As the first act of Alex Garland’s sci-fi horror feature “Annihilation” unfolds, a group of five scientists prepare to head out into an uncharted and uninhabited disaster zone known only as “Area X,” a trip tinged with fear and trepidation. It’s an expedition that’s been launched before, though never with good results. As the film tells us, Area X has been cast in a strange bubble called “The Shimmer” since some sort of object crash-landed on its shore years ago, and the space underneath that bubble has never been quite the same. Teams have been sent in to explore before, but only one person has ever come back from the trip alive (and he’s not in great shape).
It’s already a weird enough mission, but this time holds a special significance: No women have ever participated in an expedition before, and this one’s exclusively comprised of them. “All women,” one of the characters notes as she surveys the group assembled around her, before physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) adds: “Scientists.” Josie’s not caught up in the gender implications of a crew that includes roles for actresses like Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny; she’s just concerned with their professional bonafides.
The same can’t be said of Hollywood, which still struggles to craft entertainment that offers even parity for women’s roles, let alone giving them the chance to dominate a narrative. “It’s so rare to have an ensemble cast of women,” Thompson told IndieWire. “When we talk about in 2017, the three top-grossing films were with women at the center, ‘Wonder Woman’ included. It [still] doesn’t happen all that often.”
Although 2017 played home to major successes for female-led features, from “Wonder Woman” to “Lady Bird,” it’s still rare to see films that are predominantly populated by women, especially in the sci-fi space. While major properties like “Star Wars” made waves by adding a number of female characters to last year’s “The Last Jedi,” most sci-fi films or action-centric outings remain dominated by men. Even when women get the chance to lead such features, they make up a fraction of the cast. As Thompson put it, they’re used to being “the only one.”
Asked how being on set with a predominately female cast changes her experience, Thompson didn’t mince words. “It changes everything,” she said. “It wasn’t lost on us, that we were typically the only one, or one of two [women in a film], and suddenly it’s all us, all the time.”
The question now, of course, is if audiences will turn out to see a film saddled with a February release date, the sort of dating that usually makes a film sound somehow unappealing, or at least not worth of a splashy summer premiere. The best example that audiences are ready for such films at any time of the year, recently hit theaters — last weekend’s “Black Panther” broke scores of records and did it with a cast filled with strong female characters. The paradigm, it seems, might finally be shifting.
Thompson has recently emerged as one of the leaders of the growing Time’s Up movement, an experience that has echoed what was reinforced while making “Annihilation” — that women, working together, can make huge changes. Garland’s sci-fi feature offers a compelling example of how that dynamic can work in front of the camera, too.
“I think so often as women in this industry, in particular, but in general, in terms of cultural narrative too, we’re so siloed off,” she said. “There’s all these really harmful narratives about the fact that we don’t work in teams, and there’s competition between us. Narratives that are designed to really diminish our collective power.”
Thompson said that Garland took an inclusive approach to working with his cast that stood in contrast to other sets. “It was really a paradigm shift for me,” she said. “Even though you’re the conduit with which the audience enters the story, you’re sometimes not let in on all the other stuff that makes the story. It’s like there’s this idea that you’re not interested in how the sausage is made, and I tend to be someone that really is.”
“Annihilation” also offered Thompson with a more unassuming role than the outspoken “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Dear White People” actress usually takes on. (That forceful interjection about the team’s status as scientists first is the first indication that she’s got a lot more going on under her quiet exterior.)
“What’s so exciting about her, is how curious she is,” Thompson said. “That’s something that you come to expect with a scientist, but she has real grounded curiosity in her surroundings and in other people, that makes her really integrated into an experience. She’s not sitting somehow above it, or below it. She’s like right inside of it.”
Starring in a film led by women also reflected Thompson’s activism about how parity and equity are essential to making Hollywood work in the post-#MeToo era, a topic she’s been vocal about as a leader in the growing Time’s Up movement. (And she is, after all, one of the women who continues to push for Marvel to finally make its own female-led superhero movie.)
“I think it makes a really sound argument for why we have to do that more in film, and also why we have to work for our crews, not just the women in front of the camera, but the people that are lensing the films, the grips, everybody, that our sets really reflect the world that we live in, and that they’re more inclusive,” Thompson said. “I think that would really create a working environment that feels radically different than the ones that we’ve unfortunately gotten used to working inside of in this business.”
“Annihilation” opens in theaters nationwide February 23 via Paramount Pictures.