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The weird science behind must-see alien thriller Annihilation

Alex Garland’s genre-splicing sci-fi is a riot of the uncanny, but Jeff VanderMeer – author of the book it’s based on – says its roots lie in plain sight

Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a genetic anomaly of a movie. You could call it science fiction, though the technology it depicts is strictly present-day. An ecological disaster flick, though there isn’t a supertornado in in sight. A horror film, perhaps – but that would be altogether too reductive a take. A little bit basic. A little bit human.

Maybe that’s why Paramount offloaded the film on to Netflix for its UK release, after test screenings had viewers weeping into their popcorn in confusion. It’s a shame, because Annihilation does for creaking monster-movie cliches what James Cameron did with tragically overconfident marines in Aliens – game over, man, game over! Adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel of the same name, the film follows the exploits of a biologist, Lena (Natalie Portman), and a team of women sent to explore Area X, a quarantined zone enclosed by a mysterious soap-bubble sheen called ‘The Shimmer’. There, we are given to understand, the local wildlife’s DNA has been set to shuffle by forces unknown.

Rather than busy himself with the routine business of bumping off this cast of interlopers, however, Garland tweaks a well-trodden premise to give us something else. The result is a tough, cerebral watch, studded with some of the most bizarre and beautiful imagery to hit the screen since Under the Skin (or one of Jesse Kanda’s biomorphic future fantasies with Arca, perhaps). Portman and her team might uncover a surreal tableau of trees shaped like human beings one minute, a grisly outcrop of psychedelic man-mould the next – and much, much worse besides. It’s shocking and sublime, full of neat little reminders that, whatever unseen terror lurks at the heart of Area X, there’s nothing so weird as nature.

No-one knows this better than VanderMeer, a science-fiction author unusually attuned to the ‘science’ part of that equation, who argues that a closer look at nature reveals how “we live on an alien planet without realising it”. Annihilation was inspired by the walks VanderMeer used to take through the St Marks wildlife refuge in Florida – with that in mind, we asked him about the weird science behind his book, the first in his Southern Reach Trilogy, and Garland’s adaptation.

(WARNING: moderate spoilers ahead).

Unlike many science fiction works, it strikes me that your novel takes more of an avid interest in the ‘science’ part of that equation – do you think Alex’s film was successful in that respect?

Jeff VanderMeer: It’s a different take on the science, in part glomming on to the idea of past expeditions, in the novel, coming back with cancer, as if in reaction to whatever is in Area X. I’ve seen biologists vary on how accurate they think the science is – in both the movie and, in a different way, in the book. What I would say is that as a novelist you want to start from foundational assumptions with as little bullshit attached to them as possible, but at the end of the day you’re still writing fiction, and speculative fiction at that. So you will push beyond what’s possible.

In the book and the film, it’s never quite clear what kind of threat we’re dealing with. Are the forces at work in Area X parasitical, using humans as a host, or is the truth not so straightforward? Is it more like symbiosis?

Jeff VanderMeer: I think it’s both. We think of parasitic relationships as inherently negative because we identify with the host, even though we could at this point see human beings’ relationship to the Earth as parasitic. So I thought it would be interesting to explore what parasitic and symbiotic meant throughout the entire cycle of novels.

The reason we identify with the host in most situations is that we desperately want to think of ourselves as countries with specific borders and that everything else is outside of our bodies. But we know this isn’t true ­– our bodies are built for contamination and we don’t have actual borders; we’re continually invaded and infiltrated in both benign and negative ways. So we are both the host and the invader, and the idea of a simple binary like that becomes more ludicrous the more you think about it. Which creates a dilemma if you want to write fiction about all of this, because readers are used to a protagonist and antagonist, outside being outside, and inside being inside, goddammit!

“We think of parasitic relationships as inherently negative because we identify with the host, even though we could at this point see human beings’ relationship to the Earth as parasitic” – Jeff VanderMeer

There also seems to be a kind of biological mimicry going on in the book, which the film develops through its use of doppelgangers. What did you make of Alex’s treatment of this subject?

Jeff VanderMeer: (The focus on mimicry is) a good example of how the movie chooses to shine a light on one theme or motif from the novel more than another; you see it even in the mischievous use of the white deer, which replicate right in front of the viewer without the viewer necessarily realising that’s what happened. And Garland continues this doubling from the very first scene of cell division on. What gets left behind a little are the more forthright environmental themes, but the doppelgangers kind of circle back to the whole contamination issue. In that regard, I feel as if the ending is a bit misunderstood. I don’t think it’s the normal horror scare kind of thing. I find the vulnerability of one of the doppelgangers the key to what’s going on, and also I don’t think critics caught the real meaning of one of the characters’ physical recovery when the Shimmer goes away. What it means is that the Shimmer, as Garland called it, has taken over the world. It’s nowhere because it’s everywhere. Contamination.

I’m curious to know more about the significance of the title. For instance, in physics, ‘annihilation’ describes a collision between matter and antimatter – it’s the sort of thing they get up to at the Large Hadron Collider. Was that a deliberate allusion?

Jeff VanderMeer: It’s more that (giving up) the self to ‘the world’ – to the complexity of, say, the wilderness as you’re walking through – is a kind of annihilation, but in a hopeful and useful way. It’s an annihilation that is about becoming more part of the world around you, almost an act of empathy, but allowing the self to dissipate to let in the world. (With certain aspects of the novel), I was channelling the very spiritual sense I have when I’m out in the wilderness and begin to have a heightened sensitivity to everything around me. And this speaks to the idea of nature versus culture because, for me at least, I feel a deep-seated sense of belonging in those situations that I just cannot in a city. It’s not about rejecting the human, but it’s about understanding that in rejecting nature, we have rejected part of what it means to be human.

As for physics, as I did more and more research, I realised physics and philosophy are very much related, in that experimental or theoretical physics is such a construct, in terms of how a layperson perceives it or a general reader, that anything I could extrapolate in the novels still couldn’t be as strange as physics.

“Our treatment of animals tells us what we think of ‘nature’, and most of the time it tells us we hate nature or have contempt for it. No matter what words are coming out of our mouths” – Jeff VanderMeer

Coming back to this idea of ‘nature versus culture’, do you feel like our attitudes to nature need to evolve pretty quickly if we are to survive as a species?

Jeff VanderMeer: Nature and culture exist at a distance from each other in people’s minds that isn’t correct. We are not separate from nature, even as we have developed our own rituals and approaches and habits, which we collect as ‘culture’. One day soon, if we don’t correct course, we’ll understand that ‘environment’ and ‘biosphere’ isn’t something separate from us but all around us. Key to change is a more enlightened view of the animal world, as animals inhabit what we think of as wilderness and are sort of like nature’s ambassadors. Our treatment of animals tells us what we think of ‘nature’, and most of the time it tells us we hate nature or have contempt for it. No matter what words are coming out of our mouths.