Annihilation should really be called Assimilation. First of all, the mysterious, alien Area X, located somewhere in the United States, isn’t bent on killing all Earth life as it expands. Instead, it absorbs and changes alligators, plants, humans, making everything into its own image. Area X isn’t a Death Star—it’s a vast, weird, DNA-warping melting pot.
Beyond that, though, the film should be known as Assimilation because it engages in whitewashing. Black Panther has demonstrated, with a deafening roar, that films centered on actors of color can win a massive international audience; it made $108 million domestically at the box office in its second weekend, while Annihilation’s opening weekend managed only $11 million. But while Black Panther may change the calculus going forward, whiteness is still a tough default to shake, and Annihilation did not shake it.
The main character, Lena (or “the biologist”), is Asian in Jeff Vandermeer’s acclaimed novel. In the film, she’s played by Natalie Portman. Dr. Ventress (“the psychologist”) is part-Native American in the book; in the film, she’s portrayed by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Thanks to those casting choices, Area X, inadvertently, can be read as a metaphor for whiteness—an insinuating, mysterious power, which crawls into people and landscapes, murdering some and transforming others for its own terrifying purposes.
The film’s plot begins with Lena mourning her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who has been missing on a mysterious military mission for a year. Suddenly, Kane returns, though he seems not to know where he’s been or why. He quickly succumbs to massive organ failure, and is taken to a government hospital. Lena learns he was on a mission into Area X, an area of the Southern United States that has been transformed by a possibly alien process, the Shimmer. The Shimmer is expanding; Lena agrees to join one more expedition, led by Dr. Ventriss, to try to stop it at its source and save humanity.
[Director Alex] Garland didn’t intend to alter the characters, but he did decide that his two leads should be white.
Director Alex Garland, Portman and Leigh have all said they did not intend for the movie to engage in whitewashing and that they were unaware of it, and there’s good reason to believe them. The ethnicities of the characters are never mentioned in the book version of Annihilation. They’re only specified in the second volume, Authority, which hadn’t even been published when Garland first began working on the screenplay. (That said, Authority was released in May 2014, and casting continued on the Annihilation film well into 2016.)
Garland and the actors involved presumably didn’t whitewash intentionally. But it’s not clear that Area X changes people intentionally, either. Assimilation is not always a conscious process. Garland didn’t intend to alter the characters, but he did decide that his two leads should be white. Only the secondary performers, with the metaphorical red shirts, are people of color. Garland may not have thought about that, but it’s not exactly an accident, either.
Moreover, the film doesn’t just change the ethnicity of Lena. It changes her character in other ways to make her more “normal"—and more Hollywood. In the book, the biologist is intensely self-contained and distant. The most profound relationship of her life is with the ecosystem in a puddle that she found in an empty lot next to her home when she was a child. Her career is a mess because she can’t stick to research guidelines, and always ends up pursuing her own interests. Her emotional barriers caused problems in her marriage; her relationship with her husband was already disintegrating when he decided to volunteer for an expedition into Area X. After Area X swallows him, she decides to volunteer for the next expedition for complicated reasons which don’t translate easily to "guilt.”
In the film, in contrast, the biologist is given a name (Lena), a successful job as a professor and a flirty, witty relationship with her husband. She’s given more conventional infidelities, too, and a more standard motivation for going into Area X. Her husband is still alive in the film at the start of her own mission; she goes into Area X out of remorse and in order to try to save him. The individuality of the biologist—her ethnicity, her detachment, her broken marriage—are all turned into the standard story and standard motivations of a standard Hollywood hero. In the book, it is Lena’s strangeness and self-containment that make the psychologist pick her for Area X; she seems like someone who could understand aliens, if anyone could. In the film, she’s picked for more normal heroic reasons. Lena is even given a military background, so she can shoot monsters, the way Hollywood protagonists do.
If Annihilation turns its people “normal,” so too does Area X. When Kane appears mysteriously in their home after a year out of touch, he’s a kind of blank, distant and affectless. That hyper-normality, though, is itself strange and estranging. Area X has scooped out what makes him Kane, and left an uncanny valley blandness.
What the expedition finds in Area X is similarly disturbing because of its alien familiarity. The region looks like a lush, unspoiled nature retreat, but everything is just a bit off. The crocodiles have shark teeth; individual plants grow flowers that should belong to different species. It’s like a Hollywood stage set, where everything looks just right enough to fool the cameras, but falls apart if you inspect it closely. At one point, Lena even encounters a CGI double—the character turned into a Hollywood effect, just as the book’s biologist is turned into the Hollywoodized Lena.
Given the themes of assimilation in Annihilation, it’s significant that both Portman and Leigh are Jewish. Light-skinned Jewish people in Hollywood now can play protagonists because they’re seen as white, which historically has not always been the case. Scarlett Johansson can play a Russian spy in Avengers, or pass as an alien passing as an Irish woman in Under the Skin, or be a perfect body whitewashing an Asian character in Ghost in the Shell (which, like Annihilation, was met with a quiet box-office reception).
The point isn’t that Jewish people should always play Jewish characters; the point is that people who are assimilated can be everyone, from stars to extras, while other people who haven’t been granted whiteness are pushed to the sidelines. Portman and Leigh look like what Hollywood stars usually look like—even though, in some times and some places, they would not have been considered as default. But the Area X of America has assimilated them into the strange normality of whiteness. They are themselves, but also a revised version of themselves, which erases their distinct identities. Up on the screen, they are mirrored images, people transformed by Area X into white heroes.
At the end of the film, Lena says that she doesn’t believe that Area X has a purpose. There’s no way to know why it changes things, or to what end, or if it even knows or cares what it’s doing. The processes of Hollywoodization aren’t quite so mysterious. Garland didn’t set out to make a film about whiteness. He didn’t intend Area X to be a meditation on who can assimilate and who cannot. But nonetheless, in Area X, Asian people and Native Americans disappear, black people die and a white hero is left at the end to explain that it was all a meaningless accident, for which no one is responsible.