This week I’ll look at how women are portrayed and interact with other characters in the 2018 suspense/thriller film Annihilation.
(Find out more about 3 tests I’ll use to guide the conversation in Women, Men, and Movies or just read on.)
Annihilation was written and directed by Alex Garland, who also wrote and directed last week’s movie Ex Machina.
In Annihilation, Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist and professor grieving the disappearance/ presumed death of her husband on a secret military mission.
In an effort to help him, Lena joins a team of women going into the Shimmer, a sort of force field that surrounds a jungle-like area.
Previous attempts to penetrate it with drones, animals, or military men have failed. Inside, everything is both beautiful and dangerous.
(Does a (named) female character talk to another named female character about anything other than a man?)
Who’s Talking To Whom
Women To Women:
Lena’s first conversation with Dr. Ventress (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is mainly about Lena’s husband, Kane, but topics they cover in all conversations include:
- How Lena feels physically
- Lena’s military service and current work
- What Lena’s husband, Kane, said about the mission
- How Kane got back from the Shimmer
- Why Lena stopped contacting Kane’s unit for information
- What Lena knew about Kane’s mission
- Kane being extremely ill
- What Kane might have been exposed to
- How Lena could help Kane
- Theories about Shimmer and when and where it started
- People, animals, drones sent into Shimmer that haven’t returned
- The Shimmer’s growth and threat to the earth
- Kane dying, and Lena wanting to stay with him
- Lena not telling rest of crew about being married to Kane
- Why Ventress is going into Shimmer
- Maps and routes through Shimmer
- Why Kane volunteered for “suicide mission”
- Suicide versus self-destruction and biology versus psychology
- What the Shimmer wants
Lena and the other crew members (Anya, Kass, and Josie) talk together about:
- Their careers and why they volunteered to go into the Shimmer
- Previous teams
- Theories about the Shimmer
- Kane being the only one to get out
- Missing food and provisions
- Time and memory loss
- Plants, animals, and mutations in the Shimmer
- Lena’s military background
- Video left for them by previous crew (including Kane)
- Being scared
- Whether to go back when one of them is killed
- Ventress’ determination to go to lighthouse inside the Shimmer
- Radio and light waves
- The Shimmer refracting DNA
- Lena not having told the rest of the crew at the beginning that Kane is her husband
Josie and Lena also talk about:
- How long Kane was in the Shimmer
- Whether Kane was still intact when got out
- Their DNA/blood changing
Men To Men:
In a video Kane talks to a second person who looks like Kane about:
- Whether he is Kane anymore or ever was
- His flesh moving, and his mind feeling cut loose
- Finding Lena
Women And Men:
Lomax, an official, grills Lena about what happened in the Shimmer in scenes that wraparound and cut in between the action in the Shimmer. The two talk about:
- What Lena ate while inside, how long she was in
- What happened to the other crew members
- Why she went in
- Mutations in Shimmer, how mutations work, whether she hallucinated
- Why Lena lied to the crew about her reasons for going on
- Ventress’ reasons for going on in Shimmer
- Why Lena’s the only one who came back
- Whether the Shimmer was alien or wanted anything
- A seeming alien that mirrored Lena
- Whether the Shimmer was destroying or changing the world
- What happened at the lighthouse in the Shimmer
Lena and Dan, a colleague, talk about:
- An invitation to a garden party held by Dan and his wife
- Lena painting her bedroom
- Kane's disappearance
- Their affair
- Kane’s work
- Lena hating herself and Dan for the affair
Lena and Kane talk about:
- His mission and his unit
- How he got back and how long he was gone
- The life of cells
- What she does when he’s gone
- Loving each other
- Who he is
Annihilation passes, as while many of the conversations women have with other women are about Lena’s husband they also talk about a lot of other topics.
Women v. Sexy Lamps
(can a female character be replaced by a sexy lamp and the plot still works)
Both Lena and Dr. Ventress are driving forces in the story.
Ventress because she’s determined to understand the Shimmer and see it to the end; Lena because she wants to help her husband. Neither is merely an object for a man to obsess over or seek to possess.
A couple of the women on the crew felt interchangeable with one another. Even on second watching, I had a hard time tracking which was which.
But none could be replaced with a sexy lamp.
For all the named female characters, Annihilation passes.
(does a female character have her own narrative arc that does not support a man’s story line?)
This test is tougher.
Lena displays professional and intellectual curiosity about the animals and plants in the Shimmer, yet it’s clear her main goal is to help her husband. A mix of love for and guilt about him motivate her. I also question whether Lena has a character arc, as she doesn’t seem to evolve or change.
All the same, it is her story, not a narrative arc merely supporting Kane’s story. She starts unsure what happened to her husband, decides to enter the Shimmer to find out, and perseveres despite tremendous obstacles.
In addition, Dr. Ventress has a story arc.
Ventress has studied the Shimmer and sent many crews in, only to lose almost everyone. She has a deep need to understand the Shimmer. She, too, chooses to enter and to persevere until she finds answers.
Annihilation passes the Mako Mori test.
Sexy Lamp: Pass
Mako Mori: Pass
Did I Like It
What I liked most and what I found less engaging flipped in my two viewings of Annihilation.
On first watch in the theater I felt a sense of wonder at everything in the Shimmer. I identified with Lena’s amazement at what she found. The suspense of what happened to the previous crews and how Kane got out kept me riveted.
The ending, though, I found dissatisfying. It seemed more like oddity for the sake of oddity. It also felt like it left off in the middle, providing no answers.
On rewatching so I could write this entry, I felt a bit bored by the very parts that had engaged me before. The suspense was gone, and unlike with last week’s movie, Ex Machina, I didn’t find more layers in the first three quarters of the movie or achieve insights I didn’t have before.
The end, though, I found more compelling.
For one thing, I felt I had a better sense of what the ending meant and how the film resolved–or at least engaged in depth with–certain questions. I also appreciated the unanswered questions more, as they seemed to fit a theme of the effects of growth, change, and evolution.
As to female characters specifically, despite that Annihilation passes all three tests, on both viewings I kept wondering whether the characters’ stories would be told differently if they were male, which drew me out of the story.
For instance, Lena states she survived the Shimmer because she had to for her husband because she “owed” him.
Why can’t she survive because she’s tough and goddamned determined to? The way the character’s drawn, I would have believed that with no problem, so making her say she had to get back because of her husband just distracted me.
Similarly, Ventress says her reason for going in is the number of teams she’s sent who have not returned. She wants to stop sitting on the sidelines and sending other people to die. Yet the film later undercuts that in a couple ways, including stressing that she has no friends or family and giving her a backstory that means she has nothing to lose. That makes her far less interesting.
The other crew members also each have a tragic backstory or psychological issue mentioned just once. I felt like the filmmakers threw in the explanations because, hey, women wouldn’t just go do something heroic because it’s the right thing to do, or because they want answers, they need to have some trauma because, well, X chromosomes.
Also, yay that on the one hand Annihilation is the flip of most movies in that it includes tons of conversations among only women and only one man-to-man section of dialogue.
But, sadly, almost half the woman-to-woman dialogue is about Lena’s husband. It’s hard to imagine a five-man crew in a similar movie would spend half the time talking about one of the crewman’s wives (despite that female characters seem to exist in most movies solely to be terrorized by one man and saved by another).
Despite my qualms, though, I found a lot more to like than not. The mix of intriguing concept, action, and psychological suspense plus Natalie Portman's performance made it worth watching.
Next Week’s Film
Sci Fi/thriller classic and my favorite movie of all time The Terminator.