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The ‘Annihilation’ Exit Survey

We’re talking about the movie’s cryptic ending, mutant bears, and whether or not we’d like to one day become tree-people

A photo illustration of Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny in ‘Annihilation’ Paramount/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

Alex Garland’s Annihilation, his follow-up to 2015’s Ex Machina, tells the story of an extraterrestrial phenomenon called the Shimmer, which envelops a swath of land in the South and swallows the lives of all the humans who enter it. The staff of The Ringer attempted to enter the Shimmer when the film was released this past weekend. They made it back, and were then asked a short set of questions.

1. What is your tweet-length review of Annihilation?

Ben Lindbergh: Arrival meets Apocalypse Now meets Tarkovsky meets The Last of Us meets the guy in the first few rows of my theater who loudly snored through the last 20 minutes of the movie, causing the rest of the audience to snicker during the abstruse psychedelic stuff. (I can’t totally blame him.)

Sean Fennessey: This is not a good film for “tweet-length reviews.” That said: Damn.

Matt James: Annihilation is a deftly controlled exploration of entropy and an expedition to the nebulous boundaries of humanity.

Alison Herman: I unironically compared Alex Garland to Stanley Kubrick during an extremely giddy post-movie debrief.

Mose Bergmann: A trippy trek toward the uncanny from Alex Garland, Annihilation is uniquely bold in its ambiguity and ambivalence toward the nature of the Shimmer.

Andrew Gruttadaro: The fact I wasn’t able to see this multiple times this weekend made me depressed. I need to go back!

Miles Surrey:

Michael Baumann: The creeping horror and pretty colors will get the headlines, but this is a really fun group of five actresses to spend time with, which sets it apart from other sci-fi-dying-one-by-one and going-places-to-do-things-with-guns movies.

Claire McNear: A very fun sci-fi movie that gets a little mired in its own mythology by the end. Also, I would be happily married to either Natalie Portman or Oscar Isaac. Also, salt crystals only form rectilinear shapes.

Micah Peters: ANNIHILATION (2018)

Kate Halliwell: It was really brave of Alex Garland to make the first big-screen adaptation of a Lisa Frank coloring book.

Sean Yoo: I will not be walking into a Shimmer anytime soon.

Lindsay Zoladz: “If only Andrei Tarkovsky had directed the all-female Ghostbusters reboot!”

Megan Schuster: I would have liked more examination of the albino alligator that was somehow genetically crossed with a shark, but overall I’m with Pedro Pascal here:

2. What was the best moment of the movie?

Lindbergh: When Tessa Thompson turned into Swamp Thing.

Herman: When Benedict Wong asks Natalie Portman if she can describe what she’s just seen and Portman replies, “No.” It’s a testament to everything that comes before their conversation that we can’t help but agree with her, especially considering Annihilation comes from a book that actually does describe Area X/the Shimmer at great length.

McNear: I enjoyed the frequent cuts back to Natalie Portman’s post-Shimmer interrogation, during which the interviewer is basically like, “What. What are you even talking about? You ate WHAT?”

Gruttadaro: The Gina Rodriguez interrogation sequence, which culminated in her being ripped to shreds by a mutant bear with the voice of a human, was when my jaw officially fell off of my face and hit the floor.

Peters: “Best” might not be the word I would use, but I can’t stop thinking about Lena (Natalie Portman) telling Josie (Tessa Thompson) not to react to the giant mutant bear inches from her face mimicking the screams of terror from the person it ate the night before.

Yoo: The bear scene was an adrenaline-filled horror-fest that leaves you unable to speak. The Revenant bear looks harmless compared to this.

Bergmann: It’s gotta be the scene in the lighthouse, right?

Fennessey: The final 20-minute sequence of the film when Lena finds her way to the center of the Shimmer, and a methodical sci-fi chin-scratcher turns into a strobing, polyphonic quasar. I have had Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s strafing score, particularly the 12-minute “The Alien,” playing at a fever pitch all weekend. This loud sequence in a loud movie is why we go to movie theaters.

