“Annihilation” and Alex Garland’s Wrestlings With Asian Bodies

The writer-director’s thriller has been rightly criticized for its whitewashed casting — but such rhetoric has overlooked a crucial performance coup in its climactic sequence


In passing, I remarked to a friend that Alex Garland may be one of our only allies, having unwittingly become one of the few contemporary Hollywood-adjacent auteurs to routinely alter and probe the ontological enigma that is the Asian body. His debut, the 2014 Ex Machina, co-stars a wordless Sonoya Mizuno as Kyoko, a coy, Japanese-coded android programmed to serve the residents of the isolated laboratory run by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a brilliant scientist and Kyoko’s inventor. But Kyoko’s sentience comes with a heightened awareness of her bodily difference. In one scene, to the horror of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) — Nathan’s human lab rat — Kyoko strips and peels off the meshes of skin that disguise her robotic skeleton, each layer pulled back as if to ask, “Am I still real?”

Garland extends his post-human framework beyond the technological domain of artificial intelligence with Annihilation. (Spoilers for the movie follow.) Theatrically released in late February and now available for streaming on Netflix in a number of countries outside of the United States, the film — adapted from the first of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy of novels — trails a team of four scientists as they navigate the Shimmer, an expanding electromagnetic field that encircles a territory nourished by an extraterrestrial mutation. The pathology evident in the wildlife of the land is genetic, generated by a meteor-stricken lighthouse. The Shimmer disbands the boundaries distinguishing the cellular makeup of one species from another — plants, animals, humans — creating within its walls an alternate taxonomy. Considered to be a suicide mission, the journey indulges each team member’s longing for self-destruction as a means to escape addictions, traumas, and diseases of the past. For its visitors, the Shimmer and its lawlessness are an invitation to forgo the pains of being the masters of the universe.

Within its ensemble of skilled scientists (played by the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny), Annihilation hinges on the unraveling of Lena (Natalie Portman), a biology professor plagued by regret and shame wrought by the disappearance of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). He, too, entered the Shimmer, only to return about a year later in a near-catatonic state. As the group nears the lighthouse, the women become increasingly vulnerable to the entropy of the Shimmer, one by one merging with the ecosystem and its crashing waves of brutality. The casting of Portman as a character VanderMeer described in the books as a woman with “strong Asian heritage on one side of her family” was deemed an act of racism before the film’s release. On his end, Garland claims he “did not know” of the characters’ backgrounds — which are only revealed in a later entry in the trilogy, Authority — early enough to make the necessary changes. Though entirely deserving, the criticism is muddled by a conflation of adaptation with intertextual uniformity, and of the complexities of the casting industry with the mechanical ease of avatar customization. Moreover, such rhetoric overlooks one of the film’s Asian performers, and its most unsettling character: an extraterrestrial being played by Ex Machina’s Mizuno, named in the film’s credits as “the humanoid.”

In a climactic scene set in the basement of the lighthouse — a cave filled with walls of tar — Lena encounters a mass of energy. It extracts a single drop of her blood, and merges its energy with her DNA to produce the humanoid. The resultant creature mirrors Portman’s frantic pacing in a jerking, partnered ballet that soon becomes violent, its steps recalling the nimble movements of Maggie Cheung in her latex catsuit from Irma Vep (1996). As a CGI-rendering of an Asian actress, the humanoid is itself antithetical to the forms of visible representation that Asians are expected to desire. Accompanied by composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s aptly titled track “The Alien,” the faceless and wordless humanoid is of indeterminate nature; it rejects interpretation. The breathtaking duel culminates in the humanoid’s transformation into a clone of Lena. Of the two white women, only one makes it out of the lighthouse alive. This is revealed to be Mizuno’s character, who seamlessly takes Lena’s place in the outside world. The original Lena dies in the lighthouse.

If we may loosely interpret the humanoid as Asian, based on Mizuno’s embodiment, the terror of Annihilation becomes a retroactively self-referential allegory of whitewashing as a means of survival. Garland induces his audience’s sympathy for a suffering white woman who braves strange and even exotic terrains. Their hopes for her are, in the end, stifled by what critic E. Alex Jung refers to as a “psychedelic rubber monster” who steals her appearance. To leave the boundaries of the Shimmer, the Asian humanoid must adopt a white body via a shift from nonhuman to human, a binary coded as nonwhite and white. In doing so, Garland reverses the racial hierarchy of his first feature. This time, an Asian body takes over the body of a white woman to enable her individual liberation.

The concept of the nonhuman is an inseparable component of Asian American identity construction, deriving from a historical racialization of Asians as a subspecies. It is the reason behind the common refrain that cinema dehumanizes Asian bodies. But among artists and scholars alike, the Asian nonhuman has also posed the utopic possibility of an identity free from the white gaze through the construction of a new life. In a letter to Allen Ginsberg, the artist Nam June-Paik wrote, “Perhaps my minority complex as an Asian or a Korean drives me to compose the very complicated cybernetic arts.” The metals, wires, and television screens that were staples of the artist’s work speak to an intimate understanding of technology as equally malleable and contingent as himself.

Kyoko’s deconstructed body in Ex Machina — her machinery exposed — is reminiscent of Nam’s 1964 sculpture Robot K-456, an androgynous radio-controlled robot made of metal and wire, with moving breasts and limbs. Scholar Margaret Rhee writes that Nam’s robot “claims…the very figure of Asian racial denigration” by toying with the notion of Asians as “passive automatons.” Garland’s femmebot, likewise, remains trapped in a space of racist subordination. Unlike the principal android, Ava (Alicia Vikander), who is white, Kyoko is destroyed by Nathan before she can escape. After all, she is only prototype number six (to Ava’s seven). The icy stare she delivers as her dismantled frame falls to the ground is as puzzling and secretive as that of the late artist and writer Theresa Hak-Kyung Cha in her 1975 film Mouth to Mouth, in which Cha appears, disappears, and reappears before our eyes, sometimes with her back to us, sometimes facing the camera and looking ahead.

Even before I learned of Mizuno’s involvement, I was moved by the humanoid’s chilling manifestation, and its subsequent wrestle to become visible. But Mizuno’s reconfiguring of the text’s meaning has been largely diminished. In an appropriately casted Annihilation, interactions between an Asian American biologist and an Asian-coded nonhuman might have proven equally, if not more, fruitful. But with Portman in the main role, Annihilation acts as an intellectual riddle in suggesting that Mizuno’s humanization — becoming “more” human-like — is simply an attainment of whiteness, warranting a follow-up question: At what cost? However limited, Garland’s scientific inclinations have led Annihilation into the long-contested debate of what constitutes an Asian body, an Asian identity — a line of inquiry that echoes the silhouetted mannequin of the composer and developer Sean Han Tani’s 2017 game, All Our Asias, who asks, “You and your relatives might be from Asia. [But] does it mean anything…to say you do Asian things, or to say you support Asian causes?”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that Sonoya Mizuno is the “sole Asian performer” in Annihilation. She is not.