Alex Garland’s heady, dreamlike science fiction movie Annihilation opened over the weekend to a modest $11 million box office take that looks paltry compared to Black Panther’s stunning numbers, but it’s still about what distributor Paramount Pictures projected. The film is something of a hard sell for widespread, mainstream audiences: it’s more philosophical than action-oriented, it’s distinctly weird and idiosyncratic, and it ends on an inconclusive moment that suggests a few different possibilities without explaining or committing to any of them.
But according to a script report from Slashfilm, Garland’s script originally had a more definitive conclusion that suggested a future for Annihilation’s world. That ending seems potentially stronger: it’s more specific, more thought-through, and less like a standard familiar horror-movie twist.
Warning: spoilers ahead for Annihilation.
In the finished version of the film, military vet and Johns Hopkins biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is the last known survivor of the most recent investigative sortie into the Shimmer, an area that’s been gradually taken over by an incomprehensible alien power. The phenomenon started with a meteor crashing into a lighthouse, and from that point of impact, the Shimmer has gradually spread, creating an area of refraction where DNA is reflected and folded into itself, causing unsettling duplicates, crossbreeds, and echoes of familiar life. Plants grow in the shape of people, unnatural animals form, and people face down alien duplicates of themselves. Lena eventually fights a doppelgänger that reflects her every move, and she escapes the Shimmer and returns to her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), the last person to find a way out of the area.
Or does she? In the movie’s final moments, Kane admits that he doesn’t think he’s the original version, and a video Lena saw inside the Shimmer seems to confirm that he’s an alien doppelgänger. She embraces him anyway, but her eyes glow with an alien light. The suggestion is that maybe she’s not the original Lena either — she’s also a doppelgänger. That doesn’t jibe with anything Garland puts on the screen about Lena’s final confrontation with her double. But given that everything the audience sees is meant to reflect her verbal report about her experiences, and given that she does outright lie to her interrogators about those experiences, it’s possible that she just made up what happened to her in the Shimmer. Or maybe Garland is implying that it doesn’t matter whether Lena is the original. As established earlier, her DNA has been compromised within the Shimmer, and she carries some of the place’s alien element now. Either way, she’s not what she was.
But what does that mean, either for Garland’s themes of self-destruction or for a world that now has secret aliens roaming around in it? What, if anything, do the doppelgängers want, and what will they do now that they’re here? The original script doesn’t condescend to the audience by spelling it all out: it preserves the final version’s mystery. But it does go further. Slashfilm reports that Garland’s script leaves the end of the doppelgänger confrontation entirely ambiguous: “There is no clear indication as to which LENA lived, and which LENA died.” And as Lena and Kane embrace in the film’s final moments, behind them, the night sky fills with new falling meteors, one of which splits apart to reveal a shimmering light at its core.Why is that a stronger ending? For one thing, the “Lena has escaped… or has she?” ending feels so familiar from countless modern horror movies, from the Final Destination series to Drag Me To Hell to a lot of films that shouldn’t be spoiled by association. “She fought and struggled and escaped with great effort… except that ha ha, no she didn’t” is used in so many genre films that it’s come to feel like a cynical, last-minute jab at the audience, an attempt at an adrenaline booster before the credits roll. And it often leaves viewers without anything true to hold onto in a story. If Lena has been lying and doppelgänger Lena killed real-Lena, nothing the audience sees on-screen can necessarily be trusted. Which raises the question: why watch the story in the first place if possibly none of it is real and the real story will never be revealed? What do we learn from watching a lie if we have no motive to shape it and no truth to compare it to?
And if the ending just means Lena has been compromised, well, what does that imply? Viewers still know nothing about what it means to be an alien doppelgänger, whether the Shimmer-doubles have intention or agency of their own, whether the threat of the Shimmer is over or just beginning. Ambiguous endings can be terrific. It’s daring to walk away and leave viewers wanting more, and it’s often exciting to walk out of a movie feeling like a film has activated your imagination and invited your collaboration on the next steps.
But here, the original ending gives speculators more fuel in the form of more information. It still leaves plenty of things ambiguous: are the new meteors falling because some alien intelligence is directing them, and after the test case, the invasion is ramping up? Or is it all a galactic accident of some kind? But the original ending is more specific about some things that really matter. It suggests that the story doesn’t end with Lena and Kane, that it’s about to become much bigger. It implies that the testing of the human race’s tendency toward self-destruction is going to continue and expand significantly. And while it leaves the future open, it suggests a shape for that future. The “Lena and Kane are… something? Alienish?” ending is vague and unformed and frustrating. The “hail of meteors” ending says the action is just getting started. Garland has already said he has no interest in sequels, but his original ending suggests countless sequels of the mind… and it gives viewers plenty of imagined scenarios to play with for the future.