Annihilation is brought to us by Alex Garland who debuted with his direction of Ex Machina. Annihilation a science fiction thriller which stars Natalie Portman in the lead role. The film has an interesting concept and purposely leaves bits unexplained. Since Netflix took this over, the film moved out of the big screens. It does have some great visuals. Do give it a watch before reading further. Here’s the film Annihilation explained, spoilers galore, speculations galore.
The plot revolves around the arrival of alien cells on Earth. These cells arrive along with a meteor. In a nutshell, the film explains the behaviour of the alien cells on Earth with the analogy of how cancer cells affect humans. So, before we get to the kaleidoscopic alien, let’s take a quick look at the characters.
Lena (Natalie) – Currently a biologist, formerly a soldier for 7 years. She’s married to Kane, a soldier. She’s having an affair with a guy named Daniel. Though we are shown that Lena is happily married to Kane, the nature of their relationship pushes her to cheat on her husband during his calls of duty.
Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – She’s a psychologist who is suffering from cancer.
Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) – She’s a paramedic who was/is an addict.
Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) – She’s a physicist who’s struggling with life. She’s cut her wrists several times in the past.
Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) – She’s a geologist. She’s lost her daughter to leukemia.
Kane (Oscar Isaac) – A soldier. He’s married to Lena. He’s committed to their relationship.
Now, for a little bit of physics and biology.
Refraction – It is the phenomenon where the direction of a wave is altered when it travels from one medium to another. In case of light, it can be seen when light passes through the medium air to water. For example, when you see a spoon in a glass of water, you will see a bend in the spoon. This is because it’s the light waves that get altered when they pass through water. Refraction, that is caused by a prism, can also split light into the colours of the rainbow.
Cell Division – All living organisms are made up of cells which are the fundamental building blocks of life. Cells have the property of dividing into two. Each cell divides to form a pair of cells after a period of time. The rhythm of the dividing pair results in the different structures that form plants, sea creatures, and land creatures including humans. The Hayflick limit is the number of times a cell will divide before division stops. This stage is called senescence and is what is related to ageing and eventual death of living things.
We need to know what refraction and cell division are because that’s what is happening inside the Shimmer.
What’s the Shimmer?
A meteor hits the Earth at some point, a lighthouse to be specific. The meteor has cells of an extraterrestrial entity. These cells divide to become more. But these cells have another property, they have the ability to refract things around them. Now, while refraction on Earth applies to waves – like light and sound, it doesn’t apply to cells. The film proposes a theory that the alien cells cause things around it to refract, even at the DNA level. Which means if this cell resides on a plant, the plant DNA will get refracted to take on the alien cell DNA. The plant DNA will also take on the DNA of other things around it. This refraction causes multiple species of plants to grow off a single stem. We can see these through the film. Refraction of the DNA is not just at the plant level. It affects all living things. Animal DNA refracts with plant DNA, and also other animal DNA. Alongside this, the area affected by the refraction also begins to gain a Shimmer. The Shimmer is a dome that is constantly expanding with its center as the lighthouse. The Shimmer can be seen like the surface of a bubble, again because of the refraction of light.
After the meteor strike, the lighthouse gets surrounded by this Shimmer. A warden goes in to investigate, he never comes back. The event becomes classified and an organization by the name Southern Reach takes over. They begin sending drones, animals, and teams of people. Nothing comes back. The boundary begins to grow.
Dr. Ventress is brought in to profile and pick people to be sent into the Shimmer. She begins to send various teams of people in with no success. After 2 years, the Shimmer has grown in size. Kane, who is in love with his wife, eventually finds out that she has been cheating on him. Every time he is off on his mission, she’s been having an affair with Daniel. The scenes we are shown where they are being playful and happy in bed are before their relationship falls apart. Eventually, we are shown a sad Kane who tells Lena that he loves her and leaves for his mission. The mission he leaves for is the one to the Shimmer.
Kane goes in and doesn’t return. However, he does show up a year later at Lena’s place, spontaneously, from seemingly nowhere.
What happened to Kane?
Well, this is the climax of the film. What happened to Kane is the same thing that happened to everything and everybody who went in. He refracted. While many of the people who went in ended up having their DNA changed to the extent that they became plants, some others had changes that didn’t end well for them. One of the team members of Kane ended up having a moving set of intestines. They make a video where they cut open his stomach to display this. They leave him there and he gets spliced on to the wall with the other plant and microbes and eventually dies. Each of Kane’s team members starts dying, we aren’t shown how.
