Review

The subversive body horror of Annihilation

The sci-fi thriller allows women to explore life without giving literal birth to it.
Review

The subversive body horror of Annihilation

The sci-fi thriller allows women to explore life without giving literal birth to it.

As is appropriate for a film intimately concerned with genesis, Alex Garland’s latest science fiction flick, Annihilation, starts at the very beginning — with an explanation of the origins of life. As explained by Lena, a former servicewoman and current biology professor played by Natalie Portman, life begins with a single cell. The cell grows until it splits once, and then it divides and divides, making copies of itself, so that two cells become four, four become eight, eight becomes sixteen. As Lena’s students copy her words into their notebooks, a video demonstrates cell division, over and over, life propagating frame by frame. Lena ends her lesson with an acknowledgment. The growth we’ve been observing came from a cervical cancer cell. Its development eventually killed the woman who hosted it.

In Annihilation, which is adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s popular Southern Reach Trilogy, life becomes a force of destruction. Unbeknownst to Lena, a malignant ecological phenomena has overtaken an American coastline after a meteor struck a lighthouse. Military teams have been sent into this region, known as The Shimmer, but Lena’s long-missing husband is the only person to return. When he becomes ill, Lena takes up his mission alongside four women who have been chosen for their skills in psychology, medicine, and physics.

What Lena and her teammates find in The Shimmer is a world resembling Earth where the codes of biology and physics have been scrambled. Organisms develop mutations that generate so rapidly that entire species appear to be hybrid. Time itself moves faster. What once had a solid, predictable, finite form becomes genetically liquid in The Shimmer. In an early scene, Lena taunts her husband before he leaves for his mission by poking holes in his romantic notion of divinity. She claims that a perfect God wouldn’t have created cells that were biologically programmed to die. But the deity governing The Shimmer is bound to no such laws. Rather than ending, in Annihilation, life evolves.

Until Annihilation allows its team to cross the threshold of The Shimmer, Lena seems like a typical Hollywood wife. Her life is defined by her marriage, she is devoted to solving the mystery of her husband’s illness, and we know from the film’s flashback structure that she will return, just like he did. Once Lena is immersed in the fecund realm of The Shimmer, glimmers of fresh ideas begin to emerge from within the opalescent scenery. Science fiction has concerned itself with the power of creation since Mary Shelley breathed life into Frankenstein’s monster. But Lena and her teammates are not the originators of creation so much as they are creation’s horrified observers — a surprisingly novel concept for a team of five women. More often for women in cinematic science-fiction, horror begins at birth.

Again and again, Annihilation commits to finding ways for its female characters to engage with ideas of fertility and generation without reducing them to their procreative functions.

Science fiction began its flirtation with maternal horror in American cinema with the fall of the Motion Picture Production Code, which was a set of censorship guidelines adopted by Hollywood studios to avoid state and local censorship. Birth and sex were both regulated onscreen through the 1930’s to the 1950’s, but the genre earned a boost in 1960 when a virgin birth picture rejected by Hollywood studios called Village Of The Damned became a massive hit out of Britain, eventually crossing over into American theaters.

Village Of The Damned hardly showed the afflicted mothers, focusing instead on their unholy spawn, but in 1968, the year the code was replaced by the MPAA rating system, Roman Polanski released the mother of all mother-horror films, Rosemary’s Baby. Adapted from the novel by Ira Levin, Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby is the story of a housewife who is manipulated by her neighbors, betrayed by her husband, and sedated by her doctors until she unwillingly bears the devil’s son.

Arguably Polanski’s most influential work, Rosemary’s Baby is a masterful exercise in horror filmmaking, with each element of the film’s design — from its performances, to the costumes, lighting, and framing — chosen to heighten the malevolence of Rosemary’s situation. But as the “Me Too” movement prompts film lovers to reconsider the works of Hollywood’s known abusers, Roman Polanski’s influence on genre filmmaking is due for an audit. The film demonstrates bloodcurdling contempt towards the relationships between men and women, suggesting that the relationship between Rosemary and her Satanist, rapist husband is nothing so unusual. Polanski extends his ambivalence to Rosemary. Her sickening capitulation at the end of the film turns the stomach just as much as her horror at her son’s inhuman eyes.

