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Annihilation Ending Explained-Which Lena Came Back And Where The Book Differs

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Based on the first of the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, Alex Garland’s Annihilation is easily one of his trippiest films. Despite a complete departure from the core conclusion of the novel, it manages to capture some of the inherent weirdness of VanderMeer’s work. Garland said he only read Annihilation once and then wrote the screenplay the next morning. He never even read Authority or Acceptance, the second and third books. Channeling VanderMeer’s creeping dread, Garland’s mind-melting film is beautiful, tragic, haunting, and wildly ambiguous. Let’s take a deep dive into the dolphin-filled waters together(if you have read the books, you get that reference).  Here’s everything you need to know about that wild ending.

Self-destruction always leads to Annihilation

Five women are tasked with entering The Shimmer, a mysterious boundary where things go in but rarely come out. Natalie Portman’s Lena, a biologist, is joining the group after her husband(Oscar Isaac) returned inexplicably from the foreboding space impossibly changed. Leading the team is chilly Dr. Ventress(Jennifer Jason Leigh), overseeing all other expeditions from the command post. None of the previous groups ever returned.

Along with Dr. Ventress and Lena, Gina Rodriguez’s Anya, a military expert, Tessa Thomson’s Josie, and Tuva Novotny’s Cass. Each of the women struggles with depression, self-harm, and grief. That tendency to self-destruct is the underlining theme of Annihilation. Whether it be the disastrous interactions between the women the longer they are in the Shimmer or the final psychedelic encounter with Lena’s double, the message is the same. We can’t help but destroy ourselves worse than any alien race ever could.

Dr. Ventress is dying, and she made the trek into the Shimmer to find meaning in life, hers and the countless poor souls she condemned to wander the lost crystal forests and horrific forests. Others like Cass are consumed with grief over the loss of a loved one. They are shadows of their former selves and are looking into the abyss for something to fill the hole. Lena feels mostly guilty. We learn she had been having an affair before he left on the mission, and she feels responsible for the cold, lifeless marriage that she thinks forced him into his decision.


The use of the same underlying song by the incomparable Crosby Stills and Nash, Helplessly Hoping, is haunting and very effective. It underlies what everyone is feeling throughout. Despite being significantly damaged, each of these women is helplessly hoping to find something, anything that will answer all of life’s great questions and make everything make sense all while simultaneously sabotaging themselves with self-doubt, paranoia, and self-loathing.

Annihilation is not about suicide so much as it is apathetic, willing entropy. It is decay left unchecked. Neglect of the spirit left these women, and arguably all who are drawn to the Shimmer, empty husks waiting to be filled with all manner of strangeness.

Mutation and chaos

​​As a metaphor for what is happening inside the Shimmer, Lena’s cervical cancer cells highlight the reflection of the hallucinatory land. As she points out to her students early in the film, all human cells eventually break down. The Shimmer just hastens that process and strengthens the potential for change. It is almost as if nature is reclaiming her voice, and we are the cancers who are left to alter, sometimes irreparably, ourselves or be part of that untameable force.

Even the grotesque is somehow profoundly beautiful, and that’s the point of the whole story. The alien entity that has transformed Earth was not trying to destroy so much as change. Mutation always obliterates what came before, but that doesn’t mean it is always bad. The flower people formed from vines and foilage are a prime example. The transformation is on the cellular level. The fact that it tries to replicate humans means there is intelligent design involved however foreign that is from our own intelligence.

The ending of Annihilation

After all of the women save Dr. Ventress and Lena are dead, they independently head for the lighthouse, doggedly searching for answers. Lena finds a camcorder, and the charred remains of who she discovers is her husband. While watching the tape, she sees her husband set off a phosphorus bomb, having lost his mind, and his counterpart watches on. She realizes that this is who emerged from the Shimmer, not her husband. Realizing nothing in her world is as it seems, she ventures into a cavern and finds Dr. Ventress, who the alien entity has invaded. Dr. Ventress explodes in a strobing ball of light and absorbs a single drop of Lena’s blood giving birth to a blank, inky doppelganger.

What happens next can only be described as mirrored, passive warfare. It is as gorgeous as it is disturbing. This doppelganger isn’t so much a double of Lena as it is a reflection of all the terrible things inside her. Her anxiety, depression, and coldness are all there. This doppelganger is an extension of Lena and no more or less dangerous to her than she is to herself. This place is not for humans in any form. Even the best of us would break under the sheer enormity of the devastation, whether it be our own or others.

Which Lena came out of the Shimmer?

Although we never leave OG Lena for long, there are a few times when she is rendered unconscious or when Garland’s trickery could fool us. One of the Lena’s blew up the Shimmer with a grenade and their double. Was it OG Lena or a newly altered Lena? The technicolor lights that both reunited Kane and Lena exhibit at the movie’s end seem to indicate that the new Lena is who walked out, as is Kane’s conveniently timed restoration. When Lena left him for the Shimmer, he was in multiple organ failure and barely hanging on.

