Spoilers for Annihilation below.
In the feverish crescendo of Annihilation’s wordless climax, the name Bobbi Jene crept into my otherwise paralyzed brain. I’m no modern dance buff, and the dancer and choreographer is not someone who would have been on the tip of my tongue if it wasn’t for last year’s ravishing documentary Bobbi Jene, by director Elvira Lind. The film introduced me to Bobbi Jene Smith, and her ability to turn her entire body into a lightning rod of instinct through her charged, emotionally (and sometimes physically) naked choreography, as sensual as it is self-destructive. Watching Natalie Portman stuck in a seemingly inescapable dance with her faceless, iridescent double — watching it turn violent, not out of malice, but because it can’t help but be — called to mind Smith’s controlled throwing of herself across a performance space, the internal passion and turmoil of the self made physical.
I was impressed, then, to see that Smith herself had choreographed that scene — and that perhaps the emotional wallop it delivered wasn’t just my own projection. The face-off occurs at the end of the film’s trek into the Shimmer, a mysterious, probably paranormal zone that is spreading through the Florida swampland in which all manner of biological impossibilities are taking place. Portman’s Lena is a biologist who has volunteered for the expedition after her husband (Oscar Isaac) has come back inexplicably altered from the same mission. Leading the team is Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh,) a psychologist who has been overseeing all previous expeditions from the Southern Reach base camp (none of which, with the exception of Lena’s husband, have ever returned) while, it is later revealed, slowly dying of cancer.
The other three women on the expedition are broken in their own ways — they’ve lost loved ones or struggle with self-harm. Alex Garland’s script brings to the surface the theme of human flailing that was present but less articulated in Jeff VanderMeer’s book. The Shimmer is a psychedelically manifesting cancer on the land (perhaps not accidentally, the American South); the people who are drawn to it recognize something of themselves in the phenomenon. In the novel, it plays out more like the land’s reclamation of itself and its inherent chaos; in the film, it’s a beckoning void that promises some kind of finality that the mundane world can’t. (And you know what they say about the void.) Garland emphasizes that everyone is there by choice; these women are not hapless suckers roped into a documentedly dangerous and insane mission. And sure enough, one by one they are killed by the fearsome mutations that have sprung up in the Shimmer, or, in the case of Tessa Thompson’s Josie, willfully succumb to the genetic weirdness of the environment.
Garland’s film is not about anything so ego-driven as suicide; it’s about self-defeat on a molecular level, an entropy of the self. The cancerous cervical cells Lena shows her biology students in an early scene are metaphors of a sort, but as she points out later, all human cells eventually mutate and break down in the process of aging. The ecosystem of the Shimmer speeds this up, warping the women’s minds and bodies, even their own blood cells. There is a lot of space between what rational humans recognize as fully functional, sentient existence and total destruction, and the Shimmer is basically that in-between space, making each woman unrecognizable to herself in different ways before snuffing them out.
Eventually, Josie, Cass and Anya are dead, and Ventress has gone missing, having charged ahead to the lighthouse. Lena, hollow-cheeked and dead-eyed and just as single-mindedly determined for answers, is not far behind her. She arrives to find the charred remains of a body, a hole in the floor, and a camcorder on a tripod. Playing back the tape, she sees her husband Kane, driven mad by his year in the Shimmer, and a doppelgänger, whom Lena realizes with a shudder is actually the man who came back from the mission and is now in intensive care back on the other side of the border, not her husband. The original Kane explodes himself with a phosphorous grenade; it’s his remains on the floor of the lighthouse. The doppelgänger, we are to assume, makes his way back out of the Shimmer.
Having been given the first concrete evidence that Kane is, in fact, dead (if he wasn’t already fundamentally not her husband in the gruesome disembowelment footage discovered by the team earlier in the film), Lena goes in the hole. At my screening I heard some people sigh in exasperation — why would she do that!? — assuming that Lena is, or ever has in the course of the film, been acting out of self-preservation, self-continuation. In the cavern that the hole leads to, she finds Ventress, whose body has been taken over by the extraterrestrial force that has caused the Shimmer. Ventress’s body explodes into pure light and transforms into an pulsating, hypertechnicolor void, which absorbs a drop of Lena’s blood and births her doppelgänger, a half-formed, shimmery-green body that stands indifferently before her as her mirror image.
