Alex Garland’s latest sci-fi opus, Annihilation, crafts a world where its females question their identity in an ever-changing landscape they can’t control. Led by the mentally duplicitous Dr. Ventress, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, her character takes on a God-like mentality that enhances the film’s overall message of where we fit in a world where we are doomed to self-destruct. This path is one that Jennifer Jason Leigh has trod already. In the 1992 Barbet Schroeder drama Single White Female, Leigh plays a character who may not be a psychologist trying to understand the logic behind a mysterious shimmer; she is, however, a similar character who creates a world where identity between females is fluid, fractious, and is only controlled through destruction.
The plots of Annihilation and Single White Female aren’t similar. One follows a group of women through an unfamiliar landscape where rationality is absent. The other is a dark tale of friendship that turns to obsession and murder. Garland presents his female characters as blank slates who struggle to hold their fear in check as logic goes out the window. We know little about the women, short of them being considered “damaged goods,” and we aren’t expected to need exposition on them – short of Natalie Portman’s Lena – to hope for their survival. Garland doesn’t give audiences women who automatically bond because they’re women. Take note of how Tessa Thompson’s Josie corrects Lena by referring to themselves as “scientists,” not just “women.” Their relationship is one of necessity. They must band together to survive, but there isn’t anything passing for overt friendship.
The relationship between Bridget Fonda’s Allison and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Hedy in Single White Female starts with a similar need. Allison lives in an apartment she loves but can’t afford on her own, forcing her to seek a roommate. Jason Leigh’s Hedy fills the void and the combination of close quarters and mutual isolation leads them to become friends. As with Annihilation, the relationship doesn’t immediately develop because they’re women, although that helps. Allison finds Hedy’s loneliness and social awkwardness endearing (if not a taste pathetic). Coupled with a sad story of losing her twin sister, Allison takes Hedy under her wing, helping her to come out of her shell. Conversely, Hedy becomes a confidant and protector of Allison as she gets over a bad breakup. The two friends seek succor in a world that’s objectified them – Allison finds herself sexually harassed by her boss in one scene – or that, in Hedy’s case, has failed to see them at all.
It is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in both features who acts as the narrative catalyst, throwing off a God-like pallor over proceedings. Hedy’s actions against Allison come from feelings of neglect and abandonment. Her newfound friend has left her for a man, an Eve tempted by the Snake and fleeing the Garden of Eden. Hedy’s manipulative and murderous, but as a vengeful God what she’s doing is perceived by Hedy as proof of her love for Allie, and her attempts to “protect” her friend from making poor decisions. Hedy is a vengeful God, but Dr. Ventress is a curious one. She tells Lena her job is to vet candidates who go into the Shimmer, assessing their mental state and waiting for their return. Like God sending his sheep amongst wolves, they go, “I watch.” But her range as God is limited since no previous groups have come back, short of Lena’s husband who can’t disclose his experiences. Josie tells Lena, “Ventress wants to face it. You want to fight it.” Spurred on by her terminal illness, Ventress decides to enter the Shimmer as a means of confronting her own death. Where Ventress was a God in the world outside the Shimmer, she is a mere mortal in the face of the existential unknown within it.
Throughout Annihilation the omnipotent Ventress parallels Lena. As Josie shares with Lena, Ventress has no friends or family. If she didn’t have an illness, there’d be no reason for her to return home. She is what Lena could become if she doesn’t rectify her wrongs. Ventress, desperate for answers or an explanation from the Shimmer, has her dream refracted. Ventress’ hopes are lifted and given to another woman. Where the Shimmer subsumes Ventress, Lena is imparted with something, whether it be knowledge or understanding or nothing at all. Single White Female forces a similar confrontation between its doubles with a literal mirror acting as a third act gimmick to bring all the doubling acts together. Allie tells Hedy, “I’m not like your sister…I’m like you now.” Like Annihilation, identity is stripped and given to another, not the intended who actively seeks a change.
Annihilation is a feature about self-destruction, while Single White Female is about the destructive elements of creation. Where women find their identity shaped by cultural and societal expectations, each film takes the basic components of its main characters and reconfigures them, aided by the character who wishes to create a new persona. Hedy sees herself as a half looking to be made whole. Her relationship with Allie is symbiotic, with each needing the other before Hedy becomes the parasite who hopes to consume Allie’s essence and personality. Hedy herself is already a copy; she reveals to Allie she had a twin sister who died in the womb. Hedy dresses like Allie, dyes her hair like Allie, and ultimately starts passing herself off as her roommate. Hedy even reveals that Allie will be blamed for the murder of Sam, Allie’s boyfriend because of Hedy’s likeness to her. In this case, it is Allie who must “face it” and “fight it” by confronting Hedy while simultaneously facing her fear of independence.
Ventress says in Annihilation “none of us actually commit suicide,” but that instead, we engage in self-sabotage. Ventress’ mad drive to get to the lighthouse, in the hopes of finding something meaningful, not only sabotages the lives of the other women but also transforms Ventress herself. The prophecy she hopes to avoid — that the woman she was going in won’t be the one who comes out — comes to pass, and her destruction fosters another woman’s survival, Lena’s.
Ventress is also the one to discuss the concept of “annihilation” itself. The Shimmer’s goal is to fracture whatever comes into its base parts, reassembling them into something new. Ventress is entirely subsumed by the Shimmer, broken down and redistributed. Single White Female’s Hedy is similarly destroyed even before her attempts to become Allie. Allie learns Hedy is a woman named Ellen Besch, proof Hedy has already attempted to annihilate herself. For Hedy, her guilt over her twin’s death causes her to sabotage other relationships. She is forced to break Allie down to her base parts so Hedy can recreate herself as someone new, someone not associated with her dead other half. In the end, Hedy’s death compels Allie to stand on her own two feet, and learn forgiveness. Hedy is forever left in limbo, the empty vessel once again.