Alex Garland’s new film Annihilation wants to make your jaw hang open in wonder, but once it’s over, it’s much more likely you’ll be scratching your head in confusion. Drawing in part on details from the Jeff VanderMeer novel of the same name, we’ve attempted to answer some of your lingering questions about the mysterious, opaque plot. We also have a theory about what, exactly, happened at the end.
What was that thing that hit the lighthouse just before the opening title? Was the Shimmer sent by some extraterrestrial life form?
It certainly does seem like it came from space, but it’s hard to say much more than that. We never really figure out what, if anything, sent it, despite Lomax’s (Benedict Wong) confident assertion that Lena encountered an alien. As she observes, it’s not even clear that it had desires; it just seemed to be recombining and changing whatever it encountered. Given that it does so by collapsing living beings into one another, it’s also unlikely that the anomaly has anything like a stable personality of its own. In that sense, it might be fair to say that the Shimmer’s origins are alien, but they might not derive from an alien.
Why couldn’t the expedition team remember the first few days they spent inside the Shimmer?
There’s no definitive explanation for this one in the film, but we can identify two possibilities: First, there’s the way the affected region scrambles signals of all kinds. It’s possible, then, that something passing through the barrier messed with the expedition’s neurochemistry, disrupting their memories and their sense of time.
The second possibility comes from the book, where the analogue to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress (who is known simply as the psychologist until later in the series) hypnotizes the expedition team as they enter the affected zone in order to ease the transition. There are a few indications that something similar happened here, most notably that the film cuts to a scene in which Lena is having sex with her colleague Daniel (David Gyasi) immediately after she passes through the border. Ventress later implies that she’s aware that Lena and Kane had a troubled marriage, presumably through information she got from Kane, and Lena admits that Kane knew about the affair. It’s possible, then, that Ventress was manipulating Lena’s mind in some way.
What was going on with all the hybrids in the Shimmer anyway?
Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) tells the other explorers, “The Shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything,” including genetic information. So, in effect, it’s reflecting and distorting genetic code, meaning that the various lifeforms within the region are rewriting one another at a subcellular level. This is what she’s getting at when she suggests that the leaves and flowers in the plant sculptures would contain DNA regulating the shape of the human body itself.
Speaking of Josie, what happened to her?
It’s heavily implied that she turned into one of the sculptural flower people. Just before she vanishes, she starts to sprout plant life from her skin, flowers literally blooming from her self-inflicted scars. In the moment, it seems as if she is submitting to the strange gravity of Area X, letting it transform her. After the business in the lighthouse, however, the sculptures seem to vanish along with the rest of the chimeras. This is likely why Lena tells Lomax that she’s not sure what happened to Josie.
Where are the twinned creatures like those weird deer coming from?
It seems as if the anomaly works along patterns similar to those of cell division, producing both repetition and difference. That’s why the deer look and leap alike but with subtle variations. It’s also why Lena’s doppelgänger mirrors her intentions (hitting her first when she tries to attack it, for example) more than her exact movements.
Where does Lena’s serpentine infinity tattoo come from? I didn’t notice it on her arm before she went into the Shimmer.
Good question! After the team’s encounter with the shark-toothed hybrid monster on the docks, Lena notices a bruise on her arm, which seems to be the point at which the tattoo starts to appear. A similar uroboric design is also visible on Anya’s arm, so it’s possible that it’s somehow jumped from one of them to the other, or from someone else who passed through Area X before—another version of the informational refraction effect. All of this suggests that the tattoo is some sort of mark of Area X itself, though it’s not clear what its significance is.
Why did Kane and the other soldiers cut their teammate open in the drained pool, as seen in the recorded video?
Area X seems to both literally and figuratively get under each visitor’s skin in different ways. On the one hand, it changes them, but on the other it leaves them fascinated by the changes happening around them. But where those compulsions pull Lena’s team apart, it may have had a different effect on a highly trained military squad. Maybe that’s why all of them, including the guy Kane is cutting, appear to revel in the ecstatic horror of what they’re discovering.
Then again, remember that they left the video for the next team. It’s entirely possible that they intended it as a warning to turn back.
