annihilation spoiler review

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Alex Garland’s haunting Annihilation.)

With AnnihilationEx Machina director Alex Garland has crafted a weird, challenging, and disturbing sci-fi horror film that will repel some and amaze others. This is the type of strange, hypnotic work that film fans obsess over. Don’t be surprised if people are studying and talking about this film in years to come.

This Annihilation spoiler review will attempt to get to the heart of Garland’s often impenetrable film. Spoilers follow, obviously.

On the morning when I woke up without you for the first time
I felt free, and I felt lonely, and I felt scared
And I began to talk to myself almost immediately
Not being used to being the only person there
– The Mountain Goats, “Woke Up New”

annihilation tessa thompson

It’s a Terrible Thought

There are many scenes in Annihilation that I can’t get out of my head, but one in particular stands out most of all.

More than halfway through the film, the all-female expedition into the strange, eerie Area X (a former national park blanketed in an unearthly phenomena known as the Shimmer) has been decimated. Two of the five team members are dead, one has abandoned the group, and now only two remain. They are Lena, a biologist played by Natalie Portman, and Josie, a physicist (Tessa Thompson).

The previous night, the team had been attacked in a nightmarish sequence that gives almost every horror movie in recent memory a run for its money. A mutated bear, the flesh from its head peeled away to reveal a skull, was the attacker, and it made mincemeat of one of the team members, Anya (Gina Rodriguez). The bear had already killed another team member, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and, perhaps worst of all, when it attacked the rest of the team it emitted Sheppard’s pained death wails. Rather than a roar or a growl, it was Sheppard’s shrieking voice that sounds from the mouth of this beast.

Now, in the light of the following day, with the creature slain and the team’s leader, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) gone off on her own, Lena and Josie sit side by side in the sunlight. The field that circles their location is peppered with strange flowering plants – flower-covered trees that are shaped exactly like human beings, frozen in mid-stride.

“It was strange, hearing Sheppard’s voice last night,” Josie says, almost dreamily. “I suspect that as she was dying, part of her mind became part of the creature that was killing her…It’s a terrible thought. To die frightened and in pain, and have that as the only part of you which survives. Trapped in the mind of an animal.”

It’s a terrible thought.

The way Thompson delivers this mini-speech, her voice hazy, sounding as if she’s winding down, makes the moment unnerving. Things only get more unsettling from here. Josie, we’ve learned, is covered in self-inflicted scars from a history of cutting herself. For most of the film, the scars on Josie’s arms are hidden. Now, following the night of the bear attack, the scars are exposed for all to see.

The Shimmer has been changing the team ever since they crossed through the border – not just mentally and emotionally, but physically. Their very DNA has been altered. This is the nature of the Shimmer. After Josie speaks of the bear attack, she begins to wander off. Director Alex Garland follows after her, but the camera can’t quite keep up – Josie is always one step ahead. But in the brief glimpses we see of her fleeing, we witness flowering plants sprouting from the scars on her arms.

And then she’s gone.

She’s vanished from our sight, and from the sight of Lena. She’s become just another strange flowering tree – a flower-covered tree shaped exactly like a human being, frozen in mid-stride. Beauty blossoming from destruction.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake that scene from my memory.

annihilation the shimmer

The Shimmer

But what does it all mean?

Does it sound like a cop-out if I tell you Annihilation doesn’t necessarily have to be deciphered? That maybe it’s okay to let the mystery be?

At some point, audiences got it in their heads that the entertainment they watch is something to be “solved.” I have no proof of this, but a part of me thinks it can all be traced back to the pop-culture phenomenon that was Lost. Every week, the mysterious nature of that hit TV show inspired audiences to speculate wildly about where this was all going. In a sense, the show re-wired audiences into thinking this was the way to approach all stories that happen to be deliberately enigmatic. And perhaps that’s the wrong way to approach a film like Annihilation.

Perhaps you’ll never really get to the bottom of what’s going on in Annihilation because the characters in the film never do either. By the time the credits roll, the Shimmer has vanished, leaving little to no answers. The only thing left behind is the prevailing sense that something has been irrevocably altered. The genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, and there’s no way to put it back in.

Annihilation opens with a shot of a meteor crashing to earth. It lands somewhere near a lighthouse along a picturesque coast, and what follows is a slow descent into madness. Here is a film that picks apart the minds of its cast of characters the same exact time its picking apart the minds of the audience. It is a striking, singular work; the type of movie that gets obsessed over, and studied. Almost 40 years after Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining hit theaters, viewers are still dissecting it, finding buried secrets, trying to learn what it all means. The same thing will likely be true of Annihilation. And here’s the thing: like The Shining, you’ll never really find the answer. And it almost doesn’t matter. Because just like The Shining, even if you don’t want to pull the inner workings of Annihilation apart and find out what it all means, you still have, on the surface, a terrifying genre picture.

At the center of the story is Portman’s Lena. A former soldier turned academic, Lena is drifting through her life, now in a haze of grief. Her military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) vanished on a top secret mission, and Lena spends her days weeping silently in her big, empty house, the melancholy sound of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” flowing from a stereo. Here, before the film has even really begun, director Alex Garland is cheekily dropping hints about what’s to come. It’s all there in the lyrics to the song:

They are one person
They are two alone
They are three together
They are four for each other”

Kane comes home. Sort of. He actually materializes in the house, seemingly from nowhere. His memories are sketchy; he can’t really recall where he’s been, what he did on his mission, or how he got home. Almost immediately, he takes ill, and before Lena can get him to the hospital, she finds herself captured by shady soldiers and rendered unconscious.

When she comes to, she’s sequestered away somewhere within the Southern Reach, a mysterious government organization. Kane is on life support.  At the Southern Reach, clearly untrustworthy psychologist Dr. Ventress has quite a story for Lena. Kane, it seems, was part of a team sent into Area X, parkland that’s swathed in an eerie, translucent bubble known as the Shimmer. Several teams have already ventured into the Shimmer, and every single mission has gone terribly wrong, resulting in death and/or madness.

Why then does the Southern Reach continue to travel in there? There’s no easy answer. Perhaps it’s an affliction. Or a compulsion. The members of the Southern Reach are helpless against the draw of that uncharted territory. They’re like every doomed Arctic expedition that attempted to find the Northwest Passage, only to perish. They can’t help themselves – the potential for answers are out there, and they far outweigh the risk.

Or perhaps it’s because human beings are inherently drawn to self-destruction.

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer and critic for /Film, and the host of the 21st Century Spielberg podcast. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at