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Science Behind the Fiction: Annihilation

Contributed by
Feb 27, 2018

In an attempt to explore the scientific principles involved in the film, the following contains spoilers for Annihilation. Enter Area X at your own risk.

Alex Garland is no stranger to peculiar tales. He got his start as a novelist with The Beach (1996) and The Tesseract (1998) before transitioning to film. Garland penned the screenplays for such notable movies as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Sunshine, which were only genre films insomuch as that they redefined zombie and science fiction narratives, respectively.

Garland made his directorial debut with 2015’s Ex Machina, a film that labeled him a cinema darling and a household name among hard science fiction fans. Garland is following up that success with a new film, Annihilation, loosely based on the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy.

Annihilation, much like Ex Machina, exists in a world next door to our own, one almost indistinguishable, but for one glaring detail. In Ex Machina that one detail was the emergence of true A.I. Here, it’s the existence of the Shimmer, a massive iridescent bubble that, after the collision of an asteroid at the base of a lighthouse, has descended over parts of the Florida coast.

In Annihilation, our POV character and protagonist is Lena (Natalie Portman), a soldier-turned-biologist thrust into the world of the Southern Reach, a secret government organization studying the Shimmer, after the unexpected return of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). Until his miraculous return, she suspected Kane was killed on a top-secret mission.

Lena discovers that Kane had been part of an expedition beyond the Shimmer, into what has been labeled Area X. Several expeditions have been mounted, from which nothing has returned; not a signal, a photograph, or a crew member has been recovered from beyond the veil — nothing, that is, until Kane. But he hasn’t returned whole. Total organ failure threatens to take his life, and Lena decides to join the next expedition in hopes of finding some way to save him.

What sounds, on paper, like a fairly straightforward sci-fi flick is but the set dressing for a staggering cinematic accomplishment. Annihilation is what it must be like to drink ayahuasca and have a crazy-bad time — only it's been captured on film and is visually brilliant, terrifyingly thrilling, and emotionally cleansing.

Dr. Adam Rutherford was involved in the molding of Annihilation from the early stages. Having worked with Garland on his previous film, Ex Machina, they’d developed something of a working relationship. Since Rutherford’s expertise is as a geneticist, he was the natural reference point for Garland in shaping the biologist and our protagonist Lena.

In the early stages, Rutherford provided notes on the way scientists behave and speak to one another. As the project progressed, he was on set as well as in the editing booth, helping to develop particular visuals.

"Scientific verisimilitude is very important for Alex, so he wanted to make sure that all the things that happen  — while being fiction — were rooted in a solid scientific base,” Rutherford tells SYFY WIRE, referring to the process of developing and adapting VanderMeer’s novel for the big screen.

SYFY WIRE spoke with Rutherford, geneticist and scientific adviser for Annihilation, about the science behind the film's mind-bending images and well-earned scares.

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Credit: Paramount Pictures

MISTAKES IN THE CODE

In an early scene, during a moment of marital bliss before the events of the story take root, Portman’s character describes the process of biological aging as a mistake, a flaw in our code. Despite best efforts, there is still contention among the scientific community as to why aging occurs.

“It’s a bit of a mystery why aging occurs," Rutherford says. "It’s a genuine scientific conundrum that we don’t really understand why and how aging occurs. It used to be the case on death certificates throughout history it would say 'died of old age.' Well, we don’t really think that is the cause of death anymore. We don’t talk about death from old age. Because people die of specific things, but that doesn’t explain why through the passage of time, cells become less efficient and as a result of that our hair goes gray and our skin becomes less taut and we don’t recover so easily and get crippling hangovers. So, in that sense it remains a scientific mystery as to why aging actually happens on a biological level."

We’ve explored the idea of besting death in another column, and there does seem to be some hope. Aging, as we currently understand it, seems to be the result of epigenetic changes that impact the behavior of genes. There is research to suggest the potential to reverse those changes that has shown promise in mice and in human cells. In addition, the now-famous HeLa cells, obtained from Henrietta Lacks, are still going strong more than 60 years after they were obtained.

“You know, at the beginning of the film she’s working on a cell which is derived from a cancer cell, called HeLa cells, and they are weird because they do not age, they are immortal, and that’s why they’ve been studied so extensively over the last 50 years or so," Rutherford says.

While the cell line in question was taken from a sample of a particularly aggressive cervical tumor, it suggests the potential for effectively indefinite cell replication. Perhaps aging was a mistake, after all. Discovering a way to alter and manipulate our DNA might just hold the secret to longevity.

THROUGH A DARK PRISM

Change, in Annihilation, is the name of the game. The source of the previous expeditions’ troubles, as well as the unique biological structures they witnessed, is explained by physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) when she realizes their electronics aren’t being blocked by the Shimmer but are being scrambled. The otherworldly bubble that has settled over Area X behaves not as a shield but as a prism. It refracts everything within it, including the DNA of anything inside.

Simply by stepping inside, the crew members have allowed themselves to be changed. This process has been a death sentence for all who have entered Area X, save for Kane and, as we know from flash-forwards, Lena. The Shimmer is interacting with the entities inside it, crafting organisms both beautiful and horrible. While, in the context of the film, it’s a frightening obstacle, that is the nature of mutation.

We asked Rutherford if there was anything in nature that might act on DNA in a way similar to the Shimmer.

“Since the earliest days of genetics at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the ways we identified genes was by taking a model organism like a fruit fly or a mouse and just bathing them in radiation to see what comes out," Rutherford says. "Because radiation is going to cause all sorts of mutation, but they’re random. So the breakages that happen in DNA are entirely random. But one out of a thousand would cause a mutation of great significance or cause a physical mutation that would be really interesting to look at. That’s how we know about most of the genes of the fruit fly. And when you learn about genes in the fruit fly, that’s how we learn about genes in the human."

