TV & Movies

The Ending of Annihilation Explained

Annihilation Movie

Annihilation is a beautiful, twisted movie that asks the question: What does it truly mean to be human? Is it a masterpiece? I’ll let you decide. Is it great? You bet your ass it is.

Of course, many moviegoers are coming out of the movie confused about what all of this really means in the context of the film — especially its final scene. So I’m going to explain.

Admittedly, I have not yet red the novel series this movie is based on, so all of my explanation comes purely from the movie itself.

Obviously, spoilers follow.

Annihilation Movie

Late in the movie, we learn that inside this otherworldly dimension, the Shimmer, DNA is being manipulated, replicated, and mutated. Lena (Natalie Portman) does battle with a copied version of herself in the film’s climax and comes to realize that her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who returned from the Shimmer, is not really Kane but a copy of him. In the final scene, Lena embraces this new version of Kane, and we see a “shimmer” in both of their eyes.

So we’re left with a series of questions:

  1. What happened during those “missing” four days when the scientists first entered the Shimmer?
  2. Why does Lena have a shimmer in her eye if she’s the “real” Lena?
  3. How did Kane survive a full year inside the Shimmer?
  4. Was the guy with the grenade the real Kane?
  5. What’s up with those human-shaped trees?
  6. Why do all the characters seem to be dissolving?
  7. What’s even real anymore?

Well, the answers to all of those questions — except the last one — can be pretty easily explained if you consider one tiny thing: The lifeform inside the Shimmer is attempting to become human.

Annihilation Movie

So let’s tackle these questions in order.

1. What happened during those “missing” four days when the scientists first entered the Shimmer?

This is the part I think most people miss, and it’s probably why people are confused. During those four days, I’m pretty sure all of the scientists died. Their DNA was copied into new beings who functioned mostly as the humans they were cloned from, and they even retained many of the memories of those people. So when they awake inside their tents and can’t remember the past four days, it’s because they are new “people” with the memories of the originals.

2. Why does Lena have a shimmer in her eye if she’s the “real” Lena?

Now this makes sense, doesn’t it? The Lena that escapes the Shimmer is not actually the real Lena. It’s the Shimmer clone version of her, which was created during those mysterious four days. We’re given a clue when she analyzes her DNA and realizes she’s “infected” by the Shimmer.

3. How did Kane survive a full year inside the Shimmer?

Kane didn’t survive in the Shimmer for a full year. We learn that, until the lighthouse is annihilated at the end of the movie, Shimmer clones only survive a few days/weeks before they essentially break down. Kane was cloned, and then that clone was cloned, and so on for a full year. So the Kane that comes out of the Shimmer is a clone of a clone of a clone of a… etc.

In fact, this might explain the weird garden of bones outside the lighthouse — these are the remains of Kane clones who killed each other.

Annihilation Movie

4. Was the guy with the grenade the real Kane?

We actually don’t know for sure. It’s possible, but highly unlikely. He questions his own existence, saying something along the lines of, “Who am I? Am I you?” into the camera. This is essentially explaining the core mystery of the film: Humans are being replicated. It might also be a clue that this is a fake Kane who realizes he’s not the real deal. He does suddenly have a weird southern accent.

5. What’s up with those human-shaped trees?

There are two possible explanations for this, and I think they both could work. The first is that many human beings end up turning into plants, like Josie eventually does.

But there’s a second explanation that I think works better. The Shimmer lifeforce is desperately trying to become human. So it’s stealing human DNA and assembling it using matter from other life, such as plants. The result is something that resembles a human, but it’s not actually human.

And this makes the demon bear more interesting too. It manages to steal a part of Cass as she’s dying, but it’s just her dying voice. So even the demon bear is a failed attempt at creating a human using matter from other organisms.

6. Why do all the characters seem to be dissolving?

This seems to be an artifact of the cloning process. When a person is cloned, the clone is able to retain memories and the shape of the human. As time goes on, however, they deteriorate.

Notice that pretty much every character who enters the Shimmer — besides Lena and Kane — deteriorates in some way onscreen. The guy in the pool becomes some twisted half-plant, half-human monstrosity. Cass’ corpse seems to be melting into the ground after the bear attack. Anya’s mental health deteriorates until she goes mad and ties up the rest of the team. Josie mutates until she becomes a plant. Ventress dissolves into a beam of light.

Annihilation Movie

The idea that all life forms must deteriorate is played with thematically earlier in the film. Lena and Kane have a conversation about aging cells, and later on, Ventress talks about how every human is engaging in some form of self-destruction. The breakdown of organisms happens faster inside the Shimmer, and Shimmer life quickly forgets the essential components in making a human, which causes the artificial humans to quickly fall apart.

Note that in the lighthouse, Lena’s Shimmer clone mimics her actions, as if its attempting to learn them from her. Shimmer life is constantly trying to learn, but it’s also constantly forgetting.

7. What’s even real anymore?

And this is ultimately what I think the movie is trying to ask us — or at least some version of this question. What does it mean to be human? The Shimmer never seems to figure it out. Or does it? Does the ending suggest that the Shimmer has in fact successfully become human? And if so, what does that even mean? What is the secret of becoming human?

Those questions are left for you to decide.

Josh Wirtanen owns this place and has opinions about pretty much everything. Follow him on Twitter: @joshuajwirtanen.

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