The person who exists at the beginning of a relationship, especially a long one, is not the same person who leaves it, however they leave it. This is a basic truth that’s rarely discussed when we talk about marriage or any kind of commitment that’s meant to last a lifetime; anyone who vows to spend their life with another will eventually be replaced — but it’s impossible to tell by whom.
2018’s Annihilation tackles this grim reality. The question of who we become and how it impacts others lives at the heart of the movie, despite conversations about the film often focusing on alien terraforming or mime-like beings who morph into human shape.
The movie, loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, tips its true hand early in the story. Lena, our protagonist, is a soldier-turned-biologist. While her husband, Kane, is on a military mission to explore an unnamed, but vaguely alien, bubble that is changing the flora and fauna it engulfs, Lena is has an affair, a traumatic event within the confines of her marriage.
Lena’s husband returns from his mission unexpectedly — and changed. He’s confused about what’s going on, and his health is failing him. Her husband left to explore the unknown, in a very literal sense, and a stranger came back.
There’s no puzzle box to solve in Annihilation. The relationship drama is that simple.
The alien environment changes everything it touches, which is a sentence that describes everything in life, and Lena ultimately becomes only the second person to travel through it without being destroyed as she tries to understand what happened to her husband. The rest of her team is destroyed, in varying ways, throughout their mission.
When Lena is reunited with her husband in the government lab after passing through the alien shimmer, she’s a stranger to him, too: Two new people broken down, then built back up, by indescribable pain meet for the first time.
We’re the sum of our experiences and memories. When those experiences — whether it’s losing someone to cancer or dealing with infidelity in a marriage — change the basic core of our personality, what is the likelihood that our loved ones are going to accept what we’ve become? The rates of divorce in the United States answer that question for us.
The real surprise: Annihilation ends with an embrace.
If the arc of the film is about experiencing trauma and coming to terms with the new self it creates — and the dialogue doesn’t reject this reading in the slightest — then the ending provides a look at how to deal, in a healthy way, with people reshaped by pain. You can greet each other as strangers, and accept each other on those terms, even if the original relationship doesn’t survive.
Maybe focusing on how two characters grow and learn to accept each other in their new forms is missing the greater point: If the alien environment is a manifestation of pain, trauma and grieving, we see firsthand what it’s like when someone doesn’t find a way to deal with the experience. There are moments where we’re presented with a person locked in place in the aftermath of trauma, ultimately passing their pain onto someone else.
That kind of stunted growth is shown on-screen as a mutant bear who eats people.
Annihilation shows us the different ways people can deal with their trauma, and the majority of those options lead to complete dissolution of self: not a change, but destruction. Annihilation.
We have the tools to survive our current situations and grow into something new different, but the odds are against us. Most people don’t make it that far, and our only reward for fighting through the pain and uncertainty is knowing that we may become something very different on the other side.
We see Lena learn to let go and stop fighting the alien being that’s trying to become her, even if the movie hints that she’s already transformed despite her efforts to stay grounded. Her husband goes through the same thing, making peace with the the alien will change him into, giving his new self instructions to meet his wife and ultimately destroying what he used to be. Kane and Lena go through the same decision-making process in very different ways: They both figure out that to fight back is to create an endless loop of violence. Kane destroys himself. Lena destroys the alien version of herself. Both are able to accomplish this by having the self-control not to blindly lash out at the other versions of themselves.
What happens after that final embrace in Annihilation isn’t important to the story, nor is it a riddle that needs to be solved. We can accept that we, and the ones we love, will become different people as we grow older. We can choose to cherish those people, even if the relationship we used to have breaks down. There is a way to make peace.
Annihilation doesn’t give us any advice in the prescriptive sense; there are no instructions on how to navigate through the different phrases of our lives or how to let go of people who grow past us. But the film begins and ends with two people who have been through something literally life-changing, and they hold each other, find comfort in each other, despite the litter of bodies left in their wake.
And then the film cuts to black.