by Bill Stamets

Fear errant DNA in “Annihilation” and “Rampage”

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on April 18, 2018

by Bill Stamets

Biophobia vivifies “Annihilation” and “Rampage,” two films imagining altered DNA imperiling our planet. Unlike in all kinds of ways, these U.S. features happen to coincide in their disquiet. Both are symptomatic of pop cultural panic about the body.

The body in question belongs to a character bonded to another who will take enormous risks to accost, with the intent to cure, a monstrous anomaly. Other bodies– outsized mutants– assume fearsome secondary roles in the storylines: a bear and an alligator in one; a wolf and crocodile in the other. There’s an albino body in each film.

“Annihilation,” starring Natalie Portman, ends on an opaquely pessimistic note. “Rampage” stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who saves the day in high spirits.

Things in flames streak through the upper atmosphere and hit the United States in initial scenes of the two films. Their last scenes are less alike. In “Annihilation” a wife embraces her husband, whose multiple organ failure is in turnaround. In “Rampage” an orphaned silverback gorilla makes what the MPAA flags as a “crude gesture” (for coitus) to embarrass his adoptive dad in front of his budding love interest.

The two narratives observe research scientists with prior military careers using their expertise to intervene in a biological crisis. There is a highly secretive U.S. government operation in both scenarios.

Portman plays biologist Lena in “Annihilation,” written and directed by Alex Garland (“ex machina,” “28 Days Later”). Distributed by Paramount Pictures, this R-rated science fiction drama is based on the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer. There her character is identified only as The Biologist. For seven years Lena served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan or Iraq, judging from a photo of her and her husband in uniform. She got her Ph.D. and now teaches cellular genetics in the medical school of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Johnson plays primatologist Davis Okoye in “Rampage,” directed by Brad Peyton (“San Andreas”). This PG-13 “action adventure” based on a 1986 arcade game is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Davis is on staff at the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary. His earlier service record in Army Special Forces is much redacted. Although his academic background is skipped by screenwriters Carlton Cuse (“San Andreas”), Ryan Engle, Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel, we hear his new ally has a “Ph.D. in biochemistry from Stanford with a specialty in conservation genetics.”

Opening titles for “Rampage” read: “In 1993, a breakthrough new technology, known as CRISPR, gave scientists a path to treat incurable diseases through genetic editing. In 2016, due to its potential for misuse, the U.S. Intelligence Community designated genetic editing a `Weapon of Mass Destruction and Proliferation.’” Cut to Athena 1, a space station run by Wyden Technologies. Screams, alarms, red lights, sparks, flames and smoke. Ground control cannot believe a CRISPR experiment could be to blame: “Test subject is a rat.” The only scientist left alive up there radios back: “Not any more.”

Three canisters of illegal gene-editing goo fall to earth in California, Florida and Wyoming. In all three states a random animal near impact undergoes a DNA hack. A gorilla, a crocodile and a wolf start to grow “exponentially larger and fiercer,” just like the mutant killer rat that knocked that corporate bio lab out of orbit.

Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), a justifiably disgruntled ex-employee of Wyden subsidiary Energyne, catches San Diego’s morning TV news and rushes over to the wildlife sanctuary. Last night an albino gorilla there, who goes by the name George, came into contact with one of the canisters from Athena 1. He got big and bad and killed a guiltless grizzly. Kate tells Davis that a few years back she made CRISPR faster-acting. “I am the only one who can cure…” George interrupts, bellowing his newly engineered rage.

Davis and Kate team up with an operative from a never-specified outfit designated OGA, as in Other Government Agency. Agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) briefs primatologist Davis and geneticist Kate on his mission: “You see, when science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to change the sheets.” The trio chases after the three interstate rampagers. The top priority for Davis, of course, is stealing the antidote from the Wyden Technologies lab that can arrest the runaway genetic mutation that turned his BPF (best primate forever) into a monster.

Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman) and Brett Wyden (Jake Lacy) of Wyden Technologies see dollar signs in the “weaponized DNA” of the three unplanned test subjects. As soon as they beam low-frequency bat-inspired sonar waves from an antenna atop their corporate headquarters in Chicago to beckon George, the 13.8-ton wolf and 150-ton crocodile to climb the city’s tallest skyscraper; and the U.S. Army kills them; then the Wydens will package the remains of their monsters. “We can sell that shit for a mint!” blurts Brett.

It’s a workaround for the Athena 1 rat fiasco. Claire and Brett proceed with their original business plan: offer a new bioweapon on the arms market. Wyden Technologies tasked Energyne geneticists like Kate to edit the DNA of sharks, whales, cheetahs and rhinoceros beetles. This bioengineered upgrade delivers “extraordinary genetic gifts, unlimited physical potential, combined with unthinkable violent and aggressive disposition.” And it works, as the rat, ape, wolf and croc prove. Dosing an animal with this DNA-adulterant would grant Wyden customers a tactical edge. Leash not included.

Kate and Davis find the secret antidote, and improvise a comic and shocking method to get George to swallow his medicine. Cured in a matter of seconds, he is recruited to take down the wolf and crocodile. Untreated, they continue to mutate and increase in meanness and body mass. Hardly a fair fight. Chicago is wrecked in the smackdown.

“Rampage” is dumb fun in places. I liked the spectacularly staged attacks on helicopters. Super-critters lunge upward to snatch aircraft in their jaws. Last year’s “Kong: Skull Island,” directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, excelled at this.

Johnson’s character pilots a helicopter in “Rampage,” as his character did in 2015’s “San Andreas” and will do in its upcoming sequel, again directed by Peyton. Johnson increasingly winks at his bankable screen persona: “Let’s go save the world,” he mugs here. Even the gorilla is self-aware. George– taught how to sign with his hands by Davis– pulls lame pranks. Performed amidst the rubble of Chicago, his ace gotcha pivots on a cheap movie cliche.

“Inspired by the Rampage Video Game,” state the credits of “Rampage.” One of the vintage games is installed in the Wyden Technologies office. Brian Colin and Jeff Nauman created the three-player arcade game for Bally Midway in 1986. That was before CRISPR genome tech was invented, so different glitches trigger the three rampagers who playfully level urban infrastructure. There’s no eco-anti-city agenda beyond adolescent glee in virtual mega-vandalism.

“Smash. Bash. Trash.” was the promo mantra for the original Rampage game. The manual for a 1988 iteration adapted for the Atari 2600 video console listed “Points Awarded” for “Punching a Building Vertically” (50), “Eating a Pedestrian or Soldier” (50), “Punching a Helicopter” (750) and 11 other moves. “Crunch the Concrete! Snack on a Soldier! Trash a Trolley! Join arcade legends George the Ape, Ralph the Wolf and Lizzie the Lizard on a mission of mass destruction from coast to coast. Go on a RAMPAGE!”

Press notes for the “Rampage” film claim the “gargantuan, genetically mutating creatures, completely out of control” are “on a path of destruction toward Chicago.” The stakes escalate into “a collision course with civilization.” Equating my city with all humanity might flatter the Chicago Film Office and the Illinois Film Office, but a publicist’s overstatement cannot be taken as cuing a larger-scaled sequel. Unless that rat survived the vacuum of outer space, or not all of Athena 1’s canisters are accounted for.

Peyton’s popcorn movie scolds corporate evil. The CEO gets her comeuppance. Ditto her obnoxious brother, in a dubious bit recalling the World Trade Center plaza on the morning of September 11, 2001. “Billionaire siblings,” as the press notes brand the Wydens, are easy prey.

If “Rampage” lacks social commentary on the ethics of biotech execs, there is surplus fear-engineering about gene-engineering. The 107-minute running time and $120 million budget are largely invested in magnifying the frightfulness of the rampagers via CGI. A tagline touts: “Big Meets Bigger.”

