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How Annihilation broke the rules

Alex Garland’s hallucinogenic film is smart, beautiful and has great female characters without making it A Thing. Shouldn't this be the future of sci-fi?

What do movie audiences want? Listen to the critical establishment, or fan websites, and an easy list resolves itself in front of you: fewer superhero franchises, smarter science fiction, more complex protagonists, less reliance on the tired tropes of the Hero’s Journey, better roles for women and ethnic minorities.

The story of Annihilation – Alex Garland’s new film, released today on Netflix – is the story of why it’s dangerous to believe people when they tell you what they want.

***

“What did you eat? You had rations for two weeks. You were inside for nearly four months.”

Annihilation begins with an interrogation. Lena Kerans, played by Natalie Portman, sits in a blank room, facing an unnamed scientist in a hazmat suit. She isn’t wearing make-up. Her hair is limp. She scratches idly at a looped snake tattoo on her forearm. “I don’t remember eating.”

More than that, Kerans doesn’t know the fate of two of her team members. She knows the other two are dead.

This opening was added to the film during production; in the script, the first words belonged to Lena, teaching a biology class at Johns Hopkins University. “This is a cell,” she said, as a delicate blob divided in front of us. “Like all cells, it derived from an existing cell. . . One became two. Two became four. Then eight. Sixteen. Thirty two. The rhythm of the dividing pair, which becomes the structure of every microbe, blade of grass, sea creature, land creature, and human. The structure of everything that lives,” – a cut to reveal Lena’s face – “and everything that dies”.

Everything that lives, and everything that dies - because you cannot have one without the other. In both tellings, we quickly learn that Lena has spent a year waiting for the return of her missing husband Kane, a soldier sent on an expedition he wasn’t allowed to discuss with her. He left one day, and never came back. 

It's only when she finally tries to move on, picking up a paintbrush to redecorate the house, that Kane arrives unexpectedly, walking silently and ploddingly up the stairs. We can already see that something is wrong. Kane is back, and not back. He cannot tell her where he's been. Sitting at their kitchen table, he is somehow too still. When he begins to bleed from the mouth into the glass of water Lena gives him, she calls an ambulance - only to have it hijacked by a SWAT team. Taken to a secret military facility, Lena learns that her husband – if that’s who the blank-eyed and rapidly deteriorating figure really is – has become the first person ever to emerge from a phenomenon called The Shimmer, which hangs like a soap bubble over an ever-expanding area in north America. It blocks radio waves and all other communication coming from inside. No one - until Kane - has come back out. Within a decade, if it keeps growing, the Shimmer will have swallowed the entire planet.

So Lena goes in, in a team led by a psychologist called Dr Ventress (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) alongside three other female team members: Radek the physicist, Sheppard the geomorphologist and Thorensen the paramedic. There is only a brief acknowledgement of their gender in the film’s dialogue.

“All women?” asks Lena. “Scientists,” replies Sheppard. “The previous teams have been military.”

***

When I first spoke to producer Andrew Macdonald about Annihilation in 2014, he called the project “ambitiously insane”. Sure, it soon had a star attached – Natalie Portman – and, in Garland, a writer/director with a solid track record: The Beach, 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, Sunshine, Dredd. But it was still a risk – not least because its budget was three times that Macdonald’s previous collaboration with Garland, Ex Machina, a taut three-hander mostly filmed in a single location in Norway.

Ex Machina explored our attitude to artificial intelligence, by telling the story of a Silicon Valley tech bro, Nathan, who creates a beautiful android called Ava. He invites Caleb, one of his employees, to his remote house to subject her to a Turing test to see if she can pass as human. Between explaining thought experiments such as the Chinese room, the film smartly compares our attitude to AI with our attitudes to gender. Neither man can see Ava for what she is – an independent consciousness – because they are too busy living out versions of a male power fantasy. Nathan is half-Pygmalion, half-pimp, presuming that his creation will always obey him; Caleb sees himself as a white knight rescuing a princess in a castle. These are fatal mistakes.