James: Lena staring deeply into that undefinable alien presence in the cavern below the lighthouse. We’d been waiting the entire movie to see what was at the center of the Shimmer and it did not disappoint. It was visually incomprehensible and accompanied by an audio element that was very familiar to me …

The soundtrack of that alien encounter is an edited version of the first track of one of my favorite electronic albums: Moderat’s II.

Surrey: The final 20 or so minutes of Annihilation, which are indescribably terrifying on an existential level—a visual spectacle that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen on film.

Baumann: Lena and Sheppard’s (Tuva Novotny) conversation while paddling the boat, for two reasons. The first is that it reinforces that I’d watch these five characters in a workplace comedy or a movie about group therapy. The second is that it establishes what becomes clear later in the movie: That this isn’t really about understanding or stopping the Shimmer—it’s really about reaching the lighthouse, whatever that means for each character from a metaphorical perspective.

Schuster: That early conversation between Cass and Lena stuck with me the most. Cass’s simple dissection of what led each of the members of the group to enter the Shimmer later leads to Dr. Ventress’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) musings on self-destruction, which in turn sets up the eventual group breakdown, and finally ends with Lena destroying a mutated version of herself—and the Shimmer—within the lighthouse. It all stems from that one quiet conversation.

Halliwell: I never like to say goodbye to Tessa Thompson, but the scene where she gave in to the Shimmer and became some sort of plant creature was beautiful and unexpected.

Zoladz: The last 20 minutes were sublime—don’t @ me. And if you’re even thinking of @-ing me, just remember that the self is a construct and like, how do you know you’re not @-ing alien doppelgänger Lindsay? Who am I? Who are you? Who are the people we love, even? I want to see Annihilation again.

3. What was your least favorite part of the film?

Schuster: Did anyone else notice that Kane (Oscar Isaac) flowed in and out of a Southern accent in his lighthouse video? Was that just jarring for me?

Herman: That I felt obligated to compare it to the book. The book is equally great, but Annihilation manages to channel its vibe while being completely separate.

Peters: Watching Oscar Isaac slowly carve open dude’s abdomen to show us his wriggling intestines.

Lindbergh: The scene where Cass (RIP) conveniently summarizes how each member of the group is broken, suffering, or self-defeating in some way. Establishing backstory isn’t Annihilation’s strength.

James: Honestly, I wasn’t loving it when they cut that one guy’s stomach open but at least they were right about him being super fucked up in there.

Fennessey: Any time the edges of studio notation crept in—let’s get a wide shot of actresses clutching these assault rifles!—I winced.

Gruttadaro: I super don’t love when movies show you the moving insides of a man. This is the only movie that’s done that? OK, good.

Baumann: The part where everyone’s tied up and gagged and a bear that ate their friend comes in screaming like the friend it just ate.

Yoo: I don’t like seeing anyone’s insides, let alone someone’s insides that are moving like a giant worm. No thanks.

Bergmann: I thought that there was something interesting that got directly hinted at only once or twice: the main crew being only women, and how that factor affected their expedition. It would’ve been interesting to see that explored a little more.

Zoladz: The whole infidelity subplot felt trite to me. I get why we needed it (to make Kane become Emo Kylo Ren enough to volunteer for the Shimmer), but the scenes in which Lena’s affair was revealed to us just felt a little soap-opera-y and unimaginative.

Halliwell: In terms of absolute nightmare fuel, it’s probably a tie between the worm intestines and the mutated bear creature that screamed in a human voice. Actually no, it’s definitely the latter.

McNear: I was 10,000 percent on board with this movie until the moment the Rainbow Man appeared. What was with the Rainbow Man? I’m not sure if I’m dumb, or if this made no sense, or if it was better explained in the book, or some combination of those things, but, after a totally delightful first hour and change, I left the theater deeply confused and a little bit frustrated.

Surrey: I always find it a bit silly when a movie character blurts out the name of their own movie, as Jennifer Jason Leigh did here in the final act with “TOTAL ANNIHILATION!”

