Genetics and Culture

Where fiction, film, and media meet the world of DNA

Genetic Horror in Garland’s “Annihilation”

*Spoiler Alert*

A bear screeches “Help me!” in the voice of its last victim, preserving the final words of the prey in its own body.  The intimate-but-fatal contact between bear and its food has caused a mutation in the bear, incorporating remnants of the victim’s consciousness as the only part still “alive.” Welcome to the world of Annihilation.  There are no boundaries between beings; species blend together, plants mimic human body structures, and characters undergo mitosis before our eyes.

Annihilation, the newest sci-fi horror film from director Alex Garland, has fallen somewhat flat in the US box office and has disappointed its director with an international Netflix release, but it has gained somewhat more acclaim among critics.  The reviews of Annihilation mainly speak to the philosophical inclinations of its director and the precariousness and contingency of life in the universe, while other entertainment reviewing venues have questioned the degree to which the film accurately depicts genetic science.  Whether the science that Garland uses as the basis for his story is based in reality or not misses the point—the film hinges on the calculation that the audience will have an anxious response to the gene-bending extra-terrestrial force behind the mutations. In that calculation, it draws on a long tradition of science fiction novels and films that take seriously the idea of aliens who can fuse with or alter the human genome.   The film plays with the fear of the uncontrollability of the physical building blocks that compose our bodies both in terms of cancer and aging as well as external forces that cause harmful mutations to show us a world outside our control—and to show us that it isn’t so different from the world we have now.

The film begins with an introduction to Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biologist at John Hopkins with a military background.  After her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who is presumed K.I.A. returns after one year of no contact and promptly falls into multiple organ failure, Lena is brought to Area X and exposed to the mysterious and destructive phenomenon known as “the Shimmer.”  She soon volunteers with a group of other female scientists lead by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to adventure into the Shimmer after she realizes the best way to save her husband is to figure out the mysterious phenomenon’s origin.

After multiple encounters with the external and internal dangers of the Shimmer, the group of female scientist-explorers discover that the Shimmer acts as a prism in refracting light and other waves—thus scrambling any communication signals.  The Shimmer has an even more frightening effect: It not only refracts waves, but also refracts plant and animal DNA structures, changing the structures and causing mutations.  The phenomenon causes instability, both in the physical bodies of its inhabitants at the cellular and muscular levels expressed through the motion in Anya’s (Gina Rodriguez) hands and fingerprints and the internal organs of an unfortunate member from the previous convoy, as well as mental instability, paranoia, confusion, and loss of memory.

The Shimmer causes mutations between the animal and flora’s Hox genes—the genes responsible for an organism’s physical structure—and will ultimately clone an entire being (we are given visual hints early on, for example when Lena observes a pair of identical albino deer deep in the woods).  In the Shimmer, shrubs express the human Hox sequence and predatory animals adapt some traits of their prey.  The line between species—even between kingdoms—is annihilated.

This film teaches us something very interesting about the fears and anxieties that the filmmakers hoped would resonate with today’s viewers—principally, the fear of uncontrolled genetic manipulations and unauthorized access to one’s DNA. At a time when every day brings new reports of advances in gene editing, CRISPR technology, genetic modification of animals and crops, creation of interspecies chimera, and other techniques for modifying the genome, it is no wonder that some people are concerned about our growing capacity to manipulate DNA. Garland’s film of Annihilation turns these concerns into a source of uncertainty and horror.

Viewers are introduced to Lena, in her capacity as a professor of medicine, as she lectures a class on the process of mitosis, or cellular reproduction.  Furthermore, we see multiple characters struggling to varying degrees with cancer and its effects on the family “environment”: Lena’s opening lecture concerning a cell taken from a tumor, Sheppard’s daughter’s death from leukemia, and the strong insinuation that Dr. Ventress herself may be ill.  However, when Lomax (the interrogator played by Benedict Wong), asks Lena what the alien-force causing the Shimmer “wanted,” she has a peculiar response.  “I don’t think it wanted anything,” to which he retorts that it was causing immense damage.  Strangely, though, Lena comes to the defense.  She claims that the Shimmer is not a cancer destroying all in its path, but rather a force that creates something new. It changes things by transforming them.  The “destruction” it causes is simply a matter of perspective.

Playing with anxieties about GMO crops and the widespread association of genetic engineering with eugenics, Garland puts his finger on a fear deep in the collective imagination of his audience and continues to dig.  I do not think this film is a warning against a future where genetic engineering will become commonplace (unlike other films warning about current technologies, such as his earlier Ex Machina, which foreshadows the implications of ever-advancing artificial intelligence), but is instead a meditation on the human condition itself.  The film contrasts a world defined by structure, symbolized by the Hox gene, and a force inimical to structure, one that has no motivation—no “want”—exterior to its own proliferation.  Garland leaves us with more questions than answers, just as the Shimmer does for those it affected. The film seems to ask, “Why is there something and not nothing?”

Garland gives us two layers of reality to work with: One that mirrors our own society (or at least a society in the very near future), and one that is imposed by the Shimmer.  Our world is riddled with things beyond our control—cancer propagates and metastasizes just like the mutations caused by the Shimmer and climate change that seem insurmountable today.  Yet scientists often claim mastery over nature with endeavors like the Human Genome Project, genetically modified crops, and genetically tailored medication.  Lena is certainly guilty of this.  In a flashback dating from before the cinematic timeframe, Lena and Kane lie in bed as she explains that aging is not a natural phenomenon, but rather a “fault of our genes”—a mistake from God.  The depiction of scientists  playing God dissolves and seems absurd when confronted by an alien force beyond their control. The film’s resonating claim implies that “God” only represents what we understand—the alien force behind the Shimmer is beyond our understanding, and thus, “beyond God.”  There is still so much that we do not understand about genetic variance and its phenotypical or behavioral expressions in people—the true horror of this film comes from the destruction of the fantasy that we are in control of our world, lives, and bodies.

by Zach Feldman


Categories: Films, Science fiction

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  1. Genetic Horror in Annihilation | Genetics and Literature

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