How the Science Consultant of ‘Annihilation’ Reimagined DNA

Adam Rutherford worked with director Alex Garland to take what we know about genetics and turn it upside down.

natalie portman annihilation adam rutherford hox genes genetics the shimmer jennifer jason leigh tessa thompson josie radek biology gene mutation oscar isaac kane alex garland science consultant ex machina crocodile sci fi

Peter Mountain/Paramount Pictures

In Alex Garland's latest sci-fi flick, Annihilation, Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist whose husband, Oscar Isaac’s Kane, mysteriously returns from a secret mission after one year of being MIA.

It turns out Kane was the only survivor of a group of soldiers who were sent to a location known as “The Shimmer,” an otherworldly biome in which life takes on unearthly states: animals that are larger than normal, plants that seem to take on various forms along the same vine, time lasting longer than it should, DNA kaleidoscopically “refracting” into a helix that Watson and Crick couldn’t have predicted.

Annihilation is dense with science, but Garland leaned on the science consultant he relied on in his previous blockbuster, Ex Machina, to make the imaginative science pop while grounding it in reality.

“It’s Alex [Garland]’s script, he checks things with me,” said Adam Rutherford, a geneticist whose recent book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, tackles the history and evolution of DNA in humans.

Anyone who’s seen the movie will notice that Garland’s camera lingers on the eyes of animals and humans alike, and that could be a nod to Rutherford’s expertise. Rutherford earned his Ph.D. tracking the gene CHX10 in retinal development, studying how mutations in this gene could lead to eye disorders.

That word—mutations— will perk up the ear of anyone who’s watched the gripping thriller. Annihilation’s Shimmer is constructed as a world where natural rules of evolution and reproduction are thrown out the window, and instead where mutations—alterations in genetic coding that are often viewed as mistakes—are king, despite the fact that in real life, such mutations are often end-alls.

The Shimmer, however, acts very differently, Rutherford said, though he argued the mutations that take place within the biome are very different from what biologists would identify as mutations in our world. “It’s more of a metaphor of what is happening,” Rutherford told The Daily Beast. “It [DNA] is being mutated in ways we can’t understand. They’re not possible in the real world.”

[Mutations are] the idea of remixing everything in front of you. It fucks up our DNA. It’s an inherent conflict of biology and our own free will.
Adam Rutherford, science consultant for the movie ‘Annihilation’

Rutherford said Garland has a strong grasp of scientific concepts and read mounds of papers before inserting single lines of scientific jargon into the movie’s script and running them by Rutherford.

“He wanted to constantly make sure it reflected how scientists talk, to make sure we wouldn’t cringe,” Rutherford said.

The tricky part of science fiction is that it’s not necessarily true (Rutherford repeatedly said The Shimmer’s scientific properties simply could not exist) but to ground the science of the story in the fiction. With biology and evolution—fields that seem to have a strong foundation of proof but are still being studied to this day, and will be for a long time—the margin for outright fiction is narrow, which makes it all the more important for Portman’s Lena to be believable when she’s analyzing DNA and discussing its basic properties with a team of scientists.

“We have to offer a decent explanation,” Rutherford said. “We can’t just say something is impossible or not.”

But Rutherford said imagining this alternate world allows even for scientists like him to imagine an environment where the rules of genetics and biology as we deem to be true and real get turned upside down.

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Rutherford points to an idea proposed by Tessa Thompson’s Josie Radek, who (spoiler alert!) begins to take on plant-like qualities among what appears to be an army of plant beings. Are they frozen humans with plant characteristics, or plants that are more human-like?

Garland and Rutherford are playing around with the concept of Hox genes, apparent in living things where directions for construction are laid out. For example, human genetic code dictates that arms should diverge from the shoulders, that legs can bend at the knees, that heads are raised atop a neck.

But if Hox genes get shuffled about—an act of mutation—these rules no longer apply: Arms grow from where legs should be, the neck takes on a different shape, and more. In Annihilation, plants can become human-like, or humans can become plant-like. Giant crocodiles can have an array of teeth that display an impressively frightening array of sharpness and shapes. A giant, nightmarish bear can call out, imitating the voice of a dying comrade, Siren-like in attracting attention from compassionate humans, who find out too late it’s a trap.

“The Shimmer bathes an organism in some type of radiation that causes these mutations,” Rutherford said, citing a “cancerous bear with alopecia” in the movie, and deer that are “beautiful, graceful.” “We don’t understand how The Shimmer is changing psychology and genetics. Evolution is unpredictable, and mutations are random,” he noted.

In a way, Rutherford and Garland are imagining an alternate world where mutations run amok, a dimension where these mutations must be quashed before they overtake our genetics and kill us off.

“It’s the idea of remixing everything in front of you,” Rutherford said. “It fucks up our DNA. It’s an inherent conflict of biology and our own free will.”

That, ultimately, is what the film is trying to communicate: that something as predictable and solid as DNA has a dark side we still don’t understand, and might never will.

“In the end, we’re talking about some real scientific concepts here,” Rutherford said, referencing an early lecture in the movie when Portman’s Lena discusses cellular life and death to a classroom of students. “We have programmed cell death and suicide. It’s incredible how organisms work, how our genetics work. There is self-destruction at a cellular, personal, psychological level.”