As their journey continues, the team realizes that their own bodies are changing into something new, a fate that befell every group before them (including Kane’s). This knowledge drives Anya mad, turning her against the rest, while Josie decides to accept it, transforming into a plantlike structure. Early on, Ventress diagnoses Lena as self-destructive, wondering why else she’d walk into a death zone like Area X. Lena does seem to be haunted by her own failures in life—we flash back to better times with Kane, then her affair. By the time Kane returns, he’s a hollowed-out shell, and in going into the Shimmer, Lena is essentially exploring the psychological landscape of their ruined relationship.
At the end of the film, Ventress and Lena reach the lighthouse, a sort of Siege Perilous for them to endure. Ventress, who is revealed to be suffering from terminal cancer, transforms into a psychedelic flower-like creature (think Georgia O’Keeffe meets Alex Grey), proclaiming the purpose of the Shimmer to be total Earthly destruction. But then Lena is confronted by a metallic figure that mirrors her every move, a clone of sorts that fights with her in an elaborate physical ballet that was choreographed by Bobbi Jene Smith (playing the humanoid is Sonoya Mizuno, the actress and dancer who appeared in Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina).
Lena escapes, but only because the creature copies Lena’s own hostility, fighting her until it’s destroyed by a grenade; the lighthouse burns up in her wake. Lena has navigated a world that’s undoubtedly dangerous but also weirdly beautiful, and she’s left it in ruins. So much of Garland’s imagery—of the curious plant life, the hybrid creatures, even the thing Ventress becomes—is as beguiling as it is forbidding. On returning, Lena seems physically changed by what’s happened (her eyes have a Shimmer-like glow to them), while her husband (an alien clone spawned by Area X) has magically recovered and greets her with a hug. Their relationship has survived, though it’s been unmistakably altered.
“It’s destroying everything,” Ventress says earlier in the film as the team investigates. “It’s not destroying, it’s making something new,” Lena replies. They’re both right, in a sense; they’re just taking in the Shimmer from their own perspectives. For Ventress, who is being ravaged by disease, it’s like she’s walked into her own cancer cell. For Lena, she’s reliving the death of a relationship, coming across disturbing video evidence of her husband’s team (who all died in some mysterious manner) before finding, at the lighthouse, his own skeletal corpse. In going into Area X, Lena thinks she has nothing to lose; in surviving, she’s mutated into something she might not entirely recognize but that can live in the world again.
Garland’s achievement with Annihilation is in merging sci-fi horror with a more intimate psychodrama. He took VanderMeer’s book and, like the Shimmer, made it into something new, something retaining a seed of the original idea that also manages to exist alongside it—a rarity for an adaptation. In refusing to slavishly adapt the novel, Garland swerved away from the imagery and storytelling I loved, but his film is fascinating and dense in its own myriad ways, the kind of cult classic I know I’ll love revisiting in the years to come.