‘Annihilation’ Is Proof That Women-Led Sci-Fi Is Better
Because the "man saves world, man gets girl" plot line is getting real old.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have heard about new Netflix offering Annihilation. After being shunted from the big screen by Paramount for being “too intellectual”, it’s quickly picked up steam with Australian audiences. And with its star-studded cast of actresses including Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Gina Rodriguez, it’s a prime example of why science fiction that puts women front and centre is the best kind of sci-fi.
The titular line of Annihilation is uttered roughly 90 minutes into the film by Dr. Ventress (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who leads an expedition of four other women into a mysterious, possibly extra-terrestrial zone called The Shimmer.
What follows, without spoiling any details, is one of the most surreally orchestrated endings in sci-fi history, featuring a Natalie Portman clone, a trippy electronic score, and a fire that glows white across most of the screen. It’s at once disturbing and compelling, and it’s a worthy payoff for the incredibly slow build-up that precedes it.
The slow pacing and intellectualism of Annihilation is reminiscent of another sci-fi movie in recent memory: Arrival, which stars Amy Adams as a linguistics professor tasked with decoding an alien language.
Both films focus on women (and women scientists, not just sidekicks!), and neither shies away from the heady, existential themes at their core. They force us to contemplate issues of xenophobia, language, extra-terrestrial life and our own humanity, and they’ve probably been the cause of more than one existential crisis. Importantly, they leave us with more questions than answers — questions that circle our minds for a very long time.
And isn’t this what good sci-fi should aim for? To speculate, rather than solve; to provide deeply resonating themes in worlds adjacent to our own?
The Problem With Most Sci-Fi
For too long, this central purpose of sci-fi has been diminished in favour of gratuitous action sequences, clichéd stereotypes, and cheap grabs at box office success.
Growing up, I was never able to relate to films like Star Wars, The Matrix and Independence Day, works that showed different versions of the same dude embarking on the same hero’s journey. They revolved around what was essentially the same plot structure: man joins uprising, man battles higher power, man saves world/self, man gets girl — with a few inspirational monologues and fight scenes interspersed for good measure.
The problem with sci-fi movies like these wasn’t just that they were totally unrealistic (although they were), or that they were repetitive (although they were). It was that, by espousing a singular notion of traditional masculinity over and over again through ‘strong’ male protagonists, they were entrenching themselves in limited tropes that only allowed them to do so much with the genre.
It seemed impossible to watch a mainstream sci-fi film that didn’t follow the same narrative arc — one designed for maximum palatability at the sacrifice of meaningful philosophical musings.
That’s where Annihilation comes in — a film that’s almost tongue-in-cheek in all its subtle digressions from the hyper-masculine Hollywood norm.
For one, its entire premise hinges on the fact that three troupes of male soldiers have already tried and failed to uncover the nature of The Shimmer. The women who replace them aren’t military-trained, but rather experts in their fields equipped with a sense of genuine scientific curiosity.
It’s refreshing to see their curiosity manifest itself in their measured, practical reactions to the threats of The Shimmer. The threats themselves are nightmarish, presented by director Alex Garland in all their grisly body horror, but they’re never exploited for shock value and always tempered with intelligent responses. After an attack by a crocodile-shark hybrid, Lena (Natalie Portman) immediately collects a sample of its blood for future study; after one of her fellow explorers is mauled and carried away by a deformed bear, she ventures deep into the woods the following day to check for signs of life.
It’s moments like these that prove Annihilation doesn’t pander to weary tropes: on the contrary, it possesses a deep respect for its world, and for its characters.
The New Wave
But that’s where films like Annihilation, Arrival, and others like Gravity and Ex Machina come in. Together, they form a new wave of science fiction that moves away from Hollywood’s reliance on washed-up storylines to provide stimulating, inventive viewing experiences.
By placing nuanced, intelligent female characters in lead roles, they manage to eschew the gendered conventions that have plagued science fiction since time immemorial, and rebel against the idea that science is solely a man’s domain.
But giving women the recognition they deserve in the sci-fi genre isn’t just good for representation — the films themselves are better off for it too. They’re free from the shlocky violence and clumsy romance subplots demanded by their testosterone-fuelled counterparts, and they have the space to properly develop complex worlds and ideas.
And even though studios might balk against the unprofitability of these works, Annihilation’s rave reviews at least indicate that audiences are receptive, and deserve more credit than production companies give them credit for. Let’s hope that means more movies like it in the future.
Michael Sun is a Sydney-based writer who misses being able to call himself an “angsty adolescent”. He tweets badly at @MlCHAELSUN.