Perhaps it is a creature living in perfect symbiosis with a host of other creatures. Perhaps it is “merely” a machine. But in either instance, if it has intelligence, that intelligence is far different from our own. It creates out of our ecosystem a new world, whose processes and aims are utterly alien—one that works through supreme acts of mirroring, and by remaining hidden in so many other ways, all without surrendering the foundations of its otherness as it becomes what it encounters. (p. 191)
That's from Annihilation, the novel. To be fair, I got it indirectly from a Master's Thesis by Audrey Peterson (2016), SUNY. Audrey writes about the entire Southern Reach trilogy (the film Annihilation is built only from the first) so I might not comment on or cite much from Peterson. Except for this, since the identity of the individual is a central idea within the film: "The women are also introduced by their function, and not by name" unlike In the film, where they share names with characters from a different, but thematically similar novel--The Crystal World by J G Ballard. Identifying them this way, Paterson argues, "call[s] attention to their abilities, and [is] also significant as... the calling of people by their function serves to symbolize the erosion of human categorization." The film, on the other hand, both makes them more specific with names and not just descriptors and also erodes that specificity by linking them to Ballard's characters, linking the story to Ballard's story. I have read neither Annihilation nor The Crystal World but from what I understand of both, the film Annihilation borrows from both quite handily. Like this description from The Crystal World: "It's as if a sequence of displaced but identical images of the same object were being produced by refraction through a prism..." (quoted in a piece by Justin Gagen at Phase Change, p. 5). But even that borrowing seems a deliberate choice in terms of the themes of the film, the combining and dividing of living things, the duality of identity--self and reflection of self.
And, that duality can be found in the soundtrack to the film as well. One of the composers, Ben Salisbury explains in Rolling Stone,
[T]he film has two set pieces of music. There's a minute of Moderat's "The Mark" and this Crosby, Stills & Nash song, "Helplessly Hoping." They were poles apart, but it gave us some foundation. CS&N gave us this acoustic guitar thread and Moderat gave the end of the film this electronic feel at the end.
Effectively, when you notice the score--and for the most part a good film score will augment the film without being particularly noticeable--there are two sides to Annihilation's score. You notice the inclusion of "Helplessly Hoping"--it plays when Kane returns. You definitely notice Moderat's "The Mark"--AND SPOILERS ARE COMING--it is what plays when Lena faces the ball of alien energy that was, just a moment before, Ventress, or a faceless version of her (which I will finally get to in just a moment).
First, "Helplessly Hoping". It plays and we see Lena at home, alone, crying. She has just turned down a weekend garden party with Daniel (David Gyasi) (who we will learn, she was having an affair with, even after Kane is gone) and his wife Susan. She intends to be busy painting the bedroom she used to share with her husband.
Her harlequin hovers nearby
Awaiting a word
Grasping at glimpses
Of Gentle true spirit
He runs, wishing he could fly
Only to trip at the sound of good-bye
I was going to alter the pronoun there to [s]he, but the action described here is more about Kane than Lena. Though the first time the song plays in the film, we do not know that Lena cheated on her husband, and we do not have reason to suspect that he knows about her infidelity. But, afterward, we can assume that he knew, or he felt a gap between them. And, so he took covert missions, left her for long periods doing things he couldn't tell her about. When he tells her good-bye before leaving to go into the Shimmer, he is hesitant. Like he knows what she might be up to when he is gone. Plus, he probably knows enough about the Shimmer to know that he probably will not return.
In the second line there, though, is the harlequin. Going backward, the harlequin is a character from the Italian Commedia dell'arte. The harlequin wears a checkered costume. The harlequin thwarts the plans of their master. The harlequin is related to a mischievous devil from medieval passion plays. The harlequin wears a black mask. In the context of the Crosby, Stills & Nash lyrics, in the specific timing of that song as Lena sits on her couch grieving for her husband, now twelve months missing, the harlequin is not real. It is a memory. As Cass later tells Lena, when her (Cass') daughter died, the person Cass was before also died. Similarly, this imaginary harlequin is both the memory of Kane and the memory of who Lena used to be.
