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Annihilation (2018): Review, part 3

Here is part three of my spoiler-heavy review for Alex Garland's Annihilation (2018). Read part one, here, and two, here. For part three, I wanted to explain the climax of the film, and its aftermath. The ending might seem confusing or empty of meaning. Trust me when I say that it’s not. As narrative, it’s framed. This is important because it means that, when examined in retrospect, everything we thought to be disintegrated actually adds up. 

At this point, Lena progresses into the belly of the beastthe lighthouse, itself. Inside looking out, he camera points at the invader as she proceeds through the tunnel; as she does, the camera pulls back, coasting on a dolly. The tunnel walls are black, but glitter like polished bones. The effect is not unlike the derelict craft, in Alien (1979): When John Hurt's Kane descended into it, he found the ships eggs waiting for him; and the fact that each movie features a doomed male with the same name is no small coincidence. Like John Hurt, Garland's Kane and Lena are led by a beacon (which a lighthouse projects) into a trap. 

Lena finds Ventress kneeling in the same black chamber Kane had briefly occupied, himself. After exchanging words, Ventress explodes into light, which reassembles itself into the same blob briefly seem in the digital camera (which was hinted at under the “fossil” in the pool, earlier in the movie: a kind of pictograph or hieroglyph that warns of danger but is too cryptic to decipher). From it, a black, faceless silhouette forms. The special effects are cartoonish, here, and slightly dated by today’s standards, but the atmosphere of the set (and the excellent, alien music by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow) more than make up for it. Nevertheless, Lena stands in the archaic “womb,” confronted with its parthenogenetic spawn. So, she reacts like Ripley would: screaming and shooting her weapon. I won’t say what happens, save that it looks extremely cool, and the bullets are utterly ineffective. I will say for the second how great the score is, in this scene: It rules.

Seeing that her gun is useless, Lena flees. Alas, she finds the black shape on the other side, waiting for her. It mimics her; when she attacks it, she is knocked out by a blow responding to her own. This continues in a hypnotizing pantomime—one that ends only when Lena digs a grenade out of the bag her husband left in his wake (so to speak). At this point, the alien morphs into her. It seems stunned, confused. She pulls the pin and runs out; the place, including the alien, goes up in flames. 

In a grand coda, we return to the glass chamber. Lena explains that the alien is dead. In turn, she’s allowed to see her husband, who, at this stage, we—ourselves and Lena—know isn’t Kane. When confronting him, she says as much. He agrees. Except, then he asks her if she’s really Lena. She merely weeps. They embrace and we see “Kane’s” eyes shimmer like rainbows. The problem is, so do Lena’s. We’ve been had. Roll credits. The movie ends, here, refusing to explain anything. It feels ambiguous, but examined in retrospect, actually makes a great deal of sense. 

Bear with me, gentle readers...

To explain how Lena was always a clone, and why this makes sense, I wanted to return to the bear attack. Consider for a moment how something on the surface gives the animal away as being unreal: its voice. Whatever it “absorbs” exits strangely through its mouth, like a banshee. The “bear” is half-shapen, like Bennings from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1981). Its surface is unfinished, but the voice betrays what’s inside; and yet, what is inside is no longer exists as it was, outside of the creature, but rather as a fragment taken and inserted into a new whole copying an old, until it passes for it. 

The same concept is performed at the end of the movie, which also happens to be its beginning. It is chronologically after the confrontation at the lighthouse but technically is shown before it (remember that this is a framed narrative). When “Lena” is talking to the scientist, everyone has already been eclipsed by an enduring entity that cannot tell the difference, can’t remember what it was versus what it has become. “Lena” cannot seem to remember what it was, prior to becoming “Lena,” anymore than you or I can remember anything prior to being born. When “she” and the scientist discuss the alien, referred to simply as “it,” at the end of the movie—well, they’re actually talking about two different things. 

