Making Sense Of That 'Annihilation' Ending

Major spoilers for Annihilation await you below.

A woman stands on a deserted beach. Behind her, grey waves crash; ahead of her, crystal trees grow out of the sand, and a row of bones mark the entrance of a lighthouse, a structure containing the horror and beauty of the universe.

That's the setup for the third of act of Alex Garland's dazzling new sci-fi epic, Annihilation. Natalie Portman plays the woman, Lena, a retired Army veteran and a biology professor at Johns Hopkins University. She's in a place called the Shimmer, a strange anomaly of land that started when something resembling a meteor crashed into the lighthouse and took up home there. The anomaly spread, and teams started going in to investigate. Lena's husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), was a part of one expedition – he was the only survivor, and returned abruptly with no memory of what happened to him, and with multiple organ failure. Lena, hoping to find answers in the Shimmer, enters with an all-female crew to do what the other expeditions could not: uncover the nature of the anomaly and stop it from spreading.

But as with all great sci-fi, the Shimmer is not just a mysterious phenomena that makes for a visually striking setting. It's also a place of self-discovery. Lena and Kane, it turns out, were not happily married. She was cheating on him with a colleague and he knew it; she blames herself for him entering what could have been a suicide mission. Her choice to enter the Shimmer is a form of punishment and atonement. Maybe she can help Kane. Maybe she can help herself.

What she finds in the lighthouse is not so easily parsed out, but it does seem to offer her something of an answer.

The Tunnel

Annihilation is based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, but the film diverges greatly from its source material. It does re-interpret one fascinating element: the tunnel. Or rather, the "tower" as the psychologist character in the book calls it, though she isn't sure why she feels compelled to refer to it as such. The tunnel contains a staircase and has strange writing on the walls. The tunnel is mostly missing from the film, but one can draw parallels between the hole in the lighthouse wall that Lena discovers and the structure from the book.

Before she enters the tunnel, Lena notices a charred body on the lighthouse floor. There's a camcorder positioned in front of it, and Lena watches its footage in horror, realizing the body is her husband; the Shimmer drove him mad and he killed himself with a phosphorous grenade. She also sees that a double of his body was created, and that's the man back home.

Lena then enters the tunnel, and discovers the team's psychologist, Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – the three other members of the team died elsewhere in the Shimmer. Ventress is sat in the middle of what looks like a cave of iridescent ribbon. She tells Lena the nature of the Shimmer – that it's some kind of extraterrestrial or celestial being, and that it didn't come to intentionally cause harm; it's in its nature to restructure whatever it comes in contact with on a molecular level, essentially "annihilating" other living things. That's why the Shimmer contains such odd and impossible creatures, like a bear who can mimic the screams of what it kills or twin deer with flowers sprouting from their antlers. It's a prism, reflecting not just light, but also DNA and other physical properties. (As we see later, Lena has acquired the tattoo of one of her teammates as a result of being in the Shimmer.)

Ventress, fully enlightened, is then overcome by the tunnel; she bursts into light and seems to ascend into what looks like a giant bulbous cloud, made from the same material as the rest of the cave. Lena looks into it and sees light, reflections, color; it's reminiscent of the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with odd spirals and arrays. Lena is mesmerized by it, like she's witnessing the nature of existence; like it's mending her broken spirit.

The Dance

Lena leaves the tunnel but is stopped by the cloud-like being, which has now taken a humanoid form. It knocks her to the floor and Lena slowly realizes it's copying her. Like the twin deer, like Kane, the being is creating a double, learning from her how to move and behave. Lena engages with the being in a silent dance, punctuated by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's undulating, electric score. Lena is eventually able to best the creature, just as it's taking her form; she hands it another one of Kane's grenades, and pulls the tab. The being is destroyed, and with it the rest of the Shimmer, proving the being was some kind of host.

Having survived the ordeal, Lena goes back to Area X, an area just beyond the Shimmer where the government was observing the phenomena. She is questioned about what she saw, asked if its nature was extraterrestrial. She says it was. She then asks to see her husband, who she learns has made a full recovery.

Is Lena "Lena"?

Lena and Kane are reunited, and he confesses that he's not the real Kane, though because the two shared DNA, he attains some part of him – his memories, his feelings for Lena. He asks Lena if she's the real Lena. She doesn't answer, but the two embrace, and we see that both of their eyes are glowing with the same multicolored light seen in the Shimmer.

There are a few interpretations here. One is that the real Lena escaped, but that she is irrevocably changed. She mentioned earlier in the film that she was "infected" after testing her DNA. Her cells were already going through a mutation, so she was never going to leave wholly herself.

Another read on the ending is that Lena's double managed to escape, and that Kane and Lena are both new versions of themselves. Why would the double destroy its habitat? Well, the theme of self-destruction is a major through-line in Annihilation. Perhaps it had achieved some perfect final form and was ready to assimilate into humanity.

Both of these could work, but neither matter so much as their implications. Annihilation is about many things, but at its heart, it's the story of a shattered marriage, the wife trying to change herself in some way, to be better. She enters the Shimmer looking for answers and leaves with all she needs. She's restructured, repaired, and ready to forge ahead with a new version of the man she loves but couldn't fix herself.