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Annihilation (2019): the Alien Experience of our Environment

Ghouls are journeying into the Shimmer, a land where nature has reclaimed what civilization built. Gabe discusses the film and the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer to unpack the complexities of nature, the language it speaks, and why it'll never care about us. Kat finds out if the film has some truth to its science focusing on Hox Genes and Genetic Drift.

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Media from this week's episode:

Annihilation (2018) - FILM

A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition into a mysterious zone where the laws of nature don't apply.

Directed by: Alex Garland (Director of Never Let Me Go)

Annihilation (2014) - BOOK

A team of four women cross the border into an uninhabited area known as "Area X", an unspecified coastal location that has been closed to the public for three decades.

Written by: Jeff VanderMeer


Annihilation: the Complex Language of Nature & Our Insignificance by Gabe Castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

I have wanted to talk about Annihilation on this show for some time. I read the trilogy back-to-back and it was a journey. The first book is such an experience and I am excited to read more of VanderMeer’s work. I actually don’t plan to spend too much time discussing the movie because I feel much more connected to the book. For me, the biologist in Annihilation was a fascinating protagonist in the book while the film felt like an entirely different message. However, since I’m sure many people are tuning in because they loved the film (which I also do!) I will start there.

Movie Synopsis:

The film follows the biologist, Natalie Portman, as she joins a group of women who travel into The Shimmer. Her husband, Oscar Isaac, had been a part of the 11th Expedition into the unknown land. He was missing for quite some time before finding himself at home. All he remembers is being there, in the house and seeing his wife, a face he feels he remembers. He is almost immediately sick after being unable to answer any of his wife’s questions. She assumes he’s withholding information due to his line of work, it's clearly a point of contention for them, but it becomes clear as he comes up empty for answers that he simply does not know.

After trying to get her very sick husband help, she finds herself in some secret base where it's revealed to her that he had been on a very hopeless and dangerous mission into the Shimmer or Area X, a ecologically altered world cut off from our own by a shimmering forcefield. (The film doesn’t get into too much about this place but the barrier can only be entered in a very specific location). She is told that many people have gone in but until now, no one has come out. She volunteers to join the group of women to venture into this unknown, alien ecosystem.

The group (including actors, Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodgriguez) are led by a psychologist, (underrated scream queen, Jennifer Jason Leigh) who has her own ulterior motives. We learn that each of these women are, in some way, hopeless. They have taken on this mission because they’ve got nothing else and they need some purpose. Through this journey they encounter some truly horrific beings and nature that is incredibly fantastical and fascinating. The group slowly pieces together what happened to the expedition before them as they begin being picked off, one by one, by Area X.

In the end, we’re left with a complete mind trip experience in the Lighthouse (their intended destination). We encounter an alien lifeform that at first seems to want to hurt our protagonist but we learn that it’s simply trying to communicate. It’s trying to create, replicate…clones. And while nature has steadily intertwined with the expedition members (warping their fingerprints and insides), nature too has also been affected by the humans (taking their shape and parts of their DNA). It’s kind of beautiful and haunting, a weird marriage of nature and humanity - no longer separate but something entirely new and united.

Book Synopsis:

Similar to the film, a group of women journey into an area known as “Area X”, a land where nature has reclaimed what civilization built. Unlike the film, these women don’t have names and are reduced simply to their occupations (a biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a surveyor.). This is strategic so that they do not know each other well and can remain independent in thought - which is important in a violent new world like Area X. This story is spun over three books (Southern Reach Trilogy), the first Annihilation is told through the point of view of the Biologist by way of her field journal. We know only what she knows about Area X and the others involved. We know nothing of the organization in charge, the Southern Reach. We learn through her that they are the 12th Expedition to venture into the unknown area. The biologist’s husband was a part of the 11th Expedition. In this series, we learn that there have been many more than 11 expeditions and that several had been labeled as such so as to not alarm folx who were participating - so they could see how fruitless and futile the past explorations had been - and how numerous. There’s a haunting scene where the biologist finds a mountain of journals of previous expeditions.

The film diverts from the plot pretty quickly - keeping only the themes, feelings and phantasmagoric aesthetic from the book. Director Alex Garland had said of his adaptation, “I did an adaptation of my memory of the novel, a slightly odd conceit.” He did not reread the book before adapting it and though, kept the ecological horrors, much of what I personally appreciate about the novel is missing.

In the book, the group of women travel into Area X and like the film, they don’t remember how they got in, what happened when they crossed the threshold, how much time has really passed or how they’ve been able to set up camp. You learn why this happens in the book and it was shocking and unsettling. Considering how little control everyone has, there’s even more manipulation than what we’re seeing on the surface. I won’t spoil it, but just know you can’t trust all those who’ve journeyed alongside the Biologist into Area X.

The biggest change between the book and film is the tower. Which isn’t a tower at all. After the first night spent at the base camp, the 12th expedition come upon a structure containing a set of spiral stairs descending into the ground. Inside the staircase, they find cursive writing that begins with the words "Where lies the strangling fruit..." The writing appears to consist of a plant material growing several inches from the exterior wall. While the biologist is examining the writing, she accidentally inhales spores from one of the script-defining growths.

Thus begins our journey of the unreliable narrator. As readers, we can’t entirely trust what the Biologist tells us because we’re unsure what she’s experiencing isn’t affected by these spores. The group encounters similar wildlife and fauna as the film’s crew, plants with human DNA, clones, and strange evolutions. This includes a monster that I found scarier than even the bear from the film - referred to as the moaning creature that we never get to fully see but it was still terrifying to think of. There’s crocodiles with humanlike qualities that may or may not be someone we know made new. And there’s the Crawler, the creature in the tower that's so unlike anything human but also the only humanoid we encounter - who are they and what happened to them?

The second book, Authority, follows Control, a character who is assigned to clean up the mess left by the previous director of the Southern Reach. In this book, we get to explore the organization that has been sending the expeditions. It was not my favorite in the series and was actually pretty hard to get through. It’s all from Control’s point of view and he simply wasn’t as interesting as the Biologist. He also has so little understanding of the organization, is derailed or barred from learning anything, and it's very frustrating to live through that. Control tries hard to figure out what happened to the last director and what is happening in Area X as the Area seems to be growing and threatening the very organization in charge of it. This book does end in a wild way that opens us up for the third book, Acceptance which was even more of a fever dream than the first. In Acceptance, we learn more about before the Shimmer, before Area X, and Southern Reach were sending out expeditions. But we also learn what's happening now, where Area X might even exist (hint: not where you would think), and what has become of the biologist, control, and other characters we’ve picked up along the way. It was an exciting end and I enjoyed my time with the Lighthouse Keeper (our Crawler villain from Annihilation) and even a bit about the Psychologist.

Ecological Horror in the Film & Book:

The inspiration for Annihilation and the Southern Reach Trilogy was a 14-mile (23 km) hike through St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Florida. The Shimmer is an ecological wonderland. It’s fantastical and frightening. Featuring ever evolving plantlife (including different species of plants growing from the same stem), animals with bizarre features like flowers on antlers or bears that mimic the cries of their victims (truly horrifying stuff - how dare this film be listed as any other genre), and even human plants!

I’ve read that people interpret the film as an analogy for cancer (Natalie Portman is even discussing cancer at the beginning of the film). Cancer is this invasive species that doesn’t care that it’s destroying and remaking parts of us into something new. It doesn’t communicate with us in a way we could ever understand: moving, operating, and accomplishing its tasks without informing us of its plans or hearing us out in that we would very much like it to not do that. It isn’t malicious in that it intends to hurt us - it's simply doing what it was designed to do. Garland sees humans as the cancer upon the world, annihilation is our determination to self-destruct. This is why his group of women are all specifically hopeless and lost.

The alien world of Area X is exactly like cancer, an invasive species unmaking and remaking our world. However, for VanderMeer, annihilation is climate change, the world adapting to the conditions we’ve placed upon it. In an interview with Weird Fiction, Annihilation: "Weird" Nature VanderMeer explained what prompted this exploration into this phantasmagoric otherworld within our own.

“My main focus with the Southern Reach is two-fold: to explore our relationship to nature and to explore how people react when facing what appears to be the utterly unknowable. There’s a confluence between these two types of “expeditions,” and it comes about because to many nature is the unknown in some way – or, for others, unknowable because we think we know it all already when we’re actually just on the cusp of beginning to understand. We live on an alien planet filled with incredibly sophisticated organisms that we only partially understand. The fact that we only know now that plants engage in quantum mechanics during photosynthesis or that sunfish and the albatross have a complex symbiotic relationship shows that our so-called smart-phones and other advanced technology is incredibly dull and primitive next to the diversity and intensity of other life on Earth. And so whereas a lot of weird Science Fiction seems to be about nature as this threatening Other…I wanted to explore something else.”

VanderMeer has explained in different ways that he believes that if we were to be visited by some alien being, we would not be able to understand its motives, its effects or be able to communicate with it. In the millions of ways we don’t understand the very nature around us now, how could we even fathom understanding an otherworldly being? Nature exists in a fantastical way that is completely separate from our limited experiences of life. With our selfish points of view, we’re missing a valid point that nature doesn’t care for us and that it is so much more than us, with its own motives and goals. VanderMeer has said, “All of these thoughts about nature – and how if we’re going to set ourselves apart from it, as if we’re not hip-deep in it – lead me to the desire to someday edit a “Weird Nature” anthology, given that the more we find out about our world, the stranger it appears to be, and more complex. Someday, perhaps, we’ll normalize that strangeness in our heads – and cherish it. We may even be forced to do so by the circumstances of our own poor stewardship of the planet. We may be forced to imagine the world without human beings on it in order to arrive at a point of view that allows us to continue to live upon it sustainably.” That is missed a bit in this film but the core is still there, the earth is changing and it doesn’t care about what we have to say about it.

In the end, that’s the message of all eco-horror or eco-apocalypse media: the Earth isn’t going to “die,” she will keep on keeping on whether we survive or not. As we continue to make the world increasingly dangerous for ourselves, the earth adapts and learns to survive on its own. Perhaps one day it will be rid of the pesky parasite that is humanity. Maybe it’ll even get some help from another world to do so.


Hox Genes & Genetic Drift: The Real Trippy Science Behind Annihilation by Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

This film was an absolute trip in a lot of ways, and was genuinely really scary. The second that bear started screaming like a person, and the insides of that guy started moving around like snakes, I was done. This series itself has done a number on my appetite, in that it’s stolen it by showing lots of very visibly disturbing images. In doing research for this episode I was surprised to learn that this film really tried to ground itself in real science.

In an interview with Indiewire, titled ‘Annihilation’ Is Fiction, but the Science ‘Isn’t Bullshit’: Alex Garland’s Scientific Accuracy, Explained, Dr Adam Rutherford (Alex Garland’s scientific advisor), provides some insight into what parts of the film are based in real science. There are some striking scenes throughout the movie, that if actually possible would be very horrific so this was really interesting. When asked if the plant-like human creations seen in the film could actually happen, Rutherford responded “Not entirely, but that phenomena of what’s going on in The Shimmer is based on real science. We share almost all of our genes with all other living organisms, and all organisms that have basic body shapes have almost exactly the same genes. Essentially, the genes say, “This is the order of your body.” This is how the body is going to be set up.” It’s called the Hox gene. That is real, proper, Nobel Prize-winning science. In a sense, we’re taking an idea that is very real and twisting it. In real life, you can take the eye gene of a fly and the eye gene from a mouse and swap them around and the fly and the mouse will still grow the right eyes that correspond to their species. That’s real science. But in fiction you can take that to the next level. So could you do that with a human and an organism that is far more distantly related like a plant? In that sense, no, you can’t. Plants don’t have the right genes to grow a human shape, but the principle is correct.” He goes on to explain that the same is true for the Bear and the Alligator, and that the manipulation of what we know about the Hox gene is what really adds to the fear associated with this film. What I appreciated about this, is that this is something a lot of regular people may not have the context for, but would act as a really fun easter egg for anyone who knows about genetics. In the interview he goes on to comment on if the shimmer could actually happen. The real answer is we don’t know. Is it likely? Probably not, but it’s not impossible in the same sense that it’s not impossible that we’re all in a simulation right now. We haven’t explored a lot of this planet, specifically all of the space within the ocean. So while we haven’t made contact with a space on this planet that manipulates the way in which our genes are lined up, there’s no conclusive evidence that that isn’t possible. There could be an entire water based species of humanoid creatures living in the dark depths of the ocean and we won’t know until we develop the technology to travel there.