a) When the man is talking about the alien, he is doing so as the real Lena saw it, in the lighthouse, because he thinks “Lena” is Lena. b) “Lena” is talking about the alien, which, to it, was Lena as Lena existed in the lighthouse prior to being copied. The two women serve as mirrors. Each gazes, seeing an abyss in the other and a Lena in oneself (except only one version of Lena is authentic; the other is stolen). At the same time, “Lena” thinks it could be Lena and the realization that it probably isn’t makes it cry when it is alone with “Kane.” Up to this point, its perfect outward surface and stolen voice fool the scientist, but not the creature, itself—at least, not at the end. There are hints that something is off, chief and foremost its patchwork memories. Calling them erased would imply that the memory was wiped clean, but existed at one point. What if it never had the memories to begin with, and everything inside it was actually stolen piecemeal, as with the bear’s “voice”? As a replication, “Lena” remains as confused as “her” victims. Why else would it sob when alone with someone who admits it isn’t human? They’re not acting. Perhaps that’s why the disguise works so well. 

Annihilation plays with the idea that perception is progressively altered through a continual state of change. What we see early on changes radically in retrospect. The narrative is framed, and we’re led to believe the entire tale is told from the real Lena’s perspective. Instead, everything is told from the alien’s point-of-view, having replicated and now passing itself off as Lena by thinking it is Lena. However, the flashbacks still aren’t the alien’s, they’re Lena’s. In stealing them, the alien becomes them, hence the very lie it embodies. To this, the lighthouse alien endures through constant theft, at the expense of a concrete self. Instead, like a virus, it merely exists to preserve itself—in essence, if not in form. It endures through annihilation, is constantly reborn like the phoenix. Even so, it senses the repetition in its mnemonic gaps. Like the human victims it copies, it experiences doubt and fear in realizing it isn’t what it thinks it is. Perhaps it copied them a little too well. Or, maybe our respective geneses simply mirror each other. 

This isn't a lame plot-twist, tacked on at the end. There are clues, early on, that the “Lena” in the glass chamber is false. A subtle one can be found by examining Lena when she and “Kane” are in the kitchen, before Area X. Here, Lena’s hand is refracted by the water of the glass as she squeezes “Kane's” fingers; it implies the potential for what she could become—how the clone is already distorting her views before she enters the Shimmer (no one remembered anything inside the Shimmer, either—only pieces, fragments concerning how they arrived on site). Another clue is that, once inside the Shimmer, Lena's influenced not merely by it, but by the bits of footage left behind by the real Kane, who was, himself, under the alien’s hypnotic power. It’s a trail of breadcrumbs, one that lead Kane to his doom, and the heroine to hers. Except, in the beginning we don’t know this, anymore than the alien does, at the end. 

As was the case with Daniels in Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant (2017), what we see on-screen in Annihilation isn’t what we think it is. In Covenant, Daniels is assisted by “Walter,” who turns out to be David, pretending to be Walter. Lena, on the other hand, is deceived by “Kane,” pretending to be Kane, who can’t tell the difference between the clone and himself. Kane truly is fascinating. Apart from the flashbacks or found footage, he’s entirely false. Early on, the “return” (“Kane” isn’t actually returning because “he” never left, having never existed until Kane was copied, in the lighthouse) isn’t accidental, or benevolent; it’s a trap, and the organ failure is arguably also a trick—one that stops the moment the alien produces a male and female counterpart (the prerequisites for sexual reproduction).

In the lighthouse, the alien is formless. It’s only when humans are lured to its crash site that it can copy its guests and kill them. It annihilates Ventress (and whoever was with Kane in the “womb”) and copies Lena, using blood dripping horizontally from her eye to fuel its own creation. This leads “Lena” back to “Kane,” and the two clones reunite at the end. In doing so, the alien copies and incubates within the host by hijacking the same reproductive process, mimicking it. We’re left with a double of Adam and Eve, except now the chaos is internalized, doomed to disseminate within our species, versus as something externally alien. It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) but mid-invasion. Our point-of-view refracts before “resuming” an alien ground state (which it never was, to begin with) parallel to the host, pre-infection. It’s a glitch, racing furtively across a computer monitor before and after a virus enters the system. On the surface, nothing has changed; inside, everything is in shambles. 


About me: My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!

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