Alex Garland’s films often have unexpected third acts: Macdonald once told me that the team never really came up with a proper ending for their “Ken Loach zombie film” 28 Days Later. (The DVD offers several alternate resolutions to the story.) In Ex Machina, both male characters imagine themselves to be the hero – but the final sequence makes clear that it’s Ava who has been in control throughout.

In Annihilation, the third act (spoilers!) finally shows us the alien which has created The Shimmer by refracting everything inside it, including living DNA: essentially, the landscape has cancer. Nature has begun to mutate and reproduce uncontrollably.

In the first book of the original trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, this led to unforgettably surreal images, such as dolphins with human eyes. In the film, there is a mutated bear with a half-human scream, identical ethereal fawns, and plants which grow in human shapes like living Antony Gormley sculptures. There’s also a house covered in flowers of every possible type, like a New England wedding, which somehow spring from the same root stock.

These images are beautiful and discomforting at the same time, a fitting backdrop for a quest by five women who all turn out to be self-destructive. “One of the reasons the film works so well is that the story’s outward signs are linked to the psychology of the characters,” says the writer Andrew O’Hagan, who has known Garland for several years. “Nature is subverted in the scenes – those twin fawns, the trees that take the shape of people, the menacing flora – in a way that makes you dwell on what is ethically askew in the lives of the characters . . it’s pure cinema.”

***

So Area X is, literally, the Uncanny Valley: everything is somehow off. How do you top that in the third act? Garland has described Annihilation as a journey from “suburbia to psychedelia” and the finale is unlike anything I'd ever expect from an action film. The climax comes in a long, wordless scene, where Lena Kerans finally kills the alien not merely with violence but kindness; a fatal gift rather than a simple hail of gunfire. “He'll hate me for saying this, but the film it most closely resembles is [Stanley Kubrick's] 2001: A Space Odyssey,” says Adam Rutherford, who worked as a science advisor on both Ex Machina and Annihilation. “I've worked on films with aliens in them before, and the joke is that the studio say – give me an alien we've never seen before. And that's hard because we've been doing aliens in cinema since 1918. What you see in Annihilation, you have genuinely never seen before: not just the conception of it, but the power of the special effects.”

On set in 2016, Alex Garland showed me a video on his phone: a Mandelbulb, a three-dimensional fractal shape, which looked like an otherworldly coral, or sea anemone. This was the inspiration for the alien’s revealed form, which Rutherford likens to standing in front of a Mark Rothko painting, with “the sense you might be being sucked into hell”.

The Mandelbulb was typical Alex Garland: we had stayed in touch after I interviewed him about Ex Machina, and we talked about the strangeness of evolution. I showed him a video of scientists pouring liquid aluminium into an ants' nest. The result was a spectacular silvery filigree of branches, which would normally be hidden, buried in soil. Nature, we’d agreed, was almost infinitely weird.

It was also typical Garland to be interested in random YouTube clips. The 47-year-old circulates script drafts and ideas among a wide circle of friends, and pays flattering attention to their feedback. He doesn’t act like a man given control of $40m by some of America’s most cut-throat business dealers. “He talks about not being an auteur,” says Rutherford. “The irony is that being on set that one day, there was a great deference towards him without him being a bossy wanker.”

It’s central to Alex Garland’s self-conception that he isn’t academically gifted: he was a poor pupil, and a lacklustre undergraduate, studying art history at Manchester University. In practice, that just means he hasn’t acquired the dinner-party-glibness with big ideas that an Oxbridge education can provide. He doesn’t “wing it”, in the way that leading politicians who stumbled through undergraduate tutorials with a terrible hangover are prone to do. Intense research lies behind even simple lines of dialogue. His science fiction makes the science feel as exciting as the fiction. Annihilation includes mentions of Hox genes – which give living organisms “maps” to create their bodies – and the concept of autophagy, where cells eat themselves. (“As with all the scientific details in Ex Machina, he put that in the script. I didn't put that in,” says Rutherford.) Garland's next project, Devs, is set in Silicon Valley and involves quantum computing. Yeah.

