I cannot stress the spoilers that are about to ensue. If for some reason you haven’t rocked out to the new Alex Garland film Annihilation, stop reading now and go see it. If you have, we need to talk.
In a sci-fi/horror film, people are going to die. They might run and hide, but at the end of the day, chest bursters are gonna chest-burst. These deaths carry weight, be it thematically or narratively, when done well. Remember the scene in 2015’s Jurassic World when the assistant that’s supposed to be watching the boys is killed by the big sea-dinosaur? When I saw that scene, I felt cheated. Gross. Like the film was relishing in the death of a character that didn’t need to die.
When there is a glorification of death in a film, it takes consequence out of the equation. We get bloodthirsty and can’t wait to see more characters die in a sick twisted way… or it’s just me. But Alex Garland’s Annihilation allows its characters to die in thematically smart ways. One of the many brilliant things about Annihilation is that the characters even die characteristically.
Annihilation has five protagonists: Lena (Natalie Portman), Ventress (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Cass (Tuva Novotny). By the end of the film only one of these characters makes it out of The Shimmer… maybe. The first of these women to die is Cass.
Cass tells Lena that everyone enters The Shimmer because they have baggage. For Cass, it’s the death of her daughter. She claims that in her daughter’s death, she also mourned the death of who she used to be.
Because Cass is the first to die, we spend the least amount of time with her. She is, for all intents and purposes, innocent. Almost like the newborn of the group. When she hears the bear attacking outside (the bear that ultimately kills her), she sits up quickly in her sleeping bag. The imagery is not unlike a child waking up at night from a bad dream. Her death, like the death of her daughter, feels like the death of an innocent.
Gina Rodriguez’s Anya, the “doer” of the group, is next to go. Anya is the boldest of the bunch. She’s the first to approach Lena, and even makes a pass at her after only exchanging a few sentences.
It’s fitting then that her death is the most visceral and intense that we see, as she is torn apart by the bear that also killed Cass. While we are spared Cass’s death off screen, Anya’s is given to us raw, as she screams for help and finally has her bottom jaw slashed off. Her death is as bold as she was.
The crew divides at this point and Lena and Josie are left alone. Josie is the soft-spoken, more sensitive of the women in the group. Josie tells Lena about herself, remarking that she has cuts on her arm from previous attempts to “feel more alive.”
Josie’s quiet and reserved nature is emphasized by her death as she begins to become a part of The Shimmer while leaves and plants begin to grow from her skin. If she were attempting to feel more alive, joining life within something as grand as The Shimmer is a great way to do so.
“Almost all of us self-destruct,” says Ventress, the often-times haunting leader of the five. Ventress wants to reach the lighthouse. She pushes the group forward and isn’t afraid to leave them behind if it means reaching her goal. Only when she finally arrives at the lighthouse does she finally die.
When she does die, strange lights and sparks shoot from her body. It’s a scene that would be beautiful if it didn’t mean she was dying. As she is torn apart from the inside, it’s impossible not to remember her creed of self-destruction. She implodes just like she said we all do.
The film is ambiguous as to whether or not it is truly Lena that makes it out of The Shimmer, which is exactly what Alex Garland wants. Her non-death is just as confusing, thought provoking and exciting as The Shimmer itself.
Character deaths don’t always have to be this thought out, and maybe these ones aren’t so meticulously planned at all and I’m just reading too far into it. But I don’t think there is such a thing as reading too much into Annihilation. It’s a film that moves into your brain and doesn’t pay rent because you’re too scared to ask for it. We need more smart sci-fi in the world. It makes us think and gets us talking. Just like good movies should.