Rosemary’s Baby at once demonstrates the attraction of maternal horror and the uncomfortable value system that drives the genre. For women who have experienced ambivalence towards birth or motherhood, it is cathartic to watch those events turned into spectacles of anxiety. But seen through another lens — the lens of all-too-often male filmmakers — the stylization can mask bitterness, hiding the toxic within the generic, and allowing women’s minds to get lost within the spectacle of women’s proliferant bodies. Such is the case with The Brood, David Cronenberg’s 1979 reckoning with his own intensely painful divorce. And the same could be said for Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 divorce picture, Possession, which finds a wife cuckolding her husband with a monster she birthed herself.

Rosemary approaches the demonic baby she’s birthed, intending to kill it.

Rosemary approaches the demonic baby she’s birthed, intending to kill it.

In Prometheus, Elizabeth Shaw stumbles away after giving birth to an alien monster.

In Prometheus, Elizabeth Shaw stumbles away after giving birth to an alien monster.

Rosemary approaches the demonic baby she’s birthed, intending to kill it.

In Prometheus, Elizabeth Shaw stumbles away after giving birth to an alien monster.

With the Alien franchise, the sting of personal resentment was removed from the genre’s conventions, leaving behind only an extremely memorable and easily mimicked kill sequence. Unlike the appearance of the mother’s external womb in The Brood, there is no psychological subtext to find in the first appearance of the Xenomorph as it bursts forth from John Hurt’s stomach. But the spectacle is still recognizable as a perversion of birth, where the child is an alien parasite gestating within a man’s body. The horror of a body invaded by a foreign fetus is one that would be recalled many times in the franchise’s history, most recently in Prometheus, when Noomi Rapace’s space captain is forced to perform her own abortion.

In the years after artists established the conventions of the genre, demon pregnancy plotlines became standard for science-fiction television shows, including The X-Files, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Charmed, Supernatural, Torchwood, and many more. The shocking bitterness that seemed to define Rosemary’s Baby has been worn down by repetition into a genre convention that is predictable, popcorny, even pleasant in its familiarity. The equation of women with birth in speculative fiction has become so standard that when Darren Aronofsky released his own ode to the maternal horror picture, mother!, it was more surprising to see religious allegory than it was to see a baby torn to bits.

Just as a favorite sweater should only be worn sparingly lest the knit get stretched out of shape, genre can become lax from overuse. As an intervention into the conventions of studio science-fiction, Annihilation is best appreciated as a provider of much needed variety. Again and again, Annihilation commits to finding ways for its female characters to engage with ideas of fertility and generation without reducing them to their procreative functions.

Lena, Dr. Ventiss, Josie, Anya, and Cass lose their familiar social identities when they are released into the wilderness, and the narrative possibilities explode like the scenery. The Shimmer becomes a stimulus, pushing the characters to think and develop according to their interests. Each character puzzles over the particulars of her scientific specialty, each character has her own approach to survival, and when each character speaks, we encounter combinations of personalities that are unfamiliar. So long as we are in The Shimmer, the film remains open to unpredictable relationships like a dividing cell is open to mutation. As the characters map undiscovered country, so does the spectator.

In one of their first days in The Shimmer, as the team is still trying to figure out how to relate to each other, Cass describes to Lena why each woman has decided to embark on what they each assumed was a suicide mission. Josie wants to feel alive. Anya is a recovering addict. Dr. Ventriss is a loner. Cass’s assumptions are never directly challenged. None of the women on the mission ever declare as their purpose, I wanted to stand at the heart of creation, finally alone. But at least for the audience, the sentiment is implied.

Teo Bugbee is a film and culture writer based in New York.
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