What was up with the bizarre arrangement of human bones outside of the lighthouse?
Maybe Kane laid his squad mates out like that after he snapped? Or maybe Alex Garland just thought it looked cool. Perhaps both could be true?
What was the weird cavern in the lighthouse floor?
It was the impact point of whatever hit the lighthouse and initiated the anomaly. If you follow the tunnel’s angle upward, you can see a hole in the wall above the stairs, which is presumably where the Shimmer’s source smashed through.
The cave also appears to be a vague reference to one of the primary locations in the novel, a deep, and seemingly living, hole in the ground that the Lena character (known simply as the biologist) insists on describing as a “tower.”
Did Lena’s husband kill himself in the lighthouse? If he did, who came back?
A couple of clues suggest that it was the real Kane pulling the pin on the grenade. In the video, he seems confused about which of them is real, but he also speaks to his duplicate as if it were less experienced than he was, asking it if it’s ever seen a grenade go off, which the real Kane clearly would have. And in the final scene, the survivor seems to confirm that he’s not the original Kane. That said, the Kane who kills himself also has a slight Southern twang that isn’t heard in previous scenes, so it’s possible that neither of the Kanes in the lighthouse video is the original one.
In the novel, the biologist’s husband also seems to return from an expedition, though he too has little recollection of where he’s been or how he escaped. Soon after, he dies of cancer, as do his former teammates, who also came back in this version. At one point when the biologist is in Area X, she sees a dolphin that looks at her with an eye that is “painfully human, almost familiar.” Later, she begins to speculate that that dolphin was her husband—or at least an echo of him—and its eyes looked human and familiar because they were his eyes. In other words, it probably wasn’t “him” that came home. Something similar seems to be true here.
Wait, was there a dolphin in this movie?
No. And it is a worse film for it.
Why does it take so much longer for Lena’s Shimmer duplicate to burn up than Kane’s? His seemed to die almost instantly, whereas hers flailed around for a while, seemingly taking the lighthouse out in the process.
This could be because the real Kane immolated himself with that phosphorous grenade while Lena actually does trick her own mirror monster into exploding. If that’s all true, it may be that the tinfoil doppelgängers are made of sturdier stuff than human flesh and blood, which is why it took longer for Lena’s double to burn out. Then again, maybe the phosphorous grenade had nothing at all to do with the lighthouse burning down.
OK, but before we get to that, I’m still confused by the last scene. Kane is a doppelgänger, but Lena isn’t?
Well, she may not be a Shimmer creation, but she’s not entirely herself either. Whether or not there are worms swimming under her skin, she was clearly changed by the experience in profound and largely inexplicable ways. When Shimmer Kane hugs her (mirroring the hug she gave him when he first came home), he seems to be suggesting that he recognizes what they’ve become. It’s not clear, though, how completely she’s been affected, or what it means for the world.
So why did the lighthouse burn down?
My working hypothesis is that it wasn’t about the phosphorus grenade at all. As we learn earlier, Ventress has an aggressive form of cancer. And while the film sometimes seems to compare the Shimmer’s effects to cancer, the continuous mutation that it engenders is actually quite different. By nature, cancerous cells co-opt the process of cellular reproduction, replicating themselves in a way that chokes out the other, more collaborative cells around them. When Ventress enters the impact point in the lighthouse, it’s possible that the anomaly begins to refract and replicate her cancerous cells at the expense of all the other weird mutations around her. This creates a sort of chain reaction throughout the Shimmer that causes it to collapse back on itself, undoing the transformations that it brought about.
In effect, Ventress may have turned herself into a sort of suicide bomb, sacrificing herself in order to end the intrusion.
If that’s true, why does Lena still have some trace of the Shimmer within her at the end?
Perhaps because her own unmutated cells acted as a barrier, safely incubating the changes that had already happened within. Similarly, Shimmer Kane may have survived because he was outside the barrier when it collapsed. It’s also not outside the realm of possibility that no one actually thought this stuff through.
And finally: Where did that entrancing WAH wah WAH wa-ah melody in the lighthouse transformation scene come from?