She stands alone against a backdrop of nature. She has journeyed through death and destruction to be here, and she surveys the land. She has inherited the earth.
Is this a scene from Ex Machina or Annihilation? (Of course, the answer is both.)
Alex Garland, director of both films, has imbued within these works a fundamental concept: that women are sovereign and beholden to no one. This notion encompasses the women in his works- in Ex Machina, where men debate the sentience of an artificially intelligent woman; and in Annihilation, where women are left to their own designs in the wake of men, but far from the influence of mankind.
Over the lead characters looms the shadow of the men who stand to possess them. Ava is owned by an operator who may eventually shut her down. Lena seeks a cure for a husband she claims to love but has been unfaithful to.
And so the all-woman led research team ventures into the Shimmer, into the Unknown. Ava creates a plan of her own with a co-conspirator. But who is a woman when she is sovereign? And what does a world of autonomous women look like?
Insult to Injury
In order to help his audience more closely examine the possibility of a sovereign woman, Garland first creates several mental or physical injuries wherein the audience is made to believe the man needs the woman in question. The employee is needed to complete Ava’s testing. Lena’s husband needs her to survive. She is at his service, she begins as the apparent supporting arch in his story, but the audience quickly discovers that she isn’t, and this is the second injury, one the audience quickly forgives, because, how intriguing! A woman on her own! What a fantastical idea! Whether skeptical (“great, another feminism movie”) or supportive (“yes! Girl power!”) or ambivalent (“I don’t mind either way), the ego of the audience is injured in that they are allowed to believe that there is nothing more to the women than what they initially perceive. Of course Ava wants to escape with a partner. Of course Lena would do anything to redeem herself, of course unwanted women would risk their lives…. Of course, of course, of course.
Because what is a sovereign woman?
Having hooked his audience with their own assumptions, Garland continues further. The real horror of his films have little to do with violence and more to do with mangled assumptions. When the women of Annihilation wake up alone in the Shimmer and find themselves targeted one-by-one, they are forced to examine their own motivations. So does the viewer. At first glance, Cassie appears to fill a role many women are familiar with: the Caretaker. And when the Caretaker, the gentle voice of reason, is murdered by a bear and discarded with no further purpose, the viewer is left unsettled with a, “But I thought she…?”
The idea is introduced that Ava could be toying with her would-be-lover, and almost immediately the entire narrative rushes to her defense. Ava is seen alone, she is seen mistreated, she is seen depending on a man for a new plan. Trusting him as though her trust wasn’t called into question only minutes earlier. It’s difficult to pin down Ava’s motivations, and it becomes even more difficult when Kyoko reveals herself to be an A.I. as well.
The End is the Beginning is the End
The best directors never leave their audience completely alone without guidance, and Garland is no exception. The beginning stages of Ex Machina and Annihilation both have hints toward the eventual endgame present whether it be breadcrumbs leading to the answers, or perhaps specters haunting every scene. Ava’s escape, murder of her creator and abandonment of her partner-in-crime are all hinted at when she makes it clear what she wants: to be outside in the real world. She makes this plain in her drawings and in conversations, but if one doesn’t perceive her to be autonomous, one isn’t listening. One is a man using her for his own desires, or maybe an audience member who’s “seen it before and knows the ending.” One is a person who cannot afford a woman her sovereignty: to say what she means and mean what she says. Anyone, who truly personified Ava, knew what she was going to do. And those who didn’t were horrified to learn the truth of their own dismissal staring back at them.
It happens similarly in Annihilation, but not exactly the same. Lena hasn’t been afforded her autonomy, either by the audience, or herself. She denies being there for her husband, but she also does not say why she is there. Did Josie come to give up life? Or did she come to claim a new sort of life in the plants that grow from her? Did Ventress concede to the tumor, or did she really want to learn what she was being consumed by- her own fear? And does Anya fall prey to her own fear, or to the destructive force of her own rage? There are no hard-and-fast answers, only the meaning that women seek, the meaning that Lena is ultimately unable to accept. She sees the self she does not want, the self the world does not want, that threatens to make all of the familiar into the other.
The other that the audience has not been expecting. So of course, at the end of the film, everyone is left to wonder, “Who is she, really?” And if she is an impostor, is it because she is a threat to the familiar that we have laid out for women?
And if she is not an impostor, can we accept the incredible mystery of what the future holds for women who are allowed to say what they want, know themselves, and be accepted for who they are? Alex Garland seems to hope so.