Warning! Spoilers to follow for Annihilation. Come back later if you haven't seen it yet.
It may only be late February, but it's fairly easy to predict that by the end of 2018 will still be calling Alex Garland's Annihilation one of the headiest films of the year. The movie truly pulls no punches when it comes to science-fiction weirdness, coming together with a very 2001-esque finale, and it's guaranteed that audiences will spend years watching it and scratching their heads regarding certain confusing elements. Fortunately, for those of you who don't quite get it, we're here to help.
In this feature, we've collected five major questions that you may be asking after seeing Annihilation, and provide answers that we think should help explain exactly what it is that goes down inside the walls of The Shimmer. Read on, and be sure to leave your own thoughts and interpretations in the comments section below!
What happened to Kane?
The mystery of what happened to Kane (Oscar Isaac) behind the walls of The Shimmer is really what drives the entire plot of Annihilation, given that it's the information that Lena (Natalie Portman) is on the hunt for almost the full film. Unfortunately, it's not a question with a super happy answer. For starters, the thing that looks like Kane that arrives home at the start of the movie definitely isn't Kane -- it's a duplicate created by The Shimmer -- and the reality is that the real guy actually met a very violent end.
Like the team that is prominently featured in the film, Kane and his men were sent by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to go to The Lighthouse and discover the cause of The Shimmer -- but also like the team that is prominently featured in the film, the mission doesn't go super well. The cell-altering effects of the alien presence doesn't sit too well with the soldiers/scientists, and as evidenced in videotapes they wind up kind of losing it as their bodies change in excessively strange ways. Kane is the only member who winds up actually making it to the end, but as seen on the camcorder in The Lighthouse he doesn't complete his mission. Instead, his confrontation with his duplicate instead forces him to lose all sense of self, and he commits suicide with a phosphorous grenade.
Was The Shimmer here to hurt us?
The question about what happened to Kane is what drives Lena through the story, but what Lomax (Benedict Wong) is after is any kind of explanation for the nature of The Shimmer. Clearly the cause of the strange effect was extraterrestrial, but what was its motivation? Was it on Earth to take over the entire planet and terraform it for a new species of alien?
Alex Garland clearly leaves the end of Annihilation open for interpretation where this question is concerned -- but based on the evidence suggested it seems that The Shimmer is not a malicious force. Instead, it was an alien nature that hitched a ride on a meteor, and just happened to land on Earth. It's true that it "annihilates" anything in its path, as anything within The Shimmer immediately finds its cellular structure completely re-written and mutated, but it's not destructive. Rather than meaning to destroy anything that it comes across, it is instead more about changing things -- as though reflecting the environment through a prism. It's possible that this isn't true, and that The Shimmer was part of some larger extraterrestrial plot to take over Earth, but this is certainly the conclusion that Lena seems to draw from her experiences at the end of the film.
Is The Shimmer gone?
Annihilation is a movie based on a book that is the first in a trilogy-- but based on what's presented in the adaptation, it's not really built to become a big screen franchise. This is because the most mysterious element of the story seems to go away before the credits roll. During her experience in The Lighthouse, Lena is able to convince her duplicate to let a phosphorous grenade go off in its hand, but it winds up doing a lot more than just killing the duplicate. Instead, the blast sets the duplicate on fire, and by going back into the core of The Shimmer the duplicate winds up seemingly burning the entire alien environment to the ground.
But is The Shimmer really gone? Evidence points to the answer being yes. Not only do we see a good amount of its destruction through Lena's eyes, as she watches The Lighthouse and various crystalline structures burn and disappear, but it's further confirmed by Lomax during the interrogation at the end of the movie (he mentions sending in a team to The Lighthouse but discovering that the whole thing is reduced to ash). From what's suggested, The Shimmer as an entity/environment is destroyed before the end of the film -- but that shouldn't be interpreted to mean that all evidence of it is gone...
What's going on with Lena's eyes at the end?
As mentioned earlier, Kane isn't really Kane when he gets back from The Shimmer. The real Kane kills himself, and lets his duplicate take his place in the real world. This is not the case for Lena, who is able to successfully destroy The Shimmer and make her way back to Area X -- but as seen in the final shot of the movie, the experience hasn't been totally left behind. Instead, while The Shimmer may be gone, it seems that the alterations that it made to Lena on a cellular level when she entered the alien environment don't just go away.
Explained by Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) in Annihilation's third act, the alien nature manipulates the cells of anyone who comes in contact with it, and it seems that those effects are rather permanent. While they can only be seen through a microscope, it seems that Lena's cells are still mutating at the end of the film, evidenced by The Shimmer that remains in her eyes. So what is the effect? Does she simply have swirling fingerprints, or are her guts swirling around inside her body as seen earlier in the story? Those details are left to the viewers imagination, and given Alex Garland's resistance to sequel talk, we'll probably never get a full answer to the question.
What's going on with the tattoos?
Annihilation is a film that was purposely built to be watched multiple times, and one thing you may notice on your second or third viewing is that there is something funky going on with characters' tattoos. Specifically, there is an ouroboros design (snake eating its own tail) that seems to do a bit of rotation. We first see it on the forearm of the soldier whose guts Kane cuts open in the videotape; then it can be seen Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez); and finally it finds a home on Lena. But what exactly does it mean?
For starters, the ouroboros is a wonderful symbol of one of Annihilation's most prominent themes -- the infinitely self-destructive nature of humanity -- but more to the point it's a reflection of the effect of The Shimmer. Within the walls of the alien environment, all cells are not only linked, but are in constant mutation with one another. Everything is constantly mingling. It's why tattoos can move from person to person, and it also explains the "malignancy" that Lena finds on a wall (presumably an extension of Dr. Ventress' cancer). Basically, it's a nice little touch that Alex Garland throws in to demonstrate the effects of The Shimmer that also has a nice bit of symbolism.