Spoiler alert: this article contains spoilers.
Has there ever been a more beautiful quote-unquote “horror” movie than Annihilation?
The answer to that question depends on what you consider beautiful and what you consider horrific. But even the most jaded of aestheticians would have trouble dismissing the luscious, lurid, terrifyingly sublime imagery in director Alex Garland’s metaphysical sci-fi thriller, full of terrifically iridescent trees of glass, disturbing plant-like effigies of real humans, black mutant statuettes who dance with the grace of Russian ballerinas and Malick-esque visions of the velocity of creation.
The movie stars Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist and former soldier, whose husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been incommunicado for the better part of a year, on a classified special forces mission. When he returns home one Saturday afternoon, Lena is naturally overcome with emotion. But something’s amiss: Kane seems spaced out, obdurate, indifferent but to the look of his distorted hand in the reflection of water in a glass—and not in a chill, “I’m really stoned” kind of way. He begins coughing up blood. On the way to the hospital, their ambulance is pulled over by a squadron of black SUVs, and Kane and Lena are taken to a top-secret military base called, ominously, “Area X.”
It’s there we discover that Kane and his team had spent the last year inside “The Shimmer,” a spectral, extraterrestrial force that’s been slowly extending outwards, like a rolling cloud of invisible alien fog, destroying (or, well, changing) everything in its path. According to Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who for some reason is at the helm of this operation, nobody they’ve sent into the Shimmer has returned—except for Lena’s husband, Kane.
Given her background as a scientist and Army vet, Lena volunteers to join the all-female crew about to embark on a mission into the Shimmer, which includes Ventress, a paramedic named Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist named Josie (Tessa Thompson) and a geologist named Cass (Tuva Novotny). All of the women, we learn, are “damaged goods”—Anya is an alcoholic, now sober; Josie needs to cut herself to feel alive; Cass lost her daughter to leukemia; and Ventress, as we learn from Lena’s post-mission debriefing (which serves as the film's framing device), has cancer.
The overarching theme, though, is self-destruction, which Lena informs us through one of her dream-like flashbacks is coded into our DNA. Everyone, Ventress suggests, exhibits self-destructive behavior in one way or another; even the most content among us do things, consciously or not, that threaten to destabilize our lives. That’s why Kane did what he did, despite a seemingly happy marriage. And that’s why Lena, as we learn through another flashback, sleeps with her coworker, Dan, despite not knowing whether her husband is still alive.
Self-destruction is the modus operandi of the Shimmer, too—although not in the way you might think. The Shimmer, as Josie postulates, acts as a prism, except instead of refracting light it refracts DNA, meaning that every living thing inside, including humans, is becoming a part of everything else. This is the source of the movie’s frights, including a crocodile with shark teeth and an aggressive mutant bear who, having eaten Cass, ends up incorporating her desperate cries for help into its roar. And yet it’s also, as I implied earlier, the source of the movie’s beauty, its surreal-looking fauna, twinned white deer and magical light, whose rays always seems to carry a whisper of a rainbow. Rarely if ever has the horror in a so-called horror movie been so ineffably beautiful.
And that’s kind of the point. The Shimmer, as Lena puts it in her debriefing, isn’t so much destroying the world as it is changing it, creating something new. During the climax of the film, Ventress, in the heart of the Shimmer, disintegrates into a myriad of different pieces of herself, as she literally moans the word “annihilation.” It’s goofy, sure, and Ventress, who always seems to know more than she lets on, even if that’s impossible, makes almost no sense as a character. But criticisms aside, the scene is a visual feast, an hallucinogenic procession of kaleidoscopic images conveying the disappearance of the self into the world surrounding it. As a viewer, you’re terrified and wonderstruck at the same time, in fear of what’s being destroyed, yet in awe of what’s being created.
The ending of Annihilation will surely provide fodder for many a-post-viewing debate. Lena, after participating in an elegant, ballet-like dance-fight with the Shimmer’s black statuette duplicate of herself, puts a grenade in its hand and blows it up. Shimmer Lena then goes about immolating the entire Shimmer. When asked how she came out alive, while the others did not, Lena simply says she “had to return.” She reunites with Kane, who has magically recovered, even though she knows this is not Kane—it’s the Shimmer version of Kane. The last shot, which lingers on Lena’s eyes, suggest she is not quite her old self either. That Lena has been destroyed; in its place is something new. But what is this something new? Is it good? Is it evil? Are she and Shimmer Kane meant to procreate and carry on this alien lineage? Without their selves to attach themselves to, who are they? Are they one?
The movie, thankfully, doesn’t provide answers to these questions (although, the Jeff VanderMeer book upon which it was based is part of a trilogy, so those might). Garland offers the rare, satisfying movie ending that is neither good nor bad, happy nor sad. It’s indifferent the way the Shimmer is, because change—despite its horror and beauty, its capacity to destroy and regenerate—is indifferent to the thing it’s changing.