This is what makes his fans – and friends – so protective of him. I rolled my eyes when the first wave of pre-release blogs about “whitewashing” in the film came along: in the second and third books of VanderMeer’s trilogy, the Biologist is revealed to have Asian heritage, and the Psychologist is half-Native-American. Yet both Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh are white. Somehow, I felt, the fact that two of the film’s five key female characters were played by women of colour - Gina Rodriguez as the hardbitten paramedic and Tessa Thompson as the dreamy physicist - would be forgotten. So would the performance of Sonoya Mizuno, who was also in Ex Machina, playing the alien (although she’s unrecognisable under the special effects) and Oscar Isaac - birth name Óscar Isaac Hernández Estrada - as the Biologist’s husband.

Vulture was one of the places which looked at this majority non-white main cast and was still unimpressed. The casting of Rodriguez and Thompson, it said, “creates a familiar dynamic in cases of whitewashing, where people of color are pitted against each other. There’s no reason why Garland couldn’t have cast Thompson and Rodriguez as well as cast the other characters true to their ethnic descriptions in the book.” This seems like an oddly box-ticking approach to diversity, and one which lumps together Annihilation with something like Ghost in the Shell, which took a specifically Japanese story and cast a white American - Scarlett Johansson - in the lead. This attitude also seems to expect a simple yes/no answer to “is this film feminist?” or “is this film riddled with systemic racism?” based on a quick accounting exercise. Isn't that a joyless and reductive way to approach a piece of art?

Then again, I’m biased. There are few directors making intelligent science fiction out there, and even fewer trying to do so within the Hollywood studio system. The fate of Annihilation might suggest why: late last year, its worldwide cinema release was cancelled and the film was sold to Netflix for half its budget. It had become the focus of a tussle between producer Scott Rudin and David Ellison of Skydance Productions, which co-financed the film. Early test screenings had audiences demanding more explanation of the plot – and questioning why all the main cast were women. Garland’s political statement of not making a political statement – to have flawed, complicated, intriguing characters who just happened to be women – had baffled them.

David Ellison was also worried the film was “too intellectual”, according to the Hollywood Reporter, and he wanted Portman’s character to be made more sympathetic. Rudin and Garland weren’t totally inflexible – there were reshoots to include more scenes showing Lena Kerans and her comatose husband together – but ultimately, Paramount decided to limit the film’s cinema release to the US, Canada and China, with a Netflix deal picking up the slack elsewhere.

In an age where critics and fans barrack creators endlessly for their lack of ambition in casting women and minorities, and complain that films offer pat solutions and uncomplicated heroes, this was infinitely depressing. Maybe we’re only getting the films we deserve. It didn’t help that Paramount’s previous big female-led supernatural thriller, Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, sharply divided critics but united audiences: they didn’t want to see it. It made just $7.5 million on its opening weekend.

In the end, Annihilation had a respectable opening in the US, where it was up against the behemoth of Black Panther. Taking $11 million on its first weekend, it should at least break even once the Netflix deal is taken into account. 

***

I went on to the set of Annihilation in July 2016 – my first attempt at a visit had been postponed thanks to the unexpected Leave vote in the EU referendum. It was being filmed just north of London, in a hangar big enough to hold an aircraft (and sure enough, the space next door held one, left over from the new Star Wars films shooting there).

The set designers had created two backdrops: the first was the interior of a lighthouse, complete with whitewashed tendrils of . . . something, snaking over every surface. The shadow of a charred corpse scarred one of the walls. The other set was black, its corrugated surface reminiscent of an ants’ nest, as drawn by HR Giger. That echo might have been intentional, because this was the lair of the film’s antagonist, the alien which has generated all the strange effects seen in Area X.