At the end of the film, though, we see something more like a harlequin, a black mask. Ventress, sitting at first with her back to Lena as Lena enters the chamber beneath the lighthouse. Then, Ventress turns, her face "normal", and she speaks a little strangely, like Kane when he returned home. "We spoke," she says to Lena. "What was it we said?" Like this version of Ventress doesn't quite have Ventress' memories but also does, or can access them; it just takes a moment. Like Kane when Lena asks him how he got home. He tells her, "I was outside." "Outside the house?" "No, outside the room. The room with the bed. The door was open and I saw you. I recognized you." As if this version of Kane does not really remember Lena until he sees her. Lena's harlequin is her former self, is her missing husband, is his alien copy, is the alien formation itself; the Shimmer is multicolored like the harlequin's costume. The transformed (or copied) Ventress erupts with light and color.
The thing that Ventress becomes is both an echo of Lena and a shadow. A shimmery, translucent, mirror of Lena's actions that reminds me of the alien from Doctor Who's episode "Midnight", copying someone until it begins to move first. A comedic harlequin perhaps, mimicking for fun. Or, as David Crow at Den of Geek describes Kane's duplicate, "a Lovecraftian truth about how artificial his self-identity is".
He waits at the window
At the empty place inside
Heartlessly helping himself to her bad dreams
Did he hear a good-bye? Or even hello?
This verse is interesting, because who is Lena, who is Kane? Reverse the pronouns and Lena waits at the window for Kane. In a later scene, but an earlier moment, their is an intimate and comic moment in which Kane implies that Lena just sits around pining for him when he is away. Now that he is (presumed) dead, though, she does just that. She "wonders / At the empty place inside". But, whose bad dreams does she help herself to? Are the bad dreams merely the wrong she did to him by cheating, by driving him away. Daniel suggests that Lena didn't entirely presume Kane dead; she also thought maybe he just never came home because he knew she was cheating on him. Talking to Lomax, after the events of the main plot, she also compares her early experience within the Shimmer to dreams.
They are one person
They are two alone
They are three together
They are for each other
Both a fundamentally romantic description, and weirdly literal in portions of this film. The crocodile is both crocodile and shark. The plants have different types of flowers growing on the same branches. After taking Cass and killing her, tearing out her throat, the mutated bear has Cass' voice. It screams "Help me!" maybe as just a meaningless echo, maybe translating its own thoughts at what has happened to it into human speech because for the first time it can. Maybe it is just as horrified by its transformation as, in that same sequence, Anya is by hers. And, it wants help. Notably, it doesn't just kill them all. Offscreen, it injures Anya, but maybe just when she attacks it. Then, it goes into the room with the other women and it says "Help" again. Ultimately, before Anya appears again to shoot at it, it bites down on Josie's shoulder, but does so lightly. There doesn't even seem to be a wound afterward. Also, when it kills Anya, it does so by tearing off her lower jaw and tearing away her tongue. Perhaps in a not-as-insane-as-it-sounds effort to express itself more clearly in the future. Except, Josie shoots it and kills it.
Or take the ouroboros tattoo for example. In the scenes with Lomax, it is a fully formed tattoo, an ouroboros in the shape of a figure 8 instead of just a circle. A symbol of both self-destruction and infinity. I'm reminded of Vulcan philosophy from Star Trek, "infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations", or a line from Darwin that I wanted to include in a tattoo of my own (that I designed but never got), "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful". The tattoo appears on at least three different characters' arms. We see it briefly on Anya's arm when they are rowing through the swamp. We see it more clearly on her arm when they are arguing in the watchtower about moving further into the Shimmer. On the video they find, the soldier who Kane cuts open has that tattoo on his arm. It is visible on the arm of that same soldier, now dissected and spread into a full wall display of strange life and color. And, we see it forming on Lena's arm throughout the film. She identifies it as a bruise when they are rowing. She takes blood from it when they stay in the evacuated town, and by the end of the story, it is her tattoo. One of our first clues about what is happening within the Shimmer: when Lena mentions "echoes" to Lomax, she glances at the tattoo.
