'Annihilation' Director Alex Garland Wants You to Interpret the Film's Ending on Your Own

natalie portman
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Alex Garland, director of recent sci-fi favorites Ex Machina and this year's Annihilation, prefers not to over-explain what his work "means." Like most directors, Garland asks you to come up own interpretation of the film, including Annihilation's somewhat baffling ending, without his spelling it out for you. That way, you can bring your own experiences and preoccupations, and the film will become more "alive," he said.

If you didn't get a chance to see it in theaters, the Blu-ray and DVD releases are chock full of intriguing and illuminating bonus features about how the filmmaker created the refractions and fractals of the Shimmer, the seemingly unknowable space that changes anyone who tries to explore it.

But even after eating up all that information about the film's astounding visual effects and landscapes, we still have questions, more of the practical and philosophical sort, and Garland was game enough to answer at least a few of them. ("Sorry, that's a fucking crap answer, but it's true," he apologized, when explaining how some things should be left a mystery.) Garland might not tell you how to read the film, but he also won't tell you that you're wrong. Even if you are.

Thrillist: Have you been able to get that four-note Annihilation "alien" cue out of your head, or is that still an earworm for you?
Alex Garland: Yeah, that was fantastic! In a way, I get this weird amnesia about everything I've worked on, but that theme music, that was more persistent than a lot of things. They really knocked it out of the park with the score. Really unbelievably gifted and open-minded composers.

Have you experienced different reactions about the adaptation from readers of the book than from people who haven't read the book?
Garland: I haven't really seen that. In terms of people who've read the book or not, whether there's a kind of uniformity of response between those two groups, no, honestly not. What I did see were pieces that were kind of interpretations of the film in terms of the arguments within it, in terms of self-destruction and stuff like that. I read a bunch of pieces about that. That's been really interesting, and kind of a relief, in a funny kind of way.

Why? Were you worried that people might not have picked up on that particular theme?
Garland: ​​​​​​​Oh, yeah. Exactly. You never know when you put something out there what of the intention will land. [Sighs] It's like you're relieved that the work that everyone put into it has achieved the intention that it was supposed to have. At least for someone, you know? You never know. It's this big moment where you're sort of holding your breath, wondering, "Does any of this make sense for anybody? Is anyone seeing these allusions or parallels or references? Does it cohere into meaning? Or does it just seem like random stuff?"

If someone comes up with a different interpretation, I don't go, "That's wrong." I go, "That's interesting." I haven't read everything, so I don't know, but there were a couple of things that I noticed weren't getting noticed, perhaps because they were a bit too obscure. But for the most part, I was kind of freaked out at the precision and the accuracy of the interpretations. I was kind of like, "Whoa! That was not what I was expecting." I was kind of blown away, actually, by the way that the interpretations correlated with the intention.

Regarding self-destruction, both physical and psychological?
Garland: ​​​​​​​The other thing I noticed, the thing I found sort of troubling was that there was one way of reading it that the people who went into the Shimmer were self-destructive, or had self-destructive tendencies particular to them. And my intention was more along the lines of the reason everyone in there is self-destructive, or that these people happen to be self-destructive, is because everybody is self-destructive. Any group of people going in there would be dealing with the same thing, if you see what I mean? It wasn't about a specific group. It was more about a general point. But you know what? I have my own interpretation or thoughts about what's going on, and if other people don't share it, or if they have their own, I'm completely cool with that. It doesn't bother me.

I've also seen some theories regarding Plato's Cave...
Garland: ​​​​​​​Plato's Cave is a deliberate allusion in Ex Machina. I'm not aware of it being one in Annihilation.

Do you feel like anything from the Annihilation universe you've built exists in the same universe as Ex Machina?
Garland: ​​​​​​​Oh, I don't see them as in the same world. There's no kind of cross-pollination in my head at all. Not really. When I work on something, I then kind of stop thinking about it when it's done. I'm fond of Ex Machina, but it's kind of a distant memory. It doesn't feel alive in me, if you know what I mean?

annihilation movie
Paramount Pictures

In addition to the interpretations, or within the interpretations, some fans still have questions regarding the ending, making sure they understood what happened and why. For instance, did Ventress' cancerous cells turn her into a kind of suicide bomb? Did her cancerous cells enter the anomaly, becoming replicated and refracted in a chain reaction? Or was it just Lena's grenade?
Garland: Oh, I see what you mean. On that purely logical approach to it, as opposed to a more prosaic approach, it was more about the alien not differentiating about what it takes on and what it refracts. Being provided with burning phosphorus, the thing it takes on, and then being a self-destructing thing of the sort that only humans have.

Fans love to debate which Lena came back. Does it matter if it's her doppelganger, or if the original Lena still carries some trace of the Shimmer within her? What does the end of the Shimmer mean for those who became part of it?
Garland: That we go through deeply intense, subjective experiences and are changed by them. We don't come out from these things the same as we went into them. I guess the question I would ask is... I'm sort of tying myself in knots here, because this is the type of stuff I avoid talking about, but forget about aliens for a moment. You don't need aliens and cosmic psychedelic events in order to have life-changing experiences. And broadly speaking, something very powerful happens to us, within our life, within our health, within our marriage, within our psychology. Are we the same person on the other side of it? No, probably not. We have been changed. It's not in any way surprising that these things are transformative. Are you the same person that you were three years ago? Probably not.

It's like the moment when Lena decides in the beginning of the film to paint the bedroom. Is it the same room, if it has a different coat of paint? It's in the same physical space, but it could become something new.
Garland: There's a very good, simple, philosophical paradox called the Ship of Theseus...

Right, whether a ship which has had all of its parts replaced is still the same ship.
Garland: Exactly. You take all the wooden planks out, you put them in another ship, you build another ship, and by the end of it, you've got a perfect facsimile, and then everyone wonders -- which is the Ship of Theseus, and which is the copy? But I quite like the version where it's both.

This seems to be symbolized in part by the ouroboric tattoo which passes from Anya to Lena.
Garland: Broadly speaking, the Ouroboros has some distinctive features. It wasn't chosen by accident.

It's also referenced in Lena's choice of reading material, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks...
Garland: And the conversation she has with Kane when they're lying on the bed. The conversation is sort of sweet, two lovers lying together chatting, and she starts referring, in effect, to that, because she's preoccupied by that. The point is that Henrietta's cells did not have the self-destruct mechanism that cells normally have, which allowed them to be, as it were, an immortal cell line.

Just a light one for fun, but how do all the electronic devices stay charged forever within the Shimmer?  
Garland: They've got really cool sci-fi batteries with very long life. [Chuckles] I would say, by the way, if you really want an answer to that, the way that everything behaves inside that space is more open to that kind of logic. Logic just doesn't apply. And if you're concerned about the batteries, you might be even more concerned about crystal trees! Or human noises coming out of a bear's mouth! If you can get that shit with a bear, the battery is the least of your concerns. [Laughs]

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Jennifer Vineyard, a regular Thrillist contributor, has also written for Elle magazine, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times.