Kane and his remaining team eventually reach the lighthouse by the beach. We can see this in the recording that Lena plays in the end, on the camera. Kane sees the strange crystalline structures that have formed on the beach. This could be a mutation affected by the nature of the crystalline structure of salt and sand. After all, glass is made from liquid sand.
He reaches the lighthouse and sees the skeleton bodies that are laid outside. Looks like these are the bones of the previous people who came into the Shimmer. We don’t know what happened to them. Kane enters the lighthouse and sees the hole made by the meteorite. He goes into the hole. Now, this part is not really shown but we can assume that he entered the area that was first inhabited by the alien cells. This area looks vastly different from what you’d find in an underground cave on Earth. At the core of it all, this place is alien. We are shown this in quick flashes off video recording but looks like the alien species was able to use a team member to form a funky alien cloud. It then uses Kane’s blood (DNA) to form a humanoid replica. Of course, this is an assumption based on what we see happening with Lena at the end of the film. We are shown this humanoid looking into the hole, at Kane. We are also shown that they can teleport. Over time, the humanoid echoes Kane’s physicality. It even echoes his voice, but with a different accent from his. We don’t know how long Kane may have spent with the alien echo but about a year passes in the world outside the Shimmer. All we know is that the refraction of his DNA has caused his flesh to move like liquid, his mind is cut loose. He decides to kill himself and asks his alien doppelganger to find Lena on the outside. He makes a video saying all this and then uses one of his phosphorus grenades to burn himself to a crisp.
Alien-Kane now finds his way outside the Shimmer. Lena has been living a sober life because she has been told that Kane went Missing-In-Action on his mission. After about six months she stops trying to find out information on him. A year later, Lena is invited to a house party by Daniel and she refuses it. These are the early scenes of the film. When Alien-Kane returns home (guess by teleportation), Lena is shocked to see him alive and back. She asks him a whole bunch of questions. He has no clue because he’s a spliced DNA replica, he doesn’t share any of Kane’s memories. All he can say is that he was outside her room (he doesn’t say teleported, but that’s probably how he got there). Perhaps Kane showed Alien-Kane a picture of Lena. This is how he recognized her. Here we are shown them talking and holding hands through a glass of water – just another subtle hint at the refraction concept. Soon Alien-Kane starts coughing blood. He’s rushed to a hospital.
Let’s try and see what might be causing his death. Looks like the alien cells need to be in the Shimmer to survive. Once on the outside, they become self-destructive. There isn’t a clear explanation of the nature of this self-destructiveness but it seems to be that as long as the Shimmer exists, the alien cells destroy themselves when outside it. Either that or the cell division is happening insufficiently when outside the Shimmer.
The Southern Reach
On the way to the hospital, a covert team from Southern Reach intercepts them and takes them to the base. They don’t want Alien-Kane in a hospital for fear of the whole alien news leaking out. They try to stabilize him but his vitals are declining.
Dr. Ventress meets Lena and asks her questions about Kane. Then she tells Lena about the Shimmer and the details around it. That Kane seems to be the only one who has returned from inside. Later, Lena meets Anya, Cassie and Josie. Lena doesn’t tell them that Kane is her husband. They tell Lena that they are going into the Shimmer in a few days.
Lena understands why Kane went in. She realizes that he found out about her affair. She decides to go in too. Lena realizes that Ventress is going in too. She’s grown tired of waiting. Moreover, her cancer is going to kill her sooner or later.
Enter the Shimmer
The five women enter the Shimmer. Once they are in, they lose track of time. Based on the depletion of their food, they figure that they have been there for three or four days. None of them can remember anything after entering. These are the early effects of being in the presence of the alien cells. Mild refraction that is messing around with memory and digestion. I bring up digestion because it is revealed later that they have food for mere weeks but they last months without eating.
The compass goes cuckoo on them but they know their location and based on the sun, they can go south, towards the lighthouse. On the way, they find plants that have refracted. They identify the effect to be a pathogen in the plan. They find boats. Soon Josie gets attacked by a large alligator. When Lena shoots and kills it, they find that the gator has the teeth structure of a shark. This is because the two creatures have spliced due to the alien presence.
As they get closer to the lighthouse they find that the mutations are more extreme. The team sees a deer which has leaves and flowers growing out of its antlers. We also see a replica of this deer echoing all of its moves. The replica is most likely an alien deer doppelganger.
