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Sci-Fi Cowgirls: Guns, Germs, and Women in Garland’s “Annihilation”

Ellena Basada

The tendrils of Annihilation haunt even days after seeing the film. On the surface layer, Alex Garland’s (Ex Machina, 28 Days Later) most recent work is a masterpiece simply for the psychosomatic experience of sublime audio/visual cinematography. Yet, as the film’s “Shimmer” is an iridescent, stunning extraterrestrial saran-wrap that conceals biological complexities on the macro- and micro- level, Annihilation offers aesthetics that enclose a genre-bending and intellectually challenging film.

The film begins with Lena (Natalie Portman), a Johns Hopkins professor and biologist, showing her class a video of splitting and metastasizing cancer cells. As the camera zooms in from the back of the classroom to show just the cells multiplying by figures of two, a light, acoustic guitar ballad begins to play. The scene plays on as a sort of opening credits to the microscopic occurrences within the film and its theme song rings as an uncanny pairing to this introduction, disorienting the audience from the sheer science at hand and hinting at something more sentimental. The song reaches fruition a few scenes later, as the acoustics are extended into “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. At this point in the film, we are to assume that Lena has lost her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) in a covert army mission. Yet, as Lena is repainting her bedroom and the lines “Stand by the stairway/You’ll see something/Certain to tell you confusion has its cost” plays in the foreground, we watch a specter emerge at the bottom of the staircase and walk up to meet Lena at the threshold. As if beckoned by the song itself, Kane has reappeared at home after missing for nearly a year.

From this point, the narrative escalates quickly as Kane becomes deathly ill and is swept away in an ambulance, only to be abducted by an unmarked intelligence force. Lena is abducted with Kane and wakes up in a cell located at the Southern Reach, a location in Northern Florida that has undergone “a religious event, an extraterrestrial event, a higher dimension,” claims psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who takes Lena from her cell and introduces her to the Shimmer. As Lena spends time at the Southern Reach base, she learns that her husband was a part of a troop that volunteered to enter the Shimmer. Dr. Ventress says that “nothing ever comes back:” Kane is first exception. After meeting the members of the next squad to enter the Shimmer, Lena volunteers to go on the “suicide” mission as well. She is a part of an all woman contingent, and when she mentions this, she is quickly corrected: they are "all scientists." Gardner deals with gender in the film with this matter-of-fact attitude; he does not urge the audience to meditate further on the female-driven cast further than what is directly on screen. The women are diverse and emotionally complex, embuing the film with an essense that would not exist without its female-driven cast. We learn later that each woman is marked by dark past, which has lead them to volunteer for this expedition that almost guarantees they will not return. Lena, however, is not motivated by a death-drive, but rather is seeking revenge for her life with her husband lost over the past year.

The women approach the Shimmer armed with rifles, their backpacks heavy with two-weeks worth of supplies. Contrasting this image again plays the guitar ballad, which this time evokes an idea similar to that of Firefly, the Space Western television show. Stephen Stills told Rolling Stone in 1969 that “‘Helplessly Hoping’ is a real country song, as opposed to all those plastic Hollywood country songs by plastic country groups,” and indeed this song suggests the Shimmer and its contents as a new frontier. As the women draw on, the paramedic’s (Gina Rodriguez) forewarning that when people go into the Shimmer, “something destroys them, or they go crazy and destroy each other” infuses each moment with dread. Mingling with this dread, however, are the beautiful refractions of sunlight that make everything glint with rainbows, and foliage that puts everything earthly to shame. The contrast Garland sets up between the grotesque and sublime introduces even the audience’s imagination to terra incognita.

The landscape plays an essential role in classical Western films, and Annihilation is no exception. Just as the open desert lands borne cowboys both lethal and vulnerable, Annihilation’s dense, mutating jungle does the same for its cowgirls. There is plenty of gun violence, skeletons, and artifacts of people who have come before them. But all of the action is intermittently cut by Lena’s flashbacks of her home life, and most times it is “Helplessly Hoping” that accompanies these flashbacks. These flashbacks serve as the emotional core of the film, as we are informed of Lena’s backstory and reminded of her motivation. As the movie unfolds within the harsh, monster-filled terrain, the women are killed off one-by-one, Agatha Christie style. In a crescendo of horrific yet aesthetically stunning events, Gardner builds up to the first kill: the anthropologist (Tuva Novotny). At this point in the film, the characters begin to unravel (mentally and physically) as they realize death is no longer a fantasy. They become suspicious of one another, their team morale dissipating. Yet, like a Pavlovian signal, Crosby, Stills, and Nash play as a means to charge this seemingly senseless mission of "self-destruction" with meaning.