So, it turns out, the closest thing to the Shimmer in the real world is us. Those fruit flies couldn’t possibly have understood what was happening to them. They were, after all, at the mercy of a force outside of their comprehension, just as the Lena and the Area X expedition was at the mercy of an entity outside of theirs.

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Credit: Paramount Pictures

THE ENTITY

When, finally, Lena reaches the lighthouse — the source of Area X’s power and the answer she seeks — she encounters a being that defies explanation. What follows is a lingering scene that’s more atmosphere than answer, something that defines both the film and VanderMeer’s novels. One thing that’s abundantly clear, however, is that the entity isn’t malicious. There is no indication of malice in its actions. It simply is, without forethought to the results of its presence.

“That is, of course, how almost all life on earth actually is, as well," Rutherford says. "We only associate human concepts like maliciousness or maleficence with us. The famous phrase is that nature is both red in tooth and claw, but it is without thought, for most species, that their effects are felt. Conversely you have symbioses, where organisms benefit mutually from behaving in a particular way where both benefit. When you see the manifestation of this alien prism that we have no comprehension of, what it is actually doing is mimicking. And so it is fulfilling its need, which is the single universal, biological imperative, to continue to exist, and the Shimmer is an effect of that. It just happens to have occurred on a planet where its effects are ill, or where the impact is ill effect for the organisms that already live there. It’s a neutral entity, it’s not cruel, it’s just living.”

Which is, of course, the way most organisms we would characterize as negative behave. The virus doesn’t cackle as it corrupts your cells. The wasp larvae doesn’t rub its hands together as it burrows into the body of its victim. And, in their own way, if you can get beyond the horror, their behavior can be beautiful.

When Lena finds herself face to face with the entity, it’s frightening in its strangeness, but alluring at the same time. There’s something magical about the way it moves, something universal.

“It’s based on 3D representation of a Mandelbrot set, commonly known as one of those fractal pictures where no matter how much you zoom in on it, it maintains its structure," Rutherford says. "When we were teenagers we had those posters in colors up on our walls. The Mandelblob is an animated 3D manifestation of the Mandelbrot set. That’s what the alien is when you see it."

THE UNCANNY

Everything about the way the Shimmer and the entity interact with Area X is a perfect example of the uncanny. The uncanny has been defined by psychologists as something both familiar and foreign all at once. There’s considerable evidence that when something approaches familiarity but fails to achieve it, we find it more disturbing than something entirely foreign.

"I’ve worked on a couple of alien films. They always say the same thing: We want to see an alien that we’ve never seen before," Rutherford says. "That is a tough ask. Because you need to be able to recognize it as an entity. We’ve been doing aliens since, I think 1918 was the first alien we see in cinema, and I think Alex did it with that. It was a combination of his idea, which was the Mandelbrot, and that rendered by the effects guys. It is something that is utterly incomprehensible to us. It’s similar to Solaris or 2001 [a Space Odyssey], where they make no attempt to explain what the alien is, and I think that makes it a much richer idea for that.”

The impact can be seen in everything encountered inside Area X, from the flowers that couldn’t exist on the same vine to the crocodile and the bear.

Annihilation bear

Credit: Paramount Pictures

“The notion was that everything has to be very familiar and discombobulating. Because that’s what the Shimmer does," Rutherford says. "So the simple things you see in the trailer, like a deer but it has plants in place of antlers, or the albino crocodile which has a sort of very shark-based dentistry. These are all things which are all familiar but very alien to us. It’s not the very obvious monsters, it’s the things that are familiar to us but they’re wrong."

EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTERACTION

Interaction with ETs has been the subject of fictional and scientific speculation for nearly a century. H.G. Wells posited a world wherein beings from another sphere came calling and the destruction on both sides was staggering. It seems we have a primal fear of something stronger, something we can’t resist coming to call. Which begs the question, what is the likelihood that we’d be able to interact, for good or for ill, with an entity from another world?

“It depends on what you mean by interact. Biologically, in the sense that all life on earth that we know of has a shared genetic code, shared metabolism, all products of natural selection," Rutherford says. "In that regard, we can interact with any biological entity that we’re aware of. But there’s no reason to presuppose that any other living organism in the rest of the universe would run off the same software. In fact, I think it’s extraordinarily unlikely that it would, because Francis Crick, who was one of the main scientists who thought about this in the 1970s, referred to the way that life is on Earth as a sort of frozen accident. I think that’s probably correct. The first system that evolved that could continue is the one that we have. So there’s no possible reason to think that an alien life form would have DNA or the types of systems that we’re used to.

"On the other hand, when you think about alien life, when you think about the basics of what life has to be, if life is a sort of continued chemical reaction in which you’re extracting energy from the environment to continue to exist, then there are certain prerequisites you need for that to happen," says Rutherford. "There are things like an inside and an outside, which means that compartmentalization is incredibly important for life, so I guess it seems reasonable to presuppose that an alien life form would have an inside and an outside. Once you’ve got an inside and an outside, you’ve got, sort of, various standard components of what life might be. Information is inherent to life, transfer of information from generation to generation seems like a smart way for something to continue to exist. I can’t imagine a life form that wouldn’t have evolved under a similar sort of model to natural selection that we have here, Darwinian natural selection. But, you know, that’s my limited imagination, probably. So, interact with, yeah. Understand, all right, you know, no idea."

Which is, once the credits roll, on par with what Annihilation is all about.