We are shown that Lena has a bruise on her hand. She thinks this is from the gator attack. It’s not. The crew is now mutated with the alien cell. Lena’s hand is developing the tattoo from Anya’s hand. They are splicing by being in each other’s presence. They don’t know this yet.
They find the old base of the operation, the one that was used before it was swallowed by the Shimmer. They find a rota that tells them that the previous team (Kane’s team) was guarding the place against something. The team of ladies decides to do the same as it would just be sensible. They also find a memory card that is left behind by Kane’s team. They play it to see the video of the guy with his guts moving like a snake. They explore further to find the moving-guts guy mutated along the wall, dead. They freak out but because the day has ended on them, they stay for the night.
Lena checks out her cells under her microscope. She notices the oddness but doesn’t make sense of it. She goes to meet Ventress who is standing guard. Lena asks her why Kane decided to signup for this suicide mission. Ventress says this – “I’d say you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction. Almost none of us commit suicide and almost all of us self-destruct. In some way, in some part of our lives. We drink, or we smoke. We destabilize a good job. Or the happy marriage. These aren’t decisions, they’re they’re impulses”. This is a little insight into Lena’s decision to cheat on her marriage was impulsive and self-destructive too. Technically each cell in our body is programmed to self-destruct, the Hayflick limit. Kane was disgruntled from finding out about Lena’s affair. His decision to enter the Shimmer was a way of self-destruction.
Just then a mutated bear thingy rips through the fence. It grabs Cass and drags her away. Come morning, Anya and Josie want to go back. Ventress is not interested in going back. Lena wants to keep going towards the lighthouse to find out what happened to Kane. She lies to Anya and Josie saying that the coast is their best route out.
Lena goes scouting for Cass. She finds her dead with her throat ripped out. She goes back and tells the team Cass is dead. As they proceed further, they find trees in the shape of people. This is actually people who have mutated into trees, we’re shown this later on. Josie explains how everything inside the Shimmer is refracted down to the DNA. Everything is splicing up.
Anya Is Angry
They halt for the night. The house they halt at resembles Lena’s house. This is perhaps from a refracted memory. It’s quite possible that each team member is seeing a different house. No one really says anything about it, however. Lena dreams of the night with Daniel where she hates him and herself for cheating on her marriage. Lena remembers telling Danieal that Kane has found out about their affair. Lena is woken up by Anya with the butt of the rifle to her face, only to be knocked out again. Anya has tied Josie, Lena and Ventress to a chair. She’s seen Lena’s locket and connected her to Kane. She’s furious because she’s been lied to. Anya is losing her mind because her structure is changing, her fingerprints are now moving. She feels that Lena and Ventress may have lost their minds and killed Cass. She decides to cut Lena open to check her insides out when we hear Cass’ voice screaming for help.
Now for that freaky bit.
Remember that bear creature that kills Cass? The one that ripped away her throat? Well, somehow the Dying Cass’ mind has spliced with the bears and that throat of hers has given the bear the ability to scream out in her voice. Cass is dead. Only her last emotions (fear) have been transferred to the bear. When the bear roars, all it can produce is her last words – “Help Me!”. The bear is back to attack the rest. A point to note here would be that the bear isn’t using tactics to lure them or anything of the sort. Its voice is now is Cass’ and the words are only “Help” and “Me”.
Anya runs out thinking it’s Cass. She gets mauled by the bear. Then the bear comes in screaming Cass’ “Help Me”. A wounded Anya returns and opens fire on the bear, it kills her in return. Just as it is about to kill Lena, Josie blows its head off with a barrage of bullets from an assault rifle. Ventress decides to leaves for the lighthouse in the middle of the night. She feels their bodies are disintegrating and they don’t have much time. Lena and Josie stay the night.
Next day Josie confirms from Lena that their cells have refracted. She tells Lena that Ventress wants to face it, Lena wants to fight it, but she doesn’t want either of that. She’s accepted her physiological change. She has plant growth on her rapidly. She walks away and becomes a tree (makes like a tree and leaves?).
Lena proceeds further. She breaks down and cries. She picks herself up. Her quest to get back out and help Kane is fighting her mutation. Mind over matter, so to speak. She makes it to the beach. She goes to the lighthouse, enters it. She finds a charred body. She sees the camera and plays it. It’s amazing how cameras in films have their batteries last for a whole year, I can’t get mine to last 2 days. In the camera footage, Lena sees what Kane has been through and also that he’s the dead charred dude. She also sees the doppelganger of Kane. She understands that the Kane back at the camp is alien.
