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.
Read: A longer deconstruction of the ending of ‘Annihilation’
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