Doctor Adam Rutherford probably doesn’t mean much to you, but if you’re a fan of writer-director Alex Garland and his brand of challenging science-fiction, he should. Garland’s directorial efforts “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation” are two of the best reviewed sci-fi movies of the decade, and it turns out they owe a lot to Rutherford, a British geneticist who is Garland’s trusted scientific adviser.
“I only answer the phone to about three people,” Rutherford told IndieWire during a recent interview. “One of them is my wife, one of them is my agent, and the third is Alex Garland.”
Garland and Rutherford’s creative relationship is relatively simple, but it’s essential to what makes the director a science-fiction visionary. Garland comes to the scientist with his ideas for a narrative and the two talk for hours at a time about the science needed to support the story. On a film like “Annihilation,” Rutherford’s input is felt in everything from the gene theory behind mutating plants to the contemporary science topics being taught at real universities.
The way Rutherford tells it, Garland is incredibly demanding when it comes to grounding his science-fiction films in the actual science. Below, Rutherford talks to IndieWire about the scientific accuracy of “Annihilation” and gets brutally honest about the science-fiction genre at large. (Minor spoilers for “Annihilation” follow.)
When it comes to the science component of science fiction, what is it that Garland cares about most?
He wants really grounded science fiction. There isn’t a line in “Annihilation” or “Ex Machina” that isn’t based on decades of research and scientific understanding. Even if it’s just one line of dialogue, it’s backed up. What’s important to Alex as a director is this: If you literally dont care about genes and you’ve gone to the cinema to see a terrifying horror movie with Natalie Portman in it, then good for you. But if you happen to be a developmental geneticist who has come to the cinema, then you’re going to find it awesome, too. In some ways, he cares more about the scientific accuracy than I do.
In the development process, we have these long-ranging conversations about the scientific ideas and theories that underline his ideas for the narrative. Is this how scientists talk to each other? Is there anything in the script that makes me cringe or shriek? Sometimes, these hour-long conversations get filtered down into a single sentence that Natalie Portman says, but that’s what it takes.
Is it challenging to get actors like Natalie Portman to understand the science?
It’s a similar sort of thing. They have similar questions to Alex but with a different point of view. They’re looking at me and thinking, “Why do you think the way you do? I have this one line I need to deliver, but, based on your 40 years of lived experience, what is it I need to convey when the camera is pointing at me?” It’s kind of weird because nobody has ever taken that much interest in my life [laughs]. When you’re sitting across from Tessa Thompson and she’s asking you about your life, it’s pretty fucking cool.
The key for Garland is scientific accuracy. How much real science is in “Annihilation”?
None of it is bullshit, but it’s fiction, if that makes sense. You refer to some bad moments in science fiction films. There’s one scene in the film “2012” where a generic scientist wearing a white lab coat says, “The neutrinos coming from the sun have mutated.” It’s complete nonsense! It’s scientific blah that’s meant to give the character some authority, but it doesn’t. Garland is very specific that he doesn’t want anything like that, ever. Any of those lines that any of the characters say that have a scientific bent to them, they’re real, plausible things. They’re fictional, but they relate to real, comprehensible current science. That’s the difference between fiction and bullshit.
Does that mean something like plants forming in the shape of human bodies is remotely possible? That’s one of the most striking images in the film.
Not entirely, but that phenomena of what’s going on in The Shimmer is based on real science. We share almost all of our genes with all other living organisms, and all organisms that have basic body shapes have almost exactly the same genes. Essentially, the genes say, “This is the order of your body.” This is how the body is going to be set up.” It’s called the Hox gene. That is real, proper, Nobel Prize-winning science. In a sense, we’re taking an idea that is very real and twisting it.
In real life, you can take the eye gene of a fly and the eye gene from a mouse and swap them around and the fly and the mouse will still grow the right eyes that correspond to their species. That’s real science. But in fiction you can take that to the next level. So could you do that with a human and an organism that is far more distantly related like a plant? In that sense, no, you can’t. Plants don’t have the right genes to grow a human shape, but the principal is correct.