Lena proceeds into the hole in the ground. She sees Ventress whose face is all liquid like. This is an altered Ventress. Most of her is now spliced with the alien cells. She says this – “I needed to know what was inside the lighthouse. That moment’s passed. It’s inside me now. It’s not like us. It’s unlike us. I don’t know what it wants. Or if it wants. But it will grow until it encompasses everything. Our bodies and our minds will be fragmented into their smallest parts until not one part remains. Annihilation”. What she’s referring to is the nature similar to which cancer works. The cancer cells don’t want anything. But they grow until they encompass everything and annihilate the body. The alien cells work exactly like that. The only difference is that they affect all living species. So basically it’s cancer to the living planet.
Ventress turns into the funky alien cloud that we see on Kane’s camera. Lena’s blood is harvested and spliced into this could to form a humanoid. Lena tries to shoot this humanoid but bullets go through leaving alien trails. She runs back up to the lighthouse. The alien teleports there, the bullet trails disappear into its body.
The humanoid now begins to echo Lena’s movements. The default programming of the alien cell seems to be to echo all other lifeforms. Lena tries to attack it with the camera and it hits her right back – again mirroring her. Lena tries to run for the door, the humanoid follows and mimics her forward velocity on to the door. It jams Lena between itself and the door. Something happens here, Lena seems overwhelmed and falls to the floor and faints. The humanoid mimics this too. When she wakes, she gets up and realizes that the humanoid is still doing everything she is. By now we can see that the alien figures how to echo her appearance as well. Lena moves towards charred Kane and slowly picks up a phosphorus grenade. She touches the alien and places the grenade in its hands. At this point, the alien seems to have felt something new. Perhaps the sensation of touch or the birth of an emotion which it picks up from Lena. We don’t really know. All we do know is that this time when Lena runs for it, it doesn’t mimic her. It could simply be because it’s physical echoing is complete.
The grenade goes off. The alien regresses back to its humanoid form. Its hands are on fire. It doesn’t really know what fire is. But due to its inherent nature, it mimics it. All alien cells in the lighthouse burn up. This slowly progresses to everything within the Shimmer and finally, everything burns to ash.
At this point, I expected Lena and Kane to burn up too. Not sure why that doesn’t happen. Kane is at least outside the Shimmer so he may have been unaffected. Lena is still inside and she verified that her blood contains the alien cells. The alien is not intending the survival of Kane and Lena. Its actions are not driven by a purpose. Perhaps Lena runs away from the lighthouse fast enough that she’s outside the spread of the burning. Perhaps her will to get out is repressing the alien cells from acting in her. In any case, she is unable to recall what happened but somehow she has made it out of the Shimmer in one piece and is picked up by the people of the Southern Reach.
Lena is interrogated. This is how the movie begins. We can see clearly a tattoo on her hand. It’s transferred on to her completely from Anya. She tells the team about their experience inside the Shimmer. Up until when she tricked the humanoid with the grenade and made a run for it. While she feels that it has been days or weeks, it’s actually been months. She doesn’t recollect eating. She narrates what she can remember and how the others were “gone” or killed. They tell her that a team went to check out the lighthouse and that everything there was ash. There seems to be nothing left alive. Lena asks about Kane. They tell her that soon as the Shimmer disappeared, his vitals returned to normal. his is how the
Lena sips her water and asks to see her husband. Now this thing that we see on the glass of water, that’s not mutation. That is just how water behaves on the surface of a glass. It’s called surface tension. There is no mutation here. It’s the same behaviour wine has and is why people swirl wine glasses to see that pattern to assess the wine. The glass is shown up close only to emphasize again on the refraction concept.
Lena and Kane
Lena meets Kane. She asks him “You aren’t Kane are you?”. He replies saying “I don’t think so”. He asks her “Are you Lena?”. She doesn’t respond. Kane is an alien clone. Much of Lena is also spliced with alien cells. We are shown a Shimmer in Lena’s eyes. They both are now technically alien. It’s odd that Southern Reach hasn’t tested their blood yet to know this. It was a simple 10 second peek under a microscope. Both Lena and Kane are in isolation. Maybe they will quarantine them both, experiment on them, and then burn them. Their radiation suits aren’t going to protect them from being refracted. Refraction anyway happens through mediums. The world is doomed. Cheers.
Barry is a technologist who helps start-ups build successful products. His love for movies and production has led him to write his well-received film explanation and analysis articles to help everyone appreciate the films better. He’s regularly available for a chat conversation on his website and consults on storyboarding from time to time.
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