The Mind-Bending Final Confrontation of Annihilation

The Atlantic looks back on the key film moments of 2018, this time a surreal showdown at the end of Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller.

Natalie Portman in 'Annihilation'
Natalie Portman in Annihilation (Paramount)

Over the next week, The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy cinematic moment from 2018. Next up is Alex Garland’s Annihilation. (Read our previous entries here.)

The denouement of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation is Lovecraftian in its sci-fi inscrutability. The main character, an unnamed biologist, descends the staircase of a mysterious underground structure she calls the “tower” and encounters a creature called the “Crawler,” a being that is all but indescribable. H. P. Lovecraft enjoyed writing about monsters that were too terrible to behold, that would reduce anyone who looked at them to a gibbering mess. The Crawler is perhaps slightly less malevolent, but nonetheless difficult to explain: a fungal hodgepodge of people, animal, plants, and things at the center of Annihilation’s surreal “Area X.”

Garland, in his telling, read a galley of VanderMeer’s novel, absorbed it, and said to the author, “I don’t know how to do a faithful adaptation of your book.” The director wasn’t lying—his take on Annihilation is similar in plot setup (a biologist investigates a mysterious zone with an all-female team of scientists), but quite different in many other ways. The movie’s conclusion sees the protagonist, Lena (played by Natalie Portman), encountering some very curious things, including a copy of herself and a glowing, undulating Mandelbulb that was once her fellow explorer Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

It’s weird. It’s different. But most importantly, the ending doesn’t lend itself to easy interpretations, which was exactly the experience that I sought from Garland’s film (as a big fan of VanderMeer’s writing). Though it was released in February and for the most part wasn’t even seen in theaters outside of America, Annihilation is the kind of studio oddity that seems destined to stand the test of time, partly because of how bold and unusual its ending is. It’s rare for a film this aggressively challenging to make it through the studio net these days, but Annihilation did, and Garland (who had final-cut rights and withstood studio efforts to change the ending) made the most of it.

The film’s final scene can be broken into two sections: one taking place above ground and the other below, both beautifully scored by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s thrumming score. After Lena treks through the “Shimmer,” an alien environment that was generated on Earth by a meteor strike, she comes upon a lighthouse surrounded by human bones. Inside lies the burned-up corpse of her husband (Oscar Isaac), who journeyed into the Shimmer before her. Down beneath the surface is a chamber that resembles a colossal carapace; there, Ventress suddenly appears and vomits glowing energy into the air before transforming into a giant, phosphorescent object.

Eventually the object morphs, and Lena is challenged by a shiny metallic humanoid that imitates her every move. If she fights it, it fights back. When she lies down, so does it. The sequence is like a plaintive sort of waltz, one that was choreographed by Bobbi Jene Smith and performed by Garland’s frequent collaborator Sonoya Mizuno. It’s frightening, but it’s also sort of funny, a little sad, and, of course, highly metaphorical.

Every member of Lena’s team entered the Shimmer shouldering some sort of trauma. Ventress was dying from cancer, and her demise—a brilliant but terrifyingly rapid deterioration—reflects that. Lena, meanwhile, is wrestling with the loss of her husband (who disappeared on his own mission) and with crippling depression. Portman plays her like a walking ghost, echoing back questions in a monotone; when Lena sleeps with a colleague after her husband vanishes, she seems surprised at herself in the aftermath. In doing battle with her duplicate (the shiny alien eventually adopts a Portman-esque outer layer), her internal conflicts are made literal. The unknowable world of the Shimmer is certainly extraterrestrial, but Garland knows that the most interesting thing about the place is what it reflects about trespassers like Lena. Weaponizing her fears against her is the smartest, and scariest, adaptation decision Garland made.

Eventually, Lena finds a way around the alien: She coaxes it into taking a grenade, destroying her own mimic in order to survive. But the end of the film suggests that she’s been fundamentally altered by the experience (her eyes glow as she returns to the real world). How? Garland doesn’t care much for simple explanations. The final trial of Annihilation is a spiritual and emotional one, beautifully rendered as a dark battle for one’s soul. As the alien double burns to death, it staggers over to the skeleton of Lena’s husband and touches it gently, consuming him in the flames. In letting go of that painful loss, Lena participates in a moment of destruction that is both necessary and strangely moving.

Previously: Black Panther

Next Up: Hereditary