Female-centric thriller Annihilation faces whitewashing controversy

Taking on the future in the bold, new science fiction movie Annihilation has got writer-director Alex Garland facing issues of the present day.

Alex Garland's diverse thriller hit with criticisms over casting, distribution

In Annihilation, Natalie Portman portrays a biologist trying to solve the mystery of The Shimmer: a force that has rendered plants and animals unlike anything ever seen before. (Paramount Pictures)

Taking on the future in the new science fiction movie Annihilation has got director Alex Garland facing issues of the present day.

The novelist turned filmmaker lauded for his directorial debut Ex Machina is earning positive reviews for his latest film, but Annihilation — in Canadian theatres Friday — is also attracting controversy around its casting and distribution.

Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation revolves around a mysterious region that seems to be the site of an alien landing. A task force of scientists is assigned to explore the area — now cordoned off from the public — to find out what's going on. No one who has entered has ever returned, save one man (Oscar Isaac) left unable to talk about his experience. His wife, a biologist played by Natalie Portman, joins the team.

VanderMeer, dubbed the "King of Weird Fiction" by The New Yorker, sold the rights to Annihilation and its two sequels to Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin and Paramount Pictures before the trilogy was even published. The producers brought in Garland to adapt and direct.

Alex Garland directs Portman on the set of Annihilation. (Paramount Pictures)

For Annihilation, Garland assembled a racially diverse cast: along with Portman and Isaac, actors include Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sonya Miznuo, Tuva Novotny and Benedict Wong.

But as the film was nearing release, accusations of whitewashing emerged over the roles played by Portman and Jason Leigh, whose characters were revealed to be of Asian and Native American heritage, respectively, in the trilogy's second book. 

The criticism comes on the heels of whitewashing complaints about recent movies such as Ghost in the ShellDoctor Strange and Alohain which Asian characters were portrayed on film by Caucasian actors.

In the second novel of the book series, the character played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, left, is revealed to be of Native American and Caucasian heritage, while the character portrayed by Portman is revealed to be of Asian descent. (Paramount Pictures)

Two organizations — MANAA (Media Action Network for Asian Americans) and American Indians in Film and Television — were among those expressing disappointment.

"Hollywood rarely writes prominent parts for Asian-American and American Indian characters, and those roles could've bolstered the careers of women from those communities," AIFT founder Sonny Skyhawk told The Hollywood Reporter.

'Unconscious racism' 

"This is an awkward problem for me, because I think whitewashing is a serious and real issue, and I fully support the groups drawing attention to it," Garland said of the backlash.

"But the characters in the novel I read and adapted were not given names or ethnicities. I cast the film reacting only to the actors I met in the casting process, or actors I had worked with before. There was no studio pressure to cast white.  The casting choices were entirely mine," he said in a statement, according to to industry website Deadline.

"As a middle-aged white man, I can believe I might at times be guilty of unconscious racism, in the way that potentially we all are. But there was nothing cynical or conspiratorial about the way I cast this movie."

Writer-director Alex Garland is seen in Toronto for an advance screening of Annihilation on Feb. 12. (George Pimentel/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)

Speaking to press in Canada, just before the whitewashing criticism emerged, Garland discussed his decision to work on a female-led film — something still rare in Hollywood, where women are underrepresented.

"I think it is just a statement of fact that there are enormous gender related imbalances," he told CBC News.

"It is just observably true, it is observably ridiculous and something needs to be done about it."

'Too intellectual'

Apart from the casting controversy, Garland also found himself speaking out about the film company's decision to release Annihilation only in North America and China. In other markets, including Garland's home country of Great Britain, the film will be streamed on Netflix about two weeks following its theatrical release.

(Paramount Pictures)

There were reports that the film tested poorly in advance screenings, that a Paramount financier worried the film was "too intellectual" and that the distributor wanted changes. Producer Rudin backed Garland's cut of the movie, so the distributor struck a deal with Netflix to minimize financial risk.

"Well, I don't think it's too intellectual," Garland said.

"I think that, broadly speaking, there is a contempt shown for audiences that makes no sense at all."

Garland cites successful TV series such as Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and The Wire as examples of programming that embraced what he calls "adult moral complexities" as a counter argument to risk-averse Hollywood. As such, he's written an eight-part TV series for FX channel titled Devs (short for Developers) that is set in San Francisco's tech scene and currently in pre-production.

Still, Garland's not planning to abandon feature filmmaking since movies have "a kind of immersive quality of vision and sound that's impossible to get at home, unless you are going to drop a lot of money on an amazing system.

"All you do is try and play toward the strengths of the medium, according to the medium you are working in."