“Annihilation” is a far superior film that takes its fears more seriously. The poster warns: “Fear What’s Inside.” Garland uses CGI to conjure cellular, human-scaled and cosmic sights, ranging from the empirical to the ineffable. The opening shot focuses on a deep red flux: bubbling magma or pulsing protoplasm? Such imagery could be derived from vulcanology or microscopy footage licensed from a nature film archive. Garland concludes with the digitally altered iris of an eye, no less human than yours or mine, let’s hope.

Exiting a prescreening of “Annihilation,” one of the eight producers, David Ellison of Skydance Productions, called the cut “too intellectual” and “too complicated,” according to sources contacted by Borys Kit at The Hollywood Reporter in early December. It’s hard to see any of the 11 producers of “Rampage” saying that about their own product.

I have no idea how “Annihilation” might have changed, but the film as released certainly suits my taste for intellectual and complicated entertainment. After watching it twice, I read the first book in The Southern Reach Trilogy by VanderMeer. It is titled “Annihilation.” The next two are “Authority and “Acceptance.” On the internet, while looking for something else, I came across a PDF of a 127-page “Annihilation” script. Its cover page is labeled “Alex Garland V.10.”

Nothing I read in VanderMeer’s story and in V.10 that was not in Garland’s film, however, struck me as anything I would wish to add to the film I experienced, whether plot details or overall design.

Compared to “Rampage,” with a single flashback showing Davis meet two-year-old George in Africa, “Annihilation” is a more ambitious narrative. Editor Barney Pilling interlaces flashbacks and flashforwards consistent with Lena’s helical quest to decode crazy DNA.

“Annihilation” is mostly set in a timeline that starts with Lena teaching a cell biology class. About a week later she volunteers to join four women carrying scientific instruments and automatic rifles on a classified expedition into a biologically bizarre zone radiating from a lighthouse. Flowers sprout from the elongated antlers of miniature deer. Other fauna includes two huge mutants: a bear and an albino alligator. Lena kills both, though not before one of the freaks of nature kills two women. She hikes to the lighthouse, the epicenter of all this weirdness. One more kill and then she gets out of there.

The first scene with dialogue is a flashforward from the above timeline. Wearing a white Hazmat suit, Lomax (Benedict Wong), debriefs Lena, in white hospital garb, about the expedition. She is the only one of the five who came back. They sit facing one another at a table in a plain room. Government types watch through windows. Five more flashforwards will continue their encounter. Lena’s and Lomax’s last session segues to the film’s last scene, when Lena hugs her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). They are isolated in a hospital-style room at the same secretive facility.

“I don’t know” is how Lena answers most of Lomax’s questions. To the word, that’s also how Kane answers her questions when he returns from his mission. The couple sits at their kitchen table. They face each other much like Lena and Lomax do in the flashforwards they share. Lena gets no further than Lomax will get.

Two flashbacks in the main timeline show Lena and Kane together at home. He is in Special Forces. Covert missions take him around the world. He departed a day early for his next one. Two other flashbacks show Lena and her lover, a married colleague on the medical school faculty. She ended the affair.

Kane left a year ago. Lena never found out what happened to him.

One evening he inexplicably makes his way to their house. She is repainting a room when he startles her. He is standing in a hallway, watching her without speaking. She takes him in his arms. His affect is off. He hardly knows himself, let alone her. All he can say is “I don’t know.”

Kane suddenly convulses and hemorrhages. En route to the local hospital, the ambulance is intercepted by speeding black SVUs and low-flying helicopters. Government suits and operatives take Kane and jab Lena in the neck with a sedative. Garbed in an orange jumpsuit, she awakes in a windowless room in Area X, what Agent Russell in “Rampage” would call an Other Government Agency. Unlikely line itemized in the federal budget, it’s there to make sense of something called the Shimmer. (This OGA’s budget is $300 billion in V.10.)

From outside, the Shimmer looms as a vast hemispherical enclosure appareled in Northern Lights. A diaphanous, viscous smear of pastel hues flow upward. It’s expanding. Area X must relocate to keep beyond the Shimmer’s ever-advancing boundary.

Lena learns Kane was on a prior team sent inside to bring back data, but she gets little out of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the psychologist in charge of expeditions. “It started around three years ago,” she relates. “A religious event, an extraterrestrial event, a higher dimension. We have many theories, few facts.” She decides to lead the next team. (The Shimmer materialized 13 years ago in the novel; 30 in the V.10 script.)

By orders of magnitude Ventress will increase her understanding once she reaches the lighthouse. Right after it was hit by something in flames coming from space, the Shimmer arose there. Her enlightenment is literal. The lumens are immeasurable. She will not get out of there.

Before heading for the Shimmer Ventress assesses Lena, who thinks there’s a chance she can find a cure there for Kane, near death in an isolation ward on the base: “Soldier. Scientist. You can fight. You can learn. You can save him.”

Kane recorded two videos during his time in the Shimmer. Footage meant to inform the next team only panics them. Lena replays the video and we watch too. This is how Garland embeds two key flashbacks.

We know that Kane and Lena learn much about what transpires in the Shimmer, on their separate trips. Upon exiting– and they are the only ones ever to do so– their knowledge of it dissipates. Garland’s screen only mesmerizes. The Shimmer deletes memories. Unlike Lena and Kane, audiences can enter and exit the screen– and the Shimmer within– without suffering side effects. As the end credits roll, we can begin thinking through the “many theories, few facts” Garland disseminates.

Biophobia abounds in “Annihilation.” Life is frightful. Its very essence is its nemesis. The Shimmer is mega-exaggeration of life. A metastatic phantasmagoria.

The title is ominous. And ambiguous by implying there could be an annihilator. In the lighthouse Lena confronts a highly mutable thing listed in the cast credits as “Humanoid.” The press notes add: “Sonoya Mizuno… provided motion-capture reference for the being in its humanoid phase.” (V.10 variously refers to it as an “alien form,” “alien creature,” “The ALIEN” and “A BEING.” VanderMeer uses “alien” only as an adjective in the novel.)

Mizuno’s counterpart playing George in “Rampage” is Jason Liles, a 6’ 9” performance-capture actor. Garland gave Mizuno no lines in “ex machina,” where she played the mute android Kyoko. But in “Annihilation,” he supplements her modeling role and also casts her in a minuscule speaking part as Katie, a medical student in Lena’s class with one line.

“Over the course of the next term we will be closely examining cells in vitro and discussing autophagic activity,” lectures Lena. Autophagy is the process whereby living cells die. “Your research area is the genetically programmed life cycle of the cell,” Ventress later reminds Lena. “You’re a biologist. Isn’t self-destruction coded into us? Programmed into each cell?”

Annihilation is automatic, a mechanism in the dialectic of life. Cells self-destruct for the greater good of the organism. No need to embody or personify any annihilator of living things. The lighthouse entity that manifests itself to Lena is not so much an individual as a clump of alien clay that can model individuals in life-like detail, minus souls maybe. The pods from outer space did this with people in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Don Siegel’s paranoid sci-fi film from 1956.

“It mirrored me,” Lena tells Lomax. She cites “echoes” and “corruptions of form, duplicates of form.” She sees it reproduce her. Kane saw that happen to him in the lighthouse too, as Lena sees when she plays the video he recorded there a year ago.

Ventress, who never told her team she had terminal cancer, experiences the Shimmer very differently: “We are disintegrating, our bodies as fast as our minds. Can’t you feel it? It’s like the onset of dementia.” On the verge of an involuntary transcendence, the psychologist suffers entropy panic: “[I]t will grow until it encompasses everything. Our bodies and minds will be fragmented until not one part remains. Annihilation.”

“It wasn’t destroying,” Lena tries to clarify for her interrogator. “It was changing everything. It was making something new.” Making what?” presses Lomax. Again he same three words: “I don’t know.”