4. Which character in the group did you most identify with?

Surrey: The characters that enter the Shimmer choose to do so out of self-hatred, depression, immense guilt, or because they’re terminally ill—so, no one, hopefully?

Gruttadaro: I would 100 percent be the character who’s like, “Actually guys, I’ma just become a plant, byeeeeee.”

Lindbergh: Anya, the only one with a functioning survival instinct. Gina Rodriguez should star in many more action movies.

Bergmann: Gina Rodriguez’s character was the only one freaking out the way everyone should’ve been, given the monsters and mutations and general horror-show goings-on.

Yoo: None of them, because I would never walk into the Shimmer.

James: I would probably be the person that bails on the mission and checks out what being a sentient tree is all about.

Baumann: Josie Radek. If a bear ate two of my friends and the only two people left were obsessed with solving a mystery they’d almost certainly never live to tell anyone about, I’d give up too. You know what sounds nice? Just turning into a tree and not spending every remaining moment of my short life being scared out of my mind.

Halliwell: Lena, because I feel confident saying that I’d do anything for Oscar Isaac, including venturing into an alien hellscape from which there is no return.

McNear: The psychologist who (a) was a low-key nihilist and (b) responded to the discovery of infinite doom with “lololol let’s see what happens.”

Schuster: Cass. Even though Dr. Ventress, as the psychologist, was ostensibly supposed to be the observer of the group, Cass noticed more about the lives and emotions of her fellow explorers than anyone else. There is one place where we differ, though—I definitely would have stayed in the tower and let the zombie bear take somebody else. I’m not proud of that, but I am who I am.

Zoladz: Tessa Thompson, aspirationally. I want to believe that any day now, when the nuclear holocaust arrives, I will be content to accept my fate and just walk off onto a grassy knoll and in a violent flash of light morph into a beautiful tree-person. (I very much will not, but one can dream.) I thought her death scene was quite moving. Not to be the person who’s like “Actually, Annihilation was very Buddhist,” but, uh? Kinda? I liked her observation that when something awful happens you can either fight it (like Lena was doing), run straight into it (Dr. Ventress), or accept it and transform into an incredibly dope topiary.

Herman: I’d probably be Gina Rodriguez, begging to bail, freaking out, then getting murdered.

Fennessey: This question is a trick to reveal that every member of the Ringer staff is a sociopath, so: pass.

5. What was the coolest thing about the Shimmer (and the land it covered)? The scariest?

Gruttadaro: The coolest thing is that an alligator and a shark could cross-breed. The scariest thing is that an alligator and a shark could cross-breed.

Lindbergh: Coolest: That Garland designed an environment even stranger and more unsettling than the real-life Florida. Scariest: the decomposing, screaming, nightmare bear.

Halliwell: I was very into the rainbow hue that covered everything in the Shimmer. Sure, Lena was attacked by a terrifying alien entity, but at least it was pretty.

Peters: The plants are cool … and I guess albino alligators with shark teeth are also cool, from a safe distance. Mockingbears with exposed skulls that can rip through chain link fences as easily as they do jugulars, though? Nah.

Baumann: Coolest: The plants. Scariest: After the first night they camp out, you start to think about what it’d be like to try to go to sleep in a place like that, knowing something out there is going to kill you but not knowing what, how, or when.

Zoladz: Coolest: I have to once again shout-out the tree-people. Scariest: The bear with the screaming woman’s voice will haunt my nightmares until I die.

McNear: The coolest thing was all the lush plants and murder creatures. The scariest thing is how I am pretty sure I would go touch all of them (including the bear, though maybe not its face).

Schuster: Coolest: The landscape itself. The mutations of the flowers, the plants, and the deer were stunning. Scariest: How the refractions within the Shimmer altered the people. The video of that soldier’s stomach being cut open and his intestines slithering around on their own will keep me awake at night for at least the next week.

Herman: It’s rearranging reality to create a new dimension—but does it have to rearrange our reality?

