully orchestrated moves, Lena hands over a phosphorous grenade to the alien clone and rushes out the door. Lena watches as the grenade explodes in her hands. As the doppelganger begins to burn, the real Lena appears to have killed her clone and escaped. While she stands outside the lighthouse, the alien entity burns up the lighthouse, and itself in the process, while Lena heads back to base. 

Why does the clone burn the Lighthouse?

Alongside what we already mentioned, the film explores themes of self-destruction, change, rebirth, and the unknown too. It delves into how people can self-destruct in different ways, both physically and/or mentally. This is explored through each of the five-women who enter The Shimmer and their own ways of dealing with things in their life being “annihilated”. Here though, the alien entity more specifically focuses on Lena’s past actions.

We’ve already established that she “annihilated” her marriage and had a lot of pent-up emotions and it’s not outside the realm of possibility to believe that the Shimmer took the mental aspects of Lena’s psyche as well as her physical looks at the end, deciding to destroy herself and her “home” in the process. 

With all that rage and destruction, the alien mirrored what Lena herself had done with Kane in their marriage. At least, that’s the interpretation if you take what we’ve seen at face value. But there is another twist in the tale to come.

How does Annihilation end?

As the film reaches its final act, we return to Lena being questioned by scientists over everything what’s transpired. It’s here we are reminded that Lena is the narrator of this story and telling us what happened inside the Shimmer. “It wasn’t destroying everything, it was changing everything,” Lena clarifies as she’s questioned, “It was making something new.”

This bit of dialogue is crucial for understanding how the ending of the movie plays out. With the Lighthouse gone, Lena is brought to Kane, whose now lucid and on the mend. He’s in isolation but then so too is Lena. The pair are reunited, where Lena immediately says to him, “You aren’t Kane, are you?”

“I don’t think so,” Kane replies. After a short pause, he asks if she’s Lena, but we don’t hear her reply. Instead, the pair face one another and hug. The camera pans across to show the eyes of our two characters, which shimmer with an eerie iridescent glow.

Why do Lena’s eyes glow?

This little giveaway shows that in reality, at the lighthouse the roles were reversed from how we initially saw it play out. Lena lied to the scientists. It was the real Lena who died that day while the clone slipped away. It would appear that the grenade still exploded, but Lena destroyed the Lighthouse in the process, something that the alien entity did not foresee.

Given we know Lena is the one narrating the story, this plays into her being an unreliable narrator. This also explains why she’s so adamant that the Shimmer didn’t hurt anyone, nor did it do anything bad. It simply “changes” people.

It’s also important that a visual clue is given here, as the camera shows Lena’s arm reflected in the glass of water by her side. Again, themes of reflection and duality showing up. 

Now, it could well be that the real Lena is at the end, and we just see the Shimmer in her eyes while embracing Kane as a wya of symbolically showing that she’s not grown or evolved past what’s happened inside the Shimmer. He ouroboros tattoo, depicting rebirth and death, could be suggesting that the real Lena is still consumed by self-hate and self-destruction, and is about to entire that same cycle again with Kane, albeit the copied version of him. 

However, there is shade that can be thrown against that idea. Kane can seemingly sense that Lena is not herself when they first meet, given he himself is also a copy as well. Why did Lena not tell him that she’s the real Lena? Her eyes glowing iridescent is the key, and this explains why he doesn’t need Lena’s reply to know that she’s just like him. It’s ironic then that by the end, the one thing that seemingly saves their marriage is both Kane and Lena becoming mimics of their original hosts.

Simultaneously though, they’re both about to embark on a similar pattern of self-destruction and self-hate that broke their marriage apart in the first place.

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