The same must be true with the alligator and the bear.
Hox genes are genes that you find in almost all animals that have the effect of laying out the body plan: Head at one end, tail at the other, eyes, brain, legs, antenna. What we’ve know for the last 20 years or so is that these genes appear in nearly every organism that has some kind of body plan: Humans, mice, fruit flies, snakes, and so on. They lay out the polarity of the organism. When [Tessa Thompson’s character] is talking about them, she’s trying to rationalize how you could be seeing plants growing in human form, because that runs counter to our own scientific understanding of the gene.
As for The Shimmer, aside from the alien aspect to it, is the globe in any way heading towards that kind of ecological disaster?
It’s hard to say. We’ve explored a tiny, tiny portion of this world. People alway say we know more about the surface of the moon than the bottom of the ocean. We’ve only explored a tiny portion of life on Earth. Just because we got all the basic rules of biology in place, to assume we’re just filling in the gaps is so premature. Every week we’re discovering things that were simply inconceivable the week before. Some of it is new behaviors in animals and plants and other things are completely new environments that can sustain living organisms, like the ocean creatures that have evolved beyond science fiction. So this idea that nature could become so violent and so difficult to process isn’t too difficult to think of honestly.
Alex Garland has said that he starts his films with a central idea. For “Annihilation,” it was self-destruction, so it’s no coincidence that Lena has the profession she does and works with cancer cells.
One of the principles in this kind of biology is you break stuff to try and understand how it works when it’s not broken. Natalie is talking about it at the beginning when she’s lecturing and she’s talking about a real phenomenon in the way that we grow cells and they self-destruct. They self-destruct as a normal part of growth. An example is when our hands grow. Our hands are paddles when we’re born, there’s webbing between the fingers and there are cells in the webbing, but those cells spontaneously die and undergo self-destruction in order for the fingers to emerge. It’s cell suicide. It’s real. It’s a brilliant metaphor for what’s going on in The Shimmer and in Lena’s life with her marriage. We all have the capability to self-destruct, and it starts with our cells.
The alien entity is where the fiction part really kicks in. How well do you think “Annihilation” fits into this part of the genre?
There’s two cinema phenomena going on. The first is an alien film where there is no attempt to explain what the alien is. As a scientist, I can say that’s one of only two ways of getting aliens right in movies. The first is you don’t even try to explain it. Examples of that are the greatest examples of science fiction cinema: “2001” and “Solaris.” All we know about those entities is that they are conscious and they are not us. “Annihilation” fits perfectly within that model. The other version is that you make them exactly the same as us in disguise. That’s been done million of times. It’s a good plot device. That’s “Superman,” “Invasions of the Body Snatchers,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
Which science-fiction film do you find was most predictive of the future?
The first “Blade Runner.” I’m not that interested in the second one, but it has a visual style that seems most accurate to where we’re heading. Most movies are bad at predicting the future. Even though “Blade Runner” gets the sort of visual tone right in 2019 and the presence of screens, no one predicted that text messaging would be the most significant form of communication. Everyone predicted video phones would be more popular than they are. The dominance of the computer is something no one really got right in science fiction. It’s mixed.
Which is the most accurate?
“Contact.” It’s the most brilliant representation of how scientists actually work. “Ellie” Ann Arroway [Jodie Foster] spends most of that film begging for money [laughs], which is so true to life. She fails to get grants and she gets screwed over by her male superiors and gets drunk and gets worried about things and sleeps with a priest. I dont know a scientist who hasn’t done all those things, aside from sleeping with a priest. “The Martian” is another good example. It’s how scientists would actually react under the circumstances of the film.
You’ve now worked on Garland’s two directing credits and are heading to television with him for his new FX series, “Devs.” Can you tease anything about the project?
I have read the whole thing and I can tell you it is jaw-dropping. I’m not allowed to talk about it. I can tell you that it’s jaw-dropping. It’s what we’ve come to expect from Garland. He’s interested in big ideas and in science fiction that ask what things are like 10 minutes into the future.