Sheppard reflects, before her vocal cords are mounted in the skull of the bear, that the loss of her daughter was, in a way, “two bereavements,” the loss of her daughter and the loss of the person she once was. This is what the titular Annihilation refers to, changing so much that you lose any semblance to your original self. If you become a different person, or something else entirely, has that other part of you died? Some characters in the film see such change as so. They’ll attempt to flee it, fail, and die.
The film becomes simple when you realize it is entirely, and without exception, structured around the test of Lena (Natalie Portman), and Kane’s (Oscar Isaac) damaged relationship. Call it an allegory, or what have you, the Shimmer, the DNA refracting prism that causes all things to cross-contaminate til they’re something else entirely, is utilized as a literal, movie sized rendition of what happens, and what it means when we self-immolate in a relationship. Dr Ventress, (Jennifer Jason Leigh) the aloof psychologist on the mission tells Lena: “…Few of us commit suicide” but we all self-destruct. She lists examples: drinking, smoking, and ends, in lingering emphasis, on “Destabilizing relationships.”
Lena has cheated on her husband Kane, and Kane knows this. It’s why he took the, not suicide, but self-destructive mission to venture into the Shimmer. Everyone has a reason, a loss. The team is profiled, by Ventress, to ensure this is so. As the crew nervously imbibes, Thorensen (Jane The Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez), the medic, settles on a root beer. “She’s sober. Therefore an addict.” Radek (Tessa Thompson), The physicist, only wears long sleeves — is a cutter, and Ventress, doomed by cancer, has little to lose. Lena, however, has the motivation to reach their goal and return: to find herself so that she can find Kane.
Alex-Grey-but-with-uncanny-gravitas in one moment, hybrid-body horror in the next, the alien tribulations that befall Lena and Kane in the shimmer threaten to change them. Something foreign (David Gyasi as Lena’s coworker Daniel) enters their bedroom and spreads like a cancer. It pushes Kane away from Lena and towards a path of instability. Lena, witnessing her husband’s ruinous return, opts to embark on the same excursion. A personal venture, for her relationship’s sake. Stripped of alien phenomena, this post-affair chronology evokes a familiar coping.
When the couple’s finally made amends and sought out their journeys to find the answers, they’re reunited. They hardly recognize each other, and they hardly recognize themselves. And that’s OK. Don’t misconstrue; The horrors accumulate to a happy ending. Kane and Lena share the Shimmer’s iridescence in their eyes, and we conclude on a sliding door panning across their embrace.
Garland’s two for two on irregular happy endings. In Ex Machina, he was hopeful for A.I and skeptical of its makers. The humans were dealt tragedy, and the A.I. escaped to freedom. Happy.
In Annihilation, the world fears a potent and very “alien” brand of change. Two lovers, broken from an affair, succumb to that change. They lose a version of themselves, generate another, and regain each other. Happy ending.
This is the easy throughline. A couple faces hardship, self-immolates, submits to exotic influences, become -or re-become- an unrecognizable version of themselves, and accept the obliteration of all that once was. Annihilation celebrates the conquered fear of such radical revision. Reasonably, one might resist the idea of having your known form relegated to slivers, or less, as strongly as you’d fight death — or amnesia. Garland welcomes it.