Eventually, the scientists discover that the Shimmer has the power to “refract”—scrambling light/radio waves and all DNA. This explains the multi-specied plants and the alligator/shark cross-breed that attacks the women at the beginning of their journey. Such a discovery is made by the third woman to die, the physicist (Tessa Thompson), who tells Lena before her sentimental parting, “Ventress wants to find it, and you want to fight it. I want neither of those things” (the paramedic wanted to “flee” it, but was eaten by a monster-bear before she had the chance). The scene closes with her placing flowers on her self-harm scars and as her genes blend with the flowers, she becomes a plant with a human outline, becoming a part of the Shimmer. Lena, dead-eyed and abandoned by Ventress who rushed ahead to their destination, cries out to the alien sun. But she is now officially marked as the avenger, the "good guy;" will she succeed?

Other critics have expressed frustration with the simple ending, as eventually Lena does destroys that which she seeks to without much reflection. But this plot outlines the archetypal Westerner struggle to maintain order. In the case of Annihilation, Lena seeks to maintain the life she had before Kane left. As the film nears its climax, the audience hopes along with Lena that her efforts will soon be rewarded with answers. At the shore she drops her backpack and we feel the glimmer of relief as she continues to the lighthouse, her final destination, with just her gun. The scene shows her walking across a beach that calls to mind work by Salvador Dalí; her slight body trudges forward through a surreal picture—crystalline shards of trees and human skull sacrifices greet her as she approaches the lighthouse. Inside, she sees a camcorder and in front of it the remains of a charred body. Playing back the tape on the camcorder, she sees her beloved Kane holding a phosphorous grenade, driven insane by the Shimmer. Horrifyingly, we watch Kane blow himself up; then, even more horrifyingly, we watch his doppelgänger emerge from behind the camera. Trembling, Lena realizes that the man who returned to her was not the real Kane, but his Abel: a molecular double. Losing sight of her mission to save her husband, Lena despondently follows her impulse and enters a giant hole at the base of the lighthouse, the source of the Shimmer. Inside, Ventress is moaning and rollicking, her body has been taken over by the extraterrestrial source. Lena watches as she explodes in light and then swirls into a technicolor void that resembles the iris and pupil of an eye. The pupil absorbs a drop of Lena’s blood as she stares into it, and doing that which the Shimmer does, mutates and multiplies Lena’s DNA. From the void then springs perhaps the most terrifying monster of the movie: a shimmering-green anthropoid that stands before Lena as her mirror image. Here, Gardner is masterfully displaying that Lena’s battle has turned inward, against herself.

The apex scene is scored by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, who appropriately mirror the lustre and intensity in a piece called “The Alien.” As the score becomes entwined in the visuals to amplify instead of to contrast, Garland suggests the denouement, where the Western narrative is absorbed by the Sci-Fi. Lena and her double stand-off, yet it is not a stand-off at all, as the alien merely mimics Lena’s violent movements. She is literally fighting herself, only drawing the distinction between them when she hands the alien a grenade, which duly kills the alien and destroys the Shimmer all together. “They are one person/They are two alone/They are three together/They are four for each other,” echo “Helplessly Hopeful” in the midst of this Science Fiction collapse. Yet, uncannily the lyrics speak to Lena, Kane, and their doubles. The Shimmer-scarred Lena has undergone an individual change. Lena and Kane’s double who emerge from the Shimmer and enter "the real world” are toxic agents of molecular entropy on the macro- level. The audience is merely left with this information as the two embrace and their eyes change color together, suggesting some sort of entanglement, a kinship, or a shared toxic entropy gained from the extraterrestrial frontier.