In adapting VanderMeer’s work for the screen, Garland had focused on the first book of the trilogy, and stripped back several of its elements. In the book, the search party do not have names, and the psychologist drugs the team to prevent them seeing what’s really there as they first explore the area. The book's Crawler - a being of light - becomes the film's alien. In the movie, there is no fungus growing into living words on a wall (although Garland experimented, in an early draft, with a poem by James Fenton).

Most crucially, he also added a new motivation for Vandermeer’s Biologist – now given the name Lena – to go after her husband into Area X. She doesn’t just want him back; she wants his forgiveness. And she also doesn’t care too much if she destroys herself in the attempt. Why? Because, we discover, Kane left to go on the original mission into The Shimmer because he learned that Lena was having an affair.

Giving this backstory to the lead character feels a more radical act even than writing five lead female roles: the idea that protagonists should be likeable is screenwriting 101, and a guilty, cheating wife is a hard sell. There is even a shorthand for the moment of kindness which screenwriters are told to include to win us over: early on, protagonists should “save the cat”. Shagging a colleague is pretty much the opposite of saving a cat.

And while audiences might be lightly willing to accept bastardry in a leading man, provided it is camouflaged under enough charm - think Han Solo or James Bond - to see a lead woman as unsympathetic as Lena, as clever as Lena, shot like a male action hero in functional military clothing rather than camo hotpants? That still feels daring. And Lena’s unsympathetic choice is the engine for the whole narrative. She broke their marriage; Kane volunteered for the mission, knowing that he would not come back. When he did, she risked death for the small chance of saving him. A chain of annihilation.

“Natalie Portman’s character is guilty, we discover that, but how is her guilt manifested? Not by confessions to a therapist. Not by wild drinking or excessive shouting at the children or a new turn towards religion,” says O’Hagan, who sees the film’s landscape as echoing the unconscious. “Rather, is it suggested by the monsters she manifests in her quest to save her husband, a series of monsters that prey on other women before testing her own essence to destruction.”

LENA
Why would my husband volunteer for a suicide mission?

VENTRESS
You’re confusing suicide with self-destruction. Almost none of us commit suicide. Almost all of us self-destruct. In some way, in some part of our lives . . . Isn’t self-destruction coded into us? Programmed into every cell?

As this dialogue suggests, the film shows ambivalence towards the idea of self-destruction – because it is an inevitable part of life, and therefore death. Everything that lives, everything that dies. Tessa Thompson’s physicist, who has the scars of self-harm snaking up her arm, chooses death in Area X - blissfully wandering off into the forest like an inverse Captain Oates. And in an early scene, Natalie Portman’s Lena reads The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a 2010 non-fiction book by Rebecca Skloot. It’s about the “HeLa” cells used by laboratories throughout the world, and which were vital to the development of the polio vaccine and other breakthroughs.

The cells came from Lacks's cervix, and were the first ones grown in a lab to be “immortal” – not subject to senescence, the process by which cells degrade over multiple reproductions and eventually die. The trouble was that they did not die in Henrietta Lacks's body, either: the HeLa cells are cancerous, meaning the normal controls which put the brakes on cell division are broken. And that cancer killed Henrietta Lacks on October 4, 1951. Inside the human body, there is no escape from self-destruction.

In Annihilation, Alex Garland gives film critics and science fiction fans what they say they want: a smart script, beautifully shot, with a cast of women who look, and act, like real people, with all their unsympathetic failings on full display. “I think Alex is like no other film-maker today, especially in his understanding of the ways we invent the terms of our destruction, then quest against them, or fight them, or secretly nurture them,” says O’Hagan. “In every story of his, the quest can look like freedom or moral crusade or capitulation to a new certainty or a basic desire - Never Let Me Go, Ex Machina - but in every case there is the danger that the whole enterprise is being powered by anxiety. At the close of every one of his films, I expect a main character to wake and say, ‘Thank God.’”

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics.