Annihilation and Collateral both feature badass women in state-sanctioned roles unerring in their determination to complete a complex task. Reason enough to warrant comparison, surely? (Not to mention the fact that I happened to watch them both last week. My watch-rate is greater than my blog-rate, so I’m reviewing two birds with one stone.)
Following in Stalker’s footsteps, Annihilation is a new take on ‘the zone’: an action movie that calls for a traditional driven-though-slightly-reckless hero, Lena, who is drawn out compellingly by Natalie Portman. Collateral, on the other hand – which follows a police investigation of the murder of a migrant in London – is as much a character study of Detective Inspector Kip Glaspie (Carey Mulligan) as it is a police story and a criticism of modern-day immigration rhetoric.
As often happens in sci-fi movies like Annihilation, Lena is mainly a vehicle for revealing the space. The ‘main characters’ are absent: these are the aliens whose presence created this gene-warping hyper-evolving space in the first place. In Collateral, it would have been simple to use Kip in a similar vein: a two-dimensional tool to reveal the quirks and secrets of the characters in the story. But she is much more complex, with Mulligan chewing on the excellent script to weave a web of Kip’s strengths, foibles and attitudes with the utmost finesse.
Motivations are a good example of this difference. Lena is driven by the unexplained loss of her husband Kane to give up everything and embark upon a death mission to the centre of the zone. This motivation, while the action she takes is drastic, is assumed as making innate sense. DI Glaspie’s drive to achieve the goal at each stage of the murder investigation is more intimately constructed. One major aspect of her past, a thwarted sporting background (she was a pole vaulter and crashed out of the Olympics with a broken back), is hinted at with progressively increasing detail throughout the series.
The ‘fatal flaws’ of each character also differ in their complexity. Lena’s flaw is in compromising her own safety to discover what has happened to Kane. DI Glaspie compromises her own safety too, but also that of others. In order to get valuable information, DI Glaspie offers a refugee witness UK residency without the authority to do so. She climbs the stairs to negotiate with an unstable murderer even though she’s six months pregnant. This degree of recklessness would not be acceptable within the confines of the watertight heroism of Annihilation.
According to Mulligan herself, TV shows are an incubator of complex female characters where the big screen is failing. This is why she chose to be in Collateral:
“You can get a TV show like Big Little Lies, which has five or six extraordinary roles for women, while there would maybe be half a good role for a woman in a film. I want to play the most interesting, complicated real person, and interesting, complicated real people in films are really, really rare.” Carey Mulligan to The Independent
Through Collateral, writer-director team David Hare and S. J. Clarkson have certainly helped to bring a fresh vulnerability and complexity to mainstream audiovisual narratives. What put them in the position to move beyond the usual offering for female characters or protagonists in general – was it the small-screen format, somehow? Was it the length of screen time available to TV-writers? The police-show genre? A different gender-relations climate in the UK to the US? Was it a particular drive and vision, which we have seen in ample measure in The Hours and The Reader (both screenwritten by Hare)?
We could ponder over several possible reasons, but the fact is that a hero character in an action movie about a ‘zone’ could be equally complex if enough attention was paid to it. Taking this kind of risk would bring a more honest identification for viewers with the people we see on the screen, a deeper validation of who we are, and greater confidence in ourselves – especially for women, who tend to receive messages from mainstream media that it is best of all to be passive, innocuous, and immaculately manicured. It’s good to have a hero like Lena, but it would be even better if such characters were truly fleshed out, more deeply human.
Hiding (or simplifying) our vulnerabilities is so twentieth-century. With the array of top movie directors overwhelmingly male – as Natalie Portman herself pointed out recently when presenting the Director’s award at the Golden Globes – some serious top-level change is in order before we can reliably find female characters (or, perhaps, characters in general) with the complexity and uniqueness of Kip Glaspie on the big screen.
Annihilation and Collateral are both currently available on Netflix.