“Seeing five women dominate the screen initially felt like a victory.”
Title: Annihilation (2018)
Director: Alex Garland 👨🏼🇬🇧
Writers: Original novel by Jeff VanderMeer 👨🏼🇺🇸 and screenplay by Alex Garland 👨🏼🇬🇧
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
— SPOILERS AHEAD —
Imaginative special effects and top-notch acting drive the film Annihilation. On the surface, inclusive casting promises a science fiction thriller that centers women, including women of color. The action picks up after the women-only expedition crosses through an iridescent boundary known as The Shimmer. Entrancing yet undeniably threatening, the alien landscape appears to be overtaking our own. On the other side, the dangers manifest not only physically in the form of giant, carnivorous beasts but also psychologically as the characters begin to unravel.
The movie sets us up for what should be a rewarding peeling back of layers: as the team journeys deeper, more secrets surface regarding both the mysterious environment and the characters themselves. Once we go beyond the attractive packaging of the visual elements, however, it seems what should have been a provoking story—one predicated upon many twists and revelations—may have lacked some thought.
Weeks before the film’s release, two organizations, Media Action Network for Asian Americans and American Indians in Film and Television, criticized director Alex Garland for whitewashing two of the main roles. In the novel of the same name, part of The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, Natalie Portman’s character Lena is described as half-Asian, while Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character Dr. Ventress is identified as half-Native-American. Garland has claimed that his erasure of the characters’ races was accidental because he based his script off the first book. No racial identities are mentioned until the sequel, Authority. Nevertheless, the film opens with a scene that’s not hinted at until the third installment, Acceptance, so perhaps Garland did his research selectively.
But whitewashing and other inaccuracies aside, adaptations often diverge from their source material, so that in itself is not unusual. What’s worth examining is how Garland’s vision stands on its own, if it does.
Seeing five women dominate the screen initially felt like a victory. Credit belongs to VanderMeer for writing a work of science fiction told from the perspective of a female character who primarily interacts with other female characters. It’s also commendable that Garland saw value in bringing this story to life. Having read the book before watching the movie, though, I couldn’t help noticing the discrepancies between the source material and the adaptation, and observing how many of the film’s weaknesses lie in that difference.
Where the protagonist’s complexity flourished in the novel through flashbacks concerning her relationship with husband, as well as her passion for her occupation as a field biologist, the film compresses it into the limited framework of a seemingly happy marriage that turns out to not be so happy. Our perception of Lena’s motivation for pursuing the mission—to save her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who came back gravely ill from the previous expedition—changes when we learn she was having an affair. Viewed in that light, her narrative becomes a redemption arc. Yet VanderMeer’s original story didn’t need adultery to create emotional weight or to explain her strained marital relationship. And, in some respects, it feels like a cheap ploy to “sex up” Portman’s character and an excuse to show her undulating, naked back through several flashbacks, in which she’s straddling a man that’s ultimately revealed to be not her husband.
In addition to the cheating wife (Portman), the team includes a grieving mother (Tuva Novotny), a woman who cuts herself (Tessa Thompson), another woman (Leigh) with a death wish because it turns out she’s already dying, and a fiery lesbian (Gina Rodriguez) who is the first to crack under pressure. All these backstories that Garland concocted could have provided fertile ground for introducing nuanced characters—if he had bothered to develop them. Here, they merely serve as explainers for why each character eventually gets killed off. Showing flawed women is one thing, but when all the female characters are tidily summed up as “damaged goods,” it’s clichéd.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 20% of creative decision-makers were POC
The film celebrates racial diversity in the margins, packing the supporting cast with actors of color but offering two of the most important roles to white actors. Erasing the heritage of Leigh’s character is especially troubling when considering not only how underrepresented Indigenous people are in Hollywood, but also what a crucial factor her connection to the land and its history is in VanderMeer’s trilogy. Given the racial ambiguity of all the characters in the first book, Garland could have opted not to make whiteness the default point of view. Instead, we are left with an uncomfortable allegory, in which people of color fall by the wayside and a lone white woman survives.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +0.00
The dialogue clumsily outs Anya (Rodriguez) when her character’s first move is to hit on Lena. It’s the only time we hear about her sexuality. So while the portrayal of a gay character whose identity is shown to be quickly accepted—but not the focal point of her story—could be meaningful in terms of representing queerness, it also comes off like an afterthought or something that was thrown in to check off a diversity box.
Again, Garland’s script does not do much to cultivate any of the characters beyond their fulfillment of advancing the plot. The treatment of Anya’s character is no different. Growing increasingly suspicious of Dr. Ventress’ leadership and Lena’s support for continuing on after Cass’ (Novotny) death, Anya ties up and interrogates the remaining members of her team. Her aggressive and violent behavior plays into well-worn depictions of lesbianism and “madness,” or what TVtropes.com simply refers to as the Psycho Lesbian. Such stereotyping undermines the film’s attempt toward LGBTQ inclusivity.
Mediaversity Grade: B- 3.83/5
Not to keep harping on the original text, but the novel is psychologically dark. Mind control and paranoia eventually lead the women to turn on each other. But Garland doesn’t appear interested in examining the horrors within. Rather, he relies on the exterior world to instill fear and awe. Portman dutifully carries the film, even when the climax supplies only computer-generated graphics and a motion-capture humanoid for her to play off of. It’s supposed to be the mindblowing culmination—everything the movie has been building up to. Turns out, it’s mostly smoke and mirrors.