When the expedition first steps through the shimmering veil, the women behold a terrain of marvels and menace. Lena notices peculiar flora and fauna. Impossible hybridizing occurs not just between species and genus, but phylum and kingdom. Rampant mutations and malignant growths, “like tumors,” hypothesizes Lena. Accelerated and uncontrolled cell growth. The alligator has shark teeth. The bear absorbs the screams of its prey, who continue to scream as if somehow alive somewhere inside its nightmare of a body.

The physicist, not the biologist, figures it out. Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) tells the team: “The Shimmer is a prism but it refracts everything. Not just light and radio waves. Animal DNA, plants’ DNA. All DNA.” Whatever crashed into the lighthouse three years ago generated an aberrant Eden, a random remix of all DNA in the vicinity, a hack of life as we know it.

This astonishing idea is apparently Garland’s. A search of VanderMeer’s text yields no hits for “prism” or “DNA.” Credit the filmmaker as well for symbolizing Radek’s theory of refraction by framing a simple glass of water. Close-ups show Lena and Kane touch fingertips. The glass is placed on kitchen table in between the camera lens and their fingers, so the water magnifies part of their fingers. The rest of each hand, though, is its normal size. The split between magnified and normal, along the two sides of the glass, makes the couple’s hands look deformed, however. I interpret this shot as a microcosm of the refractive Shimmer.

Another wondrous image in the film shows what happens when human DNA and plant DNA commingle. Tangles of vines, leaves, flowers, moss and shrubs take the form of stationary people. Or people transmogrify into plants. Legs morph into thin tree trunks; branches replace arms. (“Like a topiary.” V.10.)

Radek theorizes hox genes freely circulate among living things in the Shimmer. She explains the purpose of these genes in nature is to guide the layout of a growing plant or animal. That’s how chimera could proliferate in the Shimmer. When greenery sprouts on her forearms, Radek welcomes this fate for her own body. Putting down roots, as it were, in the Shimmer.

Backstories for biophobic motifs in “Annihilation” and “Rampage” are traceable to historical and scientific texts in the real world.

George towers over Davis in posters advertising “Rampage.” The human handler may believe he’s the evolutionary better of the two primate pals, but the genetically super-charged gorilla knows only he can overpower the croc and wolf smashing, bashing and trashing Chicago. Ape upgrades were advocated by a German philosopher.

“The age of the experiment!” proclaimed Friedrich Nietzsche in 1881. “The assumptions of Darwin have to be tested– through the experiment! Likewise the genesis of higher organisms out of the lowest ones. Experiments must be performed for thousands of years! Apes must be brought up to be human beings!” Energyne geneticists could research that in a “Rampage” sequel.

Legendary white apes populated Chinese paintings, prose and plays dating from third century B.C., as chronicled in such accounts as “Encyclopedic Records of Things.”

Albino apes were put on display long before George got to the San Diego Wildlife Sanctury. “A Milk-White Baboon. The Wonderful Albino Ape that Has Just Arrived in England,” reported The Buffalo Commercial on July 7, 1894. The Los Angeles Times ran the same story with the headline: “A Freak.”

The unnamed male from South Africa had a backstory as horrifying as George’s: “After a fierce fight the mother was killed and the young male was led away in captivity.” On the United Nation Anti-Poaching Task Force, Davis extracted George during a raid in an undisclosed African country: “When my team arrived, these bastard were in the middle of butchering his mother. They were cutting off her hands so they could sell them as ash trays.”

A “News of the Day” newsreel in 1937 included “Albino ape is brought to America,” according to the Motion Picture Herald. I found no related articles in an online archive of U.S. newspapers. But the phrase “albino ape” appears in a November 29, 1944 article distributed by United Press: “Japs Threaten to Kill Airmen Who Bail Out Over Japan; Call Them `Savages’ and `Albino Apes.’”

“White Pongo” was a summer 1945 release featuring “a white ape who practically steals all the scenes,” noted Showmens Trade Review. “The Ivory Ape,” a Japanese-American co-production set and shot in Bermuda, aired on ABC-TV in spring 1980. Jack Palance played the villainous big-game hunter seeking “a creature so rare worth it is weight in diamonds.”

New Scientist covered the death of “the world’s only known white gorilla, Floquet de Neu or `Snowflake.’” His cause of death on November 24, 2003 was oculocutaneous albinism. “Barcelona city authorities have rejected suggestions that Snowflake be stuffed, considering naming a street or plaza after him,” added the London-based weekly.

Two science books are placed in view as the camera passes through Dr. Kate Caldwell’s apartment. This gene scientist with a Ph.D. has what look like introductory undergrad textbooks simply titled “Genetics.”

The one book we see in “Annihilation” is more instructive. Lena has a copy of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. Johns Hopkins Hospital doctors extracted cervical cancer cells from a terminal African-American patient. Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951) died not knowing what researchers did with tissue samples they scraped from her tumor, which they were unsuccessfully treating with radium. In test tubes, though, “Henrietta’s cells,” writes Skloot, “were growing with mythological intensity.” Sold to labs around the world, the HeLa cell line enabled breakthroughs in tissue-culture technique, human genetics and genomic medicine.

Skloot footnotes “Probing the Secret of Life,” an article by Bill Davidson that Collier’s Weekly published on May 14, 1954. In a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine lab Davidson watches footage of HeLa cells “magnified 100,000 times” and rhapsodizes: “The movie was breathtaking and a little frightening. It was like a glimpse at immortality. There on the screen before me, big as a close-up of a movie star, was a cluster of turbulent disk-shaped living cells… All the time, there was constant unfathomable movement within the cell as it prepared for the greatest mystery of all– cell division.”

After the title “Annihilation,” Garland cuts to a lecture room screen filled with a round black-and-white image. “This is a cell,” Lena tells medical students. “Like all cells it was born from an existing cell. By extension all cells were ultimately born from one cell, a single organism alone on planet earth, perhaps alone in the universe. About four billion years ago, one became two, two became four. Then 8, 16, 32. The rhythm of the dividing pair which becomes the structure of… everything that lives and everything that dies.”

Without naming Henrietta Lacks, Lena tells her Johns Hopkins students the source of the tumor: “Female patient, early 30s taken from the cervix.”

Mitosis is what biologists call the division of cells. Lena makes it inexorable, exponential and existential. A day or so later she is alone at home. Painting a room shared with Kane could be her way of moving on. It’s been a year. She listens to the Crosby Stills & Nash song “Helplessly Hoping” from 1969: “They are one person/ They are two alone/ They are three together/ They are four for each other.” The lyrics splice her marital straits with her class notes on mitosis.

“Rampage” never lectures about its biology nor licenses tender songs to symbolize CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). Befitting the film’s emphasis on action, the end credits name two Military Advisors and one Genetics Lab Tech Advisor. The latter is James Dahlman from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Previously he was in the Genome Engineering lab at Harvard, headed by Feng Zhang, an innovator in using CRISPR-Cas9 for “multiplex genome editing in mammalian cells.” Just like Dr. Kate Caldwell in “Rampage,” Zhang earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Stanford University.

Nature ran this rather sensational headline in its news section two years ago: “CRISPR’s hopeful monsters: gene-editing storms evo-devo labs: Easy gene alterations in weird creatures make CRISPR a killer app for evolutionary developmental biology.” Considering the jokey tilt of “Rampage,” I am surprised Energyne geneticists never picked CRISPR Critters as a nickname for the mighty mutant city-wreckers.

Biophobic prompts are also detectable in this Guardian headline: “Synthetic biology: ‘playing God’ is vital if we are to create a better future for all: The present gains and future benefits of synthetic biology are too great for it to be written off with fear-mongering maxims.” The byline belongs to Adam Rutherford, credited as the Scientific Advisor on “Annihilation.” He was one of the 15 co-authors of the paper “Human microphthalmia associated with mutations in the retinal homeobox gene CHX10” published in Nature Genetics. In the film Josie uses the term “hox” (sometimes italicized), shorthand for “homeobox” among gene scientists.

