Over the next few weeks, I will be releasing a series of 10 essays about my top 10 films of the 2010s. These will not be comprehensive, lengthy essays about every aspect of each of the films, but will instead by shorter essays about single elements that I found worth discussing or interesting. These essays will not necessarily spoil every part of the film but they will be spoiling elements fairly freely. Obviously I recommend you see each of these films.
In the final moments of Annihilation, our hero Lena speaks with her husband Kane for the first time since the early scenes, Kane having spent the intervening scenes of the film in a coma. She has since, during her time in the Shimmer (an expanding field in the Florida panhandle that mutates everything within it, and which she entered after Kane returned from a full year the Shimmer dying from multiple organ failure) seen footage of Kane not only cutting open a man to reveal his intestines writhing like snakes, but also footage of Kane killing himself with a phosphorus grenade, while an identical Kane looks on. She herself has confronted an alien creature that mirrored her movements and nearly killed her, before she destroyed it with another grenade, as it began to take on her features.
With all that in mind, her first and only question for Kane is surprisingly simple, barely even a question; “You’re not Kane…are you?”
Kane ponders this question for a moment and finally answers “I don’t think so.” He then turns the question around: “Are you Lena.” And Lena doesn’t answer.
Annihilation is about a lot of things, but the thing I want to focus on is how the film explores concepts of identity and how they’re affected by grief and trauma. Once you recognize the Shimmer as a metaphor for grief and trauma, the rest of the metaphor falls into place and you see how much the film is about the ways in which those things can alter who you are.
From the start, the film posits that to enter the Shimmer one must have already suffered a great trauma, which makes a certain amount of sense; Missions into the Shimmer are volunteer only and none of the teams sent in have returned, except for Kane, who is comatose and clinging to life. Entering the Shimmer therefore requires a degree of self destruction, or at least a cavalier attitude towards your own survival.
And this is born out in the team who enters the Shimmer in the film; Lena’s husband is comatose and she is consumed with guilt over her infidelity to him before and during his absence. Anya is a recovering addict. Josie has a history of self harm. Sheppard lost her daughter to leukemia. And Ventress is dying of cancer.
And it is in the reveal of these facts that the film begins to suggest that trauma can change who you are, your identity and personality. It does more than suggest it, it states it outright; Sheppard, reflecting on the loss of her daughter comments “In a way, it’s two bereavments: My beautiful girl, and the person I once was.” Who she was, before the pain and trauma of the loss of her daughter, is no longer who she is.
The film considers other ideas throughout its runtime, but as they go deeper into the Shimmer, into the metaphor for pain and trauma, into a prism that refracts and mutates everything within it (including people and yes, pain), it never loses sight of this central idea, that the pain can change who you are. Lena repeatedly looks at her cells under a microscope and notes how they are changing, notes how they begin to look more Shimmer-like with every test. After Sheppard is killed and Anya begins to descend into paranoia and self destruction, she notes that she can see her fingerprints shifting and melting, the Shimmer changing her identity so fully that even the marks others would use to identify her are no longer recognizable. Ventress comments later, in a conversation about how their minds are falling apart, that if she doesn’t reach the lighthouse soon “The person who started this journey won’t be the one who finishes it.”
As they go deeper into the Shimmer, the fate of each of the women (and of Kane) reflect different responses to trauma; Sheppard is dragged off by a bear before her mind and voice are subsumed into the same bear, literally consumed by her pain until all that’s left is the part that screams for help each time the bear roars. Anya goes out in a blaze of rage and paranoia, assaulting her teammates and tying them up before she is killed by the bear. Josie calmly lets the Shimmer consume her, partly at peace with her pain (as she sheds her jacket, wearing her self-harm scars honestly) but also partly tired of fighting it (she comments that Ventress wants to face the Shimmer and Lena wants to fight it, but she doesn’t want either of those things).
But it’s the fate of the three that reach the lighthouse, that confront the Shimmer head on, that reflect the most direct ways pain and trauma can divorce you from yourself.
Ventress’ is the most straightforward; With no one in her life, no friends, no family, no relationships, no support network of any kind, when faced with the core of the Shimmer she is utterly destroyed by it. She is, as she says, annihilated, until not one coherent piece remains, until her body becomes part of the doppelganger Lena faces, her pain carried onto Lena. But oddly enough, the reveal involving Kane feels more relevant to my point.
Pain and trauma can make you say and do things that seem like things you’d never do or say, either because of an underlying anger making you self destruct or just lash out and say things that risk ruining your relationships until, one day, you find you don’t even recognize yourself. You have become so changed by the pain you went through that you barely even feel like the same person.
Here, in the lighthouse, in the final destination, the Shimmer creates another version of Kane, one who looks like him and sounds like him, but is not him on some fundamental level. Which one leaves the Shimmer and returns home is irrelevant because, as Kane says when he’s reunited with Lena; He’s not himself anymore.
Lena, on the other hand, is nearly killed by her doppelganger (I could spend this paragraph reading far too much into how the way the doppelganger nearly kills is by crushing her, but this essay is already running long) but eventually manages to accept it, accept that her pain is a part of her and in so doing escape the Shimmer and return home.
Or, at least some version of her returns home. She is undoubtedly changed by the experience (as the tattoo, which she inherited from Anya and appears out of nowhere on her arm at her lowest point, can attest), and as the film has repeatedly shown, the pain and trauma she’s gone through can leave you completely adrift from your own identity.
And so, when Kane asks “Are you Lena?” Lena can only stand there in silence.