The use of the glass jar to distort and combine Kane and Lena’s fingers when Kane first returns hints at this same truth. The use of an ordinary glass of water conveys the necessary building block of life and the literal fluidity of said life.  They are likely both doubles and halves of the same whole. This is also why a simple, well-placed grenade was enough to destroy the ecological wonder. The Shimmer wasn’t so much destroyed as it was changed. It no longer needs the confines of the space. Having an intact being on the outside means mutation can now continue outside of the Shimmer. It has outgrown its chrysalis.

Compared to Lena’s orange arrival scrubs, Lena and Kane’s hospital whites were such an easy choice but spoke volumes about what may have happened.  It is symbolism at its best.  So subtle you almost miss it. Both Lena and Kane appear to be blank to some degree at the end of the movie, wearing only white. Empty copies of their former selves if you will. She becomes Ghost Bird of course and he something else entirely. The use of costuming here sets the stage for the final reveal.

The lyrics of Helplessly Hoping also seem to point toward both Lena and Kane being doubles. Although written decades ago, it feels written for this movie alone. They are one person. They are two alone. They are three together. They are four for each other. Like replicating cells Kane and Lena will populate the Earth with Shimmered people, and the mutation will continue again.

​​The growing tattoos appear to be a real bone of contention for some. No, they are not in the books, but they serve as an obvious and deliberate path toward replication. The books are so great because our imagination can build on the glorious framework of the story. Much like the endless flowers growing over everything in the movie, there needed to be an obvious beacon for mutation measurement. 

The tattoo appears only after exposure to the Shimmer. Lena does not have it to begin with, but develops it later after several days in. A clear picture of her arm with a bruise clearly shows no tattoo. Some develop it, and some do not for inexplicable reasons. Dr. Ventress and Josie notably do not have it, and each evolves into something different from the Shimmer. Kane and Anya have it and come out the other side. 

The Tattoos act as biological Geiger counters

​​The tattoo design of an Ouroboros, a snake eating itself in an infinity sign, is an intelligent choice. The theme of self-destruction runs deep throughout this movie and does help with continuity between the book and film in an odd way. Ghost Bird/Lena is reserved and struggles inter-personally before the Shimmer, and her inability to connect with her husband and ultimate affair ring true to the book. 

Yes, the affair is unnecessary, but the subtlety of emotional distance is hard to pull off impactfully on screen. The Ouroboros symbolizes renewal which ties nicely with the changing terrafirma. The flora and fauna of the Shimmer are mutating but towards evolution instead of extinction. The flowers and duplication of the deer, in particular, seem to hint at regrowth as opposed to destruction. It’s important to note that in physics, annihilation does not mean obliteration but changing of matter into energy. Lastly, the symbol has been linked to the early observations of the Milky Way, which ties the extraterrestrial angle in. 

​​Although the lighthouse scene is very different from the book, it is reminiscent of the prophetic phrase from Annihilation: There shall be a fire that knows your name, and in the presence of the strangling fruit, its dark flame shall acquire every part of you. These words written in the fungi-like plant life on the tower walls come to roost in the lighthouse in a pleasing way that explains rather than confounds the lovers of these books.

In terms of all-out scariest scenes in Annihilation, the Sheppard voiced bear takes the cake. This horrific glimpse into our future is so terrifying because Cass is part of that bear. Her essence has fused with the nightmarish but sympathetic beast. Garland managed to combine all the human/animal creations from within the original book with one creature. The team posits it is a mind-meld of sorts that allows for this anomaly. The book does a better job of explaining that it is, in fact, the evolution of the person, which is much more disturbing. I will forgive this, though, as the bear is utterly scary.

Lena and Kane’s house from outside the Shimmer seems to be duplicated inside and it is the setting for the human voice bear showdown. This seems to hint at the possibility of all things being replicated, not just living organisms. Kane or Lena provided the source material, and up it sprung.

Lena is reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks at the movie’s beginning. This is a novel depicting a woman whose cancer cells do not die naturally, and she was experimented on without consent by doctors for disease research. Her cells are credited with the Polio vaccination discovery. Her cells are thought to be the first immortal cell line.

There was no crawler, and that is sad. VanderMeer uses the crawler to represent what humanity became in the Shimmer. However, did anyone really feel like that could be a realized creature? Garland chose to focus on the degradation of the women and the idea that life always finds a way. This stunning movie didn’t need the representation of mental decay. Yet, it is present in every word and action the women show. Annihilation is a haunting movie that seeps inside your soul and sticks with you. Perhaps like Pontypool, just the act of talking about it is enough to forever change us? Maybe it’s a chilling reminder that we are not immortal, nor are we all important. Whether Lena and Kane sacrificed a part of themselves to preserve even a small piece we won’t know but it feels like the end of the world as we know it.

It is streaming on Hulu right now.