James: It would have been really lazy if the Shimmer was teeming with random alien monsters. I was happy that all of the threats in the Shimmer were mutations of existing wildlife. I don’t think there’s anything much scarier than being ripped apart by a mutant bear that sounds like your screaming friend. … Perhaps being ripped apart by a goat that sings like Usher:

Yoo: The kaleidoscopic aesthetic of everything within the Shimmer was ridiculously beautiful. And we already know the bear was the scariest thing in the Shimmer, so can we please stop talking about the bear?

Bergmann: Definitely the mutated bear-lady creature. It was scary as all hell and the design and effects were just incredible (think evil Okja), but there was also this sadness within its cry-for-help mimicry as it wheezed through its dying breaths.

Surrey: The fungus-like mutations throughout were just gorgeous to look at, evoking the surreal atmosphere of one of my favorite video games, The Last of Us. But get me the hell away from mutant crocodiles with shark teeth and skeleton bears. (I also refuse to discuss the moving intestines.)

Fennessey: We’ve never seen an alien evolutionary poison before. On a purely practical level, mutation is a stand-in for self-destruction. We can’t fight what we can’t understand.

6. Would you go into the hole in the lighthouse?

Yoo: Naaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh.

Baumann: Not if the literal fate of humanity were at stake.

Halliwell: I don’t even go into the storage room behind my apartment because I walked into a spider web in there one time.

Peters: Of course I would.

Bergmann: Yeah. Why not?

James: I’d go inside anywhere that I walked DAYS to get to.

Zoladz: No way in hell would I have even made it to the lighthouse alive, so the fact that no, I very much would not have gone into the hole in the lighthouse is a moot point. (I appreciated the Virginia Woolf vibes, however.)

Lindbergh: I would find the place farthest from the lighthouse and live there until the scientists said it was safe.

Surrey: This implies I would ever enter the Shimmer, which would never happen unless my bodega of choice was engulfed in its aura and I really wanted some plantain chips.

McNear: Absolutely not, but by the point that that was an option I would have necessarily made so many bad decisions that, I dunno, probably? Blue crystals, mmm.

Schuster: Honestly, I’d have to. If I managed to make it that far, I don’t think I could leave without some answers—or at least knowing what was at the heart of it all.

Herman: If you already know you’re gonna die, wouldn’t you be curious about what’s killing you?

Gruttadaro: Assuming I made it to the lighthouse—which means I would have seen my friends get murdered by mutant bears or morph into trees, and then watched a video of my husband exploding himself—I would’ve gone in, because fuck it. But we really shouldn’t assume I’d make it to the lighthouse.

Fennessey: Any time you get the chance to watch your life partner self-immolate with a phosphorous grenade and cede his identity to an alien-science-created clone, I think all bets are off on the “Would you do this crazy thing?” question.

7. What is your take on the last scene of the movie?

Yoo: LSD is a hell of a drug.

Surrey: Let’s assume the alien clone of Kane can only spread whatever it is through physical contact. This thing looks just like Oscar Isaac; Earth is annihilated in less than a month.

Peters: It’s obvious that Kane isn’t Kane, but I’m not sure if it means anything sinister, since we don’t know what the organism is, or if—not what, that’s important—it wants.

Schuster: My immediate, in-theater reaction was “Why the fuck are you hugging your husband’s alien mutation? Kill it!” But then I remembered what she told the scientists at Area X: that whatever the Shimmer was, it didn’t want anything. It wasn’t something nefarious or sinister, it just was. So even though I think it’s creepy that she’s hanging around with something that basically led to her actual husband’s death, I can understand her fascination.

McNear: Again: I am pretty sure I am dumb and/or missed things. But I walked out thinking Oscar Isaac was a Rainbow Alien and that he, using the absorption of non-Rainbow-Alien Oscar Isaac’s love for and betrayal by Natalie Portman, then infected IRL Natalie Portman, who was not herself a Rainbow Alien reincarnation. This is probably wrong?

Baumann: Real Lena got out, but turned into an alien shapeshifter when she hugged Fake Kane and got his alien DNA mixed up in hers.