I found the double to be more terrifying than the human-scream-emitting bear-boar that the team encounters earlier in the film; faceless or featureless bodies have sent me into a despairing kind of fear since I was a kid. But the “fight” that ensues — which is not a fight so much as it is Lena’s double literally getting in her own way — I found to be perhaps the most searing expression of depression and self-destructive tendencies I’ve ever seen visualized. The double isn’t sentient, it is a projection, it’s all Lena. Which makes it all the more terrifying. At one point, Lena runs for the door, but before she can open it she’s pinned to the wall by her double, running up behind her with equal force. Smith’s choreography is brutal and heartbreaking and relentless: Lena, who all this time has assumed this mission was about avenging her husband, or finishing what he had started, is overwhelmed by the weight of her own self.
Playing over all this, and matching Smith’s choreography in intensity, is Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score. In a piece entitled “The Alien,” it grows to a shimmering (appropriately) wall of backward-looping strings, punctuated by what will heretofore be known as the Annihilation Noise, and sounds like the multicolored explosions of lichen that burp up out of the Shimmer’s altered landscape. The combination is overwhelming. The Shimmer is not an environment where humans can remain stable for long, they all break down one way or another, and the music and visuals seek to replicate that titular annihilation; you feel pushed up against that wall along with Lena.
The ending, and the question of which Lena makes it back out of Area X, feels like intentional baiting, a lure to buy the Blu-ray and dissect it shot by shot. There is a blackout at one point in the fight, and Lena wakes up next to her double; there is thus time unaccounted for, during which any number of uncanny body swaps might have occurred. The person who appears to be Original Lena plants another grenade in the hand of the double, which destroys the double and the lighthouse in one fell swoop.
But is it the delirious, Shimmer-ravaged Original Lena who escapes, or her double? I am less concerned with this and more hung up on the implied destruction of the Shimmer by … a grenade? We are led to believe that is, in fact, the doubles of both Kane and Lena that have made it back outside the compound: their eyes shift in color in the final moment; Double-Kane himself states that he doesn’t think he’s the real Kane. His stabilization (when Lena left him, he was suffering massive organ failure and internal bleeding) seems to have coincided with the implied destruction of the Shimmer. That such a tidy defeat could be achieved doesn’t feel quite … truthful, though, one of the few aspects of the second half of the film that feels indebted to studio notes (the front half of the film seems more affected by this).
The point of the Shimmer seems to be its inevitability. In its warped, completely unstable reflection of reality, there is some kind of broader truth (I didn’t not think about Russian bots while watching Annihilation). That is a scarier idea than a mutant shark or disemboweled snakelike intestines: just as minds and bodies eventually break down of natural causes, so does civilization. The idea of venturing into such a psychedelically warped landscape despite its active hostility to your sense of order and consciousness, and making it far enough to spawn a version of you that can withstand such stresses, and then being forced to fight that version of yourself feels … hella relatable? Am I crazy?
The film ends in a familiar mirroring of Garland’s last film, Ex Machina, this time with two not-quite-humans venturing back into society together. But while Ava the android’s journey feels like a chilling triumph over the cowardly men who created her, Annihilation’s coda feels much more fraught, and more personal. Kane and Lena — or their shimmery doubles — have both destroyed a part of themselves in order to keep their DNA in the world, and it doesn’t feel very triumphant. (I am told by my colleagues that in addition to their altered physicality, as evidenced by their eyes, we also see the water on Lena’s glass mutate as she holds it during her interrogation. If I missed this on the big screen, I pity those poor international viewers trying to spot that on Netflix.) Maybe the Shimmer doesn’t need to exist anymore because it has two toxic agents in the form of Kane and Lena, a couple whose entanglement, both with themselves and their doubles, have left them shells of themselves, their sense of selves permanently dislodged. Lena, like her double, mirrored her husband’s journey because it was the only thing that made sense for her to do in her grief over their split. They are one person, they are two alone, they are four for each other.