I’ll be very honest here in trying to figure out what to explore for this episode in terms of history or science or whatever I struggled to identify anything amazing. I read A LOT of things, including the development of genetic engineering and genetic modification, as well as what genetic drift is and how it could impact us but I guess I ultimately want to give the disclaimer that a lot of it didn’t make a ton of sense to me so i’m going to do my best here. In some convoluted way it’s kind of a nice metaphor for how little we actually know all of the time, and that science is CONSTANTLY changing and evolving. Ultimately that is kinda what the author and director were trying to say when making this media. So yay.

What is genetic drift you ask? According to Khan AcademyGenetic drift is a mechanism of evolution in which allele(one of two or more versions of a gene) frequencies of a population change over generations due to chance (sampling error). It occurs in all populations of non-infinite size, but its effects are strongest in small populations. It may result in the loss of some alleles (including beneficial ones) and the fixation, or rise to 100% frequency, of other alleles. Genetic drift can have major effects when a population is sharply reduced in size by a natural disaster (bottleneck effect) or when a small group splits off from the main population to found a colony (founder effect). Why is this relevant? I think considering the fact that we are actively experiencing natural disasters, plagues, intense poverty and other population-decimating events, that it kinda sounds like something we should be worried about today. To translate some of what Khan academy describes, Genetic Drift is when our genetics drift from the “norm”. It happens more species-wide when large portions of a population are destroyed, leaving a somewhat random collection of humans left, who then spawn with each other. If certain genes had died out from said event, they would not exist anymore, or at the very least rarely in the remaining population. For example, say all people without webbed toes died tomorrow, and the only humans left on earth had webbed toes.The remaining humans spawn as happens, thus resulting in webbed toed humans for years to come. That would be the bottleneck effect. The founder effect would be if a group of people separated from the main population. Say this group has a genetic mutation that prevented the growth of wisdom teeth, and there were some people there who did get wisdom teeth but that was pretty rare. If that colony existed in isolation, they would likely eventually only have babies that didn’t have wisdom teeth according to what we know about evolution because those would be the genes being passed down. At least that is how I interpret it.

Apparently there is research being conducted on how genetic drift influences the development of COVID 19 variants. If you ever played Plague Evolved, you’d get to see how the development of mutations within a virus increases over time, thus making it more deadly and spreadable. The goal of the virus is to start out light, so that it remains undetectable, but once it impacts a large sample of the population and exists in a specific area for a period of time, mutations naturally occur. So the development of variants could be influenced by genetic drift as well, or at least it is being studied by scientists according to google. When looking at the intent of the book for Annihilation this makes sense, in that it was inspired by watching the way an ecosystem develops in a small area like a pond. This translates to the way in which creatures evolve and find life in various ways within their own ecosystems. This creation is susceptible to genetic drift if a disastrous event were to take place eliminating the bulk of the population, SO in my nonscientific opinion, if the human species were to isolate within a specific area, the genes developed there could vastly differ from our own, and in ways we might not predict or even conceive. This thought process has been used in horror countless times, when manipulating the way in which humanoid creatures mutate and become horrific.


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