To say that the film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation is visually stimulating is like saying, "Sure, there's some magic stuff in Harry Potter." There's a lot going on in this sci-fi film, which hit theaters in late February - animal/plant hybrid species, animal/animal hybrid species, plant/plant hybrid species. Even if you haven't seen the movie, you get the picture, right? A lot of mixing and matching in the genetic department. But in one of the quietest moments of the film, one devoid of multicolored plant species and shimmery skies, is a small, but significant, literary Easter egg, one which provides an invaluable window into the heart of the film. And it all centers around one book.
Before I dive deep into this theory, though, let's talk context. Annihilation is the first in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, a sci-fi series centered around Area X, a mysterious, quarantined area on the southern coast of the United States. Team after team of researchers, military personnel and scientists venture into "The Shimmer," which arose after an explosion — and team after team disappear. Now, I should note that the film, which was adapted by Alex Garland of Ex Machina fame, and the books diverge fairly significantly. We'll be talking about the Annihilation movie — so please don't come at me with plot discrepancies, Annihilation book fans.
The film toggles between life before, during, and after Lena, a cellular biologist and Army veteran played by Natalie Portman, ventures into Area X. She is, after all, only the second person to have supposedly made it out alive. The first was her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who almost immediately fell into a coma.
In one notable flashback, Lena and Kane sit side by side on the couch in their home, enjoying a lazy afternoon. The camera pans to the cover of Lena's book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the 2011 non-fiction best-seller by Rebecca Skloot. It's the only book title shown throughout the entire movie.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor, Black tobacco farmer who died from cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31. Her cells were collected without her or her family's consent following her death — and they became one of the most important medical research tools in history, aiding in the creation of vaccines, gene mapping and cloning. Lacks' cells, known simply as "HeLa," live on in laboratories across the world and have been bought and sold by major corporations — all while her family remained in poverty, having never been given a cent of profit. It's a real-life horror story, one concerned with the violation of what makes us, well, us. If our cells are not our own, whose are they?
Lena, remember, is a biologist. Her entire world is based on the knowledge that life is dictated by the division of cells (before she descends into Area X, she's even shown teaching a class to medical students centered on a "particular case of cervical cancer"). This certainty, this scientific absolute, proves a sort of safety blanket for Lena. She can cut through the trauma and the pain and the noise, and know that within her own body, cells are behaving a certain way.
As Lena and her team - all women, all scientists or medical professionals, who see science as the natural world's law enforcement - venture farther into Area X, one thing becomes clear: their cells, their DNA? The thing that makes them them? It's morphing. It's "refracting," interacting and bonding with elements outside their own bodies. Animals can suddenly speak with their voices. Places that existed in their memories are made tangible. Scarier than violent animal attacks or mysterious weather, more unsettling than flashy special effects, is the loss of agency, of bodily autonomy. As Henrietta Lacks' cells took on new forms without her consent, so have Lena's. It's a violation at the deepest level. She, and her teammates - they no longer belong to themselves. And that's at the heart of Annihilation - the violent loss of our identities.