There are many things ethnic East Asians and Asians in general cannot play in US movies and television shows–MIT student masterminds of a gambling scheme (“21”), governors of Hawaii (“Hawaii 5-0”), lead characters in predominately ethnic Asian areas (“The Last Airbender,” “Ghost in the Shell,” “Magnum PI” and romantic lead in “Aloha”) and now, in “Annihilation” biologists.
If you can ignore the casting fail in this intelligent science fiction flick, you’ll find “Annihilation” a powerful ensemble piece that follows, not the A-team, or even the B-team, but the last-resort all-women 12th team that enters a shimmering and ever-growing cloud anomaly.
First, full disclosure: My sister studied and taught biology. My brother is a marine biologist. I have friends who studied biology who are ethnic Asians. I might be prejudiced.
The movie is based on an eponymous award-winning novel by Jeff VanderMeer, the first of his Southern Reach trilogy. The trilogy is named for the secret agency central to the plot. The expeditions into the abandoned Area X are managed by the agency. VanderMeer based his Area X on St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Wakulla, Jefferson and Taylor Counties of Florida. Situated along the Gulf of Mexico, the refuge has different types of habitats: saltwater marshes, islands, tidal creeks and estuaries from several north Florida rivers. It does have a lighthouse–St. Marks Lighthouse which is the second oldest lighthouse in Florida.
In the book itself, the biologist is described in this manner:
“The biologist’s hair had been long and dark brown, almost black, before they’d shaved it off. She had dark, thick eyebrows, a slight, slightly off-center nose (broken once, falling on rocks), and high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian heritage on one side of her family.”
While not defining where in Asia (east, west or central) the woman draws her DNA from, we have a slight description that doesn’t fit the star, Natalie Portman.
Writer/director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”) begins in an interrogation room. A man, Lomax (Benedict Wong), is dressed in a white hazmat suit to avoid contamination from the patient, a tired and somewhat confused woman. She can’t remember so many things. Lomax asks, “What did you eat?”
The woman replies, “I don’t remember eating.”
“You were inside for nearly four months. You had rations for two weeks. You must have eaten something,” Lomax explains.
The woman, Lena, replies, “I suppose time refracted along with everything else. Josie would have appreciated that. I think she was the one who understood it best.”
Lomax wonders what happened to Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), but Lena has no answers.
Flashing back, we witness a fiery meteor striking a Gulf Coast lighthouse. Yet the building is not destroyed but engulfed in an glowing, cloud that reflects transparent bubbles and spots like oil on water. It’s beautiful and strange.
One might think of the destruction of the dinosaurs, but instead we switch to the very building blocks of life: the single cell multiplying.
“This is a cell. Like all cells, it is born from an existing cell. by extension, all cells were ultimately born from one cell. A single organism, alone on planet Earth, perhaps alone in the universe four billions years ago.”
While at first what we see seems wonderful and you might be thinking meiosis (four sex cells) or mitosis (two identical daughter cells), Garland twists the knife. We’re viewing the cancerous mutation of cells, a rapid spread of the DNA data gone wrong.
“The cell you’ve been looking at is from a tumor. Female patient, early thirties, taken from her cervix,” Lena explains.
Biologist Lena Kerans (Natalie Portman) is an oncologist, a biologist who specializes in cancer research and she’s teaching a first-year med student course at Johns Hopkins. Her husband (Oscar Isaac), a special ops soldier, has been missing in action for over a year, but Lena hasn’t allowed herself to move on leading her colleague, Daniel (David Gyasi) to become concerned. She is the guilty survivor of what was a happy marriage, one that we see in flashbacks.
But her husband, Kane, suddenly appears, just as bewildered as Lena. He has no memory of where he’s been. He’s not well and before Lena can get him to the hospital, an ominous army of helicopters and new black cars stops them. Lena is drugged and wakes up in a sterile facility where she is questioned by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
From Ventress, Lena learns about the Shimmer, the cloud into which 12 expeditions have gone into and only two men have made it out. Her husband was one of the survivors, but he’s now on life support with organ failure. The Shimmer is growing rapidly and Ventress will lead a mission of women in a last-ditch attempt to discover what is inside the Shimmer because the Shimmer is growing and will soon cover the station where they’re at and eventually the world.
Lena, a former soldier, convinces Ventress to let her join this expedition into what can only euphemistically be called an environmental disaster zone. The team is composed of biologist, anthropologist, psychologist, surveyor and linguist. Yet none of them are prepared for the horrors and the wonders inside the shimmer.
Lena believes she can save her husband if she knows what is inside the Shimmer. From the trailer, you’ll understand that the swamp creatures are bigger and more hideous. The alligator seems to have been crossed with a shark. Deers are crossed with flower-bearing trees. And what happens to humans? What happens to the human psyche when it realizes it is part of something new? The videos hinted at in the trailer and revealed in the full-length movie and the scenes here aren’t pretty.
An old college friend once remarked that cancer is an interesting way to die because cancer is essentially the creation of something new and different though deadly. Garland’s “Annihilation” is about the creation of new things and the annihilation of the structures that came before.
Backed by a diversity cast, the white leading actresses, Portman and Leigh, provide our window into a thought-provoking new world while symbolizing the old-fashioned trope that the American mainstream audience needs a narrative provided by white people. Portman’s facial features do not betray an Asian ancestry and there’s nothing to suggest that Jennifer Jason Leigh has Native American ancestry as did her character in the book. Portman’s Lena is both convincingly distressed and guilt-ridden in contrast to the fatalism of Leigh’s Ventress. Rodriguez, Thompson and Novotny are rugged women who don’t need to be saved by a man because who can really save them from themselves?
The intentional about environment and evolution and unintentional questions about race and Hollywood that Garland’s version of “Annihilation” are worth contemplating. Are mutations evolution or annihilation? Is change at the basic cellular level always bad? And in 2018, lead biologist ethnic Asian in an American movie is an option that doesn’t exist until American society changes.