(An aside: it amuses me that a piece at Bustle suggests that the first time we see the tattoo on Anya is the scene that she talks about her fingerprints, but Anya is wearing a long-sleeved hoodie in this scene. In the watchtower scene, she was waving her bare arm around. The same piece also says Kane has the tattoo when his tattoo, which we see several times, is on his shoulder, and it is the other soldier who has the ouroboros. And, a Syfy Wire piece also cites this scene as the first time we can see the tattoo on Anya’s arm. And suggests that the Shimmer duplicate in the lighthouse having the tattoo means that it is the one that escapes and not Lena (even though their positions make this impossible, and Lena’s tattoo is visible earlier in the same scene)…
And, separate from my own gloating (which the attention to detail is as much fueled by repeated viewing as by my own obsessiveness), there’s an interesting point to be made about that final interaction between Lena and the Shimmer. Lena has effectively resisted the affects of the Shimmer by sheer force of will; she wants to leave the Shimmer while the others were all selected specifically for their self-destructive urges. Josie the cutter, Anya the addict, Cass who is grieving, Ventress who is dying. Lena wants to live. And, in the end, what little bit of self-destruction she has in her belongs no longer to her but to the Shimmer. It copies her movements until finally she removes that phosphorous grenade from her husband’s bag and hands it to her duplicate. It forms skin and becomes a more accurate simulacrum of Lena even as she pulls the pin on that grenade and leaves the Shimmer behind to burn—and, it, like so many of us according to Ventress, self destructs by spreading the fire around rather than isolating itself. Meanwhile, the twist at the end is not really that Lena has been taken over by the Shimmer, or that the Shimmer has replaced her. But, she has embraced the changes, the echo of that tattoo. One of the last things she does before she gets to see “Kane” again is take a drink from a glass of water, much as Kane did so much earlier in the film. That earlier glass refracted the image of Lena’s hand on Kane’s. It also served to reveal that he was bleeding before he told Lena that he did not feel well. This glass refracts nothing. It reveals no blood. Lena, however much she has been altered by the Shimmer, remains Lena.)
Or, for example, Lena and Kane and the echo of Kane and the echo of Lena. We have reason to believe that the Shimmer is maybe one being. It alters other beings, but it is itself something. Ventress erupts, deconstructs, and becomes a featureless humanoid, the one that echoes Lena's movements and eventually her appearance. If the Shimmer is a living being--the crystalline trees formed out of the beach sand suggest that the Shimmer might not entirely be alive--if it is a singular being, then this copy of Lena, which does not get to leave, is the same being as the copy of Kane. Lena is one person. Kane is another. The Shimmer is the third. So, depending on how you look at it, the final scene is the chorus to "Helplessly Hoping" taken literally.
"Helplessly Hoping" plays again when we see the last flashback with Kane and Lena. They sit together on the couch, but he reads a magazine, she reads a book (The Immortal Life of Henrietta as I mentioned yesterday). Together but apart. Domesticity in a nutshell. He says "hey". She says "hey". Cut to the Shimmer, Lena moaning with grief. The final act has begun.
Stand by the stairway
You'll see something
Certain to tell you confusion has its cost
Love isn't lying
It's loose in a lady who lingers
Saying she is lost
And choking on hello
But, in context of the song playing the first time, these lyrics are played for timing. "Stand by the stairway" and there is Kane by the stairway. "You'll see something" and Lena sees him. "Certain to tell you confusion has its cost" is a strange and backwardly accurate line about Kane's behavior at the table in the next scene. Or Ventress' dialogue as she explains what is inside her in the end. But here, in this early scene, "Love isn't lying"; despite her infidelity, despite his leaving, despite his being replaced, something brought Kane back to Lena. "It's loose in a lady who lingers"; she dwells on her grief, on her loss, at the expense of her own life. "Saying she is lost" though really Daniel is the one who suggests she is lost. Later, Cass' description of her own "two bereavements" suggests that Lena (the Lena from before Kane left) has been lost. "And choking on hello" and Lena finally speaks through her shock at seeing Kane. She says his name.