“Homeo” as a prefix came from “Homœosis,” a term proposed by William Bateson in his 1894 work “Materials for the Study of Variation, Treated with Especial Regard to Discontinuities in the Origin of Species.” He meant an anomaly in body plan altering where body parts appear, like “the modification of the antenna of an insect into a foot, of the eye of a Crustacean into an antenna.”

Walter Gehring, a pioneer in hox research, discovered in 1966 the underlying genetics of fruit flies that grew a leg out of their head where an antenna ordinarily is supposed to be, a freakish phenomenon known as antennapedia. On a 1980 trip to an international congress in Kyoto, he visited a ninth-century Buddha statue and found bronze butterflies with two more legs than normal.

In nature homeotic mutants are linked to “master regulator genes which play a key role in the specification of the body plan” in an individual plant or animal. The hox-type mutants in “Annihilation” that unsettle Josie multiply and move around for a pandemic of genetically modifying organisms. “Something here is making great waves in the gene pool,” warns Lena.

Strands in real genetics intersect in plot details. “Annihilation” scientists never refer to CRISPR, yet the Shimmer prism tampers with every genome in range. “Rampage” scientists never refer to hox genes, yet rampant CRISPR-triggering creates a trio of hox mutants.

The “Rampage” wolf keeps mutating. All of a sudden it can fly like a flying squirrel due to newly-grown webbing between its legs. In 2016 University of Chicago researchers used CRISPR/Cas9 to engineer changes in the size of web-like folds between the fins of zebrafish. Mutations in its tail arm the “Rampage” crocodile with porcupine-like projectile quills.

Dr. Ventress in “Annihilation” fixates on self-destruction as an all-purpose theory applicable to everything from cells to careers. There are real-world studies for that too, ranging from Sabina Spielrein’s 1912 psychoanalytic paper “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being” to “Hox Proteins: Sculpting Body Parts by Activating Localized Cell Death,” published in 2002 by Current Biology.

Real-world fears exist offscreen. James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, briefed the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on February 9, 2016: “Research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products.”

One year earlier, Chinese researchers described successful efforts to enhance Beagles with targeted muscle hypertrophy. Two puppies– named Tiangou and Hercules– came into the world with their muscle mass doubled. Insects with hox malfunctions get their legs and wings doubled.

Published in the Journal of Molecular Cell Biology, the Letter titled “Generation of gene-target dogs using CRISPR/Cas9 system” ends with an ominous phrase: “This approach may not only greatly facilitate the generation of novel dog models for bio-medical research, but also promote the creation of new strains of dogs with favorable traits for other purposes.” [italics added] Militarized mutant dogs?

The gene-militarizing profiteers in Brad Peyton’s film “Rampage” aim precisely at that sector of the international arms market. Worse screen fears are out there. The 10th draft of a script attributed to Alex Garland, the writer-director of “Annihilation,” compares the impact of the thing that caused the Shimmer to a weapon wounding Earth: “Then it hits the ground by the LIGHTHOUSE drilling into the earth like a bullet hole.” Intent to harm is implied, unless it was a stray shot from across the universe.

Profit obviously motivates Wyden Technologies but the Shimmer is illegible. “What does it want?” inquires Lomax. “I don’t think it wanted anything,” Lena answers.

One year apart, Lena and Kane each come face to face with an uncanny double in the lighthouse. A phosphorus grenade punctuates both encounters. Bodies incinerate in blinding white light. The couple gets a “glimpse at immortality,” as the 1954 author of “Probing the Secret of Life” described his sight of an endlessly dividing cell.

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you,” wrote Nietzsche in his 1886 book “Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future.”

“Annihilation” is nihilist entertainment with the nerve to assert that nature with its DNA awry is an unknowable nothing.

 

©2018 BILL STAMETS

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