Bergmann: Oscar Isaac was a Shimmer-copy all along, and Natalie Portman was her original self—enough of her was “infected” with Shimmer cells to keep it alive, I guess? I think their hug was more due to a kinship of witnessing cosmic singularities than it was an “evil contagion spreads” kind of deal.

Zoladz: OK, so first of all, it’s Doppelgänger Oscar Isaac (obviously) and Original Natalie Portman hugging at the end. I talked to a few people who thought it was Doppelgänger Natalie, but it is not. To me, the reflection in her eyes was that she was still a little ~wavy~ from having been in the Shimmer, and still had a minor ability to mirror whatever she was touching.

Herman: Honestly? I was disappointed by the more conventional Natalie Portman–saves-the-world ending they feinted toward and was glad Garland ultimately opted for ambiguity. This movie got me to root for the end of humanity at the hands of an unfeeling alien virus!

Lindbergh: It’s the alien equivalent of Ava escaping Nathan’s complex at the end of Ex Machina (maybe).

Fennessey: Here’s a theory: Annihilation is a take on how social media has distorted the way people present against the actual version of themselves. The Shimmer is a hazy, reflective invader that mutates how we see the self and our world—like Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. SOCIAL MEDIA: Look at how happy I am on vacation in Florida! REALITY: I am trapped in a swamp, fighting a mutant alligator, and my intestines are made of snake-eels!

Social media platforms obsess, damage, and eventually destroy, and we are overtaken by the alien personage—the invader—after we eventually detonate in the flames of a bad tweet. The survivors are absorbed by the Shimmer, accumulating new growths (followers) and rendering humanity irretrievable.

Gruttadaro: Damn, I had a whole answer written but then I read Sean’s answer and it mutated me.

8. How did it make you feel?

Fennessey: Bad?

Baumann: Like my lifelong distaste for and resistance to going outside means I’m going to live longer than you smug outdoorsy types.

McNear: Invigorated! Entertained! And then ... confused?

Herman: I can’t remember the last time I literally clutched someone’s hand at the movies because we were both so freaked out.

Lindbergh: For the first 90 minutes, I felt tense, intrigued, and transported. For the last 20 minutes, I regretted not going to see Game Night again.

Schuster: Confused, then creeped, then like “maybe I kind of get it?” Then back to being creeped out.

Yoo: Like myself, but like also, not myself.

Halliwell: Confused, anxious, disoriented, and slightly unhinged. Basically every feeling I want out of a movie.

Surrey: Well, during the extended lighthouse scene between Natalie Portman and that entity mimicking all of her movements, I made a lot of weird semi-squeals and squirmed around my seat for 10 minutes. When the thing pressed up against her when she tried to leave the lighthouse, it reminded me of Michael Fassbender laying on top of Rebecca Ferguson in The Snowman—in the worst way possible. It was a nightmare that made my skin crawl, yet I couldn’t look away from the screen, and didn’t want it to end. By the time the movie did end I was just staring at the screen blankly, hoping to find some meaning in my life again.

Gruttadaro: I can’t be the only one who left a theater just to be confronted with a thousand people buying concession-stand hot dogs and corn-dog nachos and think, “Hm, yeah, annihilation maybe feels right.”

Bergmann: It made me feel small, which I think a lot of good sci-fi does.

Zoladz: Annihilation moved me profoundly, and on the escalator down I was surrounded by people complaining that they didn’t get it. So I guess how I felt was a combination of giddiness and fatigue at the future arguments I’d be having with people about it. I love those endings that leave you suspended in a scrambled uncertainty, the ones you’re still trying to work out in your head on the walk home. Annihilation was a great movie because the world looked a little different on my walk home.

James: Disoriented but thrilled. The man who interviewed Lena about what she experienced inside the Shimmer assumed that the alien presence had hostile intentions. Lena’s calm clarification that it didn’t have any malicious or benevolent intentions at all was significant. It was alien to us, but a blind force of nature, regardless. Tornadoes don’t seek to destroy homes. The most singular and inexplicable force in the universe is not the “thing” that caused the Shimmer—it’s humanity.