Infinite Womanhood and Biological Horror in Annihilation

I stole my roommate’s copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks the moment we got home from Annihilation. 

We had bought tickets for the Monday night showing in hopes of relieving ourselves of some workday stress with the ideal combination of science-fiction, horror and beautiful actors. (Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez and Oscar Isaac, to name a few.) I had seen mixed reviews of the film in the news that morning, but was determined to decide for myself—and I really wanted to watch a thriller that passed the Bechdel test.

Annihilation follows an army-vet-turned-biologist named Lena (Portman) who volunteers for a mission into a strange, ever-expanding area called “The Shimmer” when her husband Kane (Isaac) returns deathly ill after his team disappears on a previous expedition. What results is an exploration of the horror and beauty of infinite growth and infinite womanhood that bears an uncanny—or, more likely, intentional—resemblance to Lack’s own story.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who sought treatment at Johns Hopkins when she fell suddenly and terribly ill with cervical cancer in 1951. During her treatment, doctors took a small sampling of her cells, without her permission—and, somehow, miraculously or horrifically, those cells never died. They grew and grew, not unlike Annihilation’s Shimmer, and created a cell line called “HeLa” that played a pivotal role in countless scientific discoveries.

Early in the film, Lena teaches a biology class at Johns Hopkins University. Her students watch as cells divide rapidly on the projector before them. Lena explains that their course will follow the life cycle of cells, with a special emphasis on what happens when cell growth goes wrong. She concludes by noting that the specimen of cells before them came from a woman’s cervical tumor.

That scene isn’t the only one to ponder the connection between Annihilation and Lacks’ so-called immortal life. It is followed by mentions of cell growth and “immortality” here, a shot of Lena reading Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks there. If I hadn’t known better, I would have wondered whether director Alex Garland was sitting next to me the day I learned about HeLa in my high school biology class—and proceeded to dream up my own nightmare scenarios of tumors gone wrong and cells ceasing to die.

In its own way, Annihilation is the story of Lacks’ cells. The Shimmer is a rapidly growing tumor on the surface of planet earth, filled with unimaginable horrors and wonders. Flowers fused with human Hox genes grow humanoid silhouettes. Crocodiles with shark teeth wait in the flooded ruins of homes. Rainbow light streams into the prismatic atmosphere. A bear steals the voice of its prey before hunting down Lena’s team. It is growth gone awry: flowers and blood fused in human flesh.

All this creation, as ghastly as it is lovely, is distinctly feminine. Unlike the entirely male teams before them, Lena’s team enters the Shimmer comprised of only women: Portman’s biologist, Rodriguez’s paramedic, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s psychologist, Tessa Thompson’s physicist and Tuva Novotny’s geomorphologist. There’s something distinctly badass about watching the team of five women cross marshlands with their backpacking gear and guns as they step into the Shimmer. There’s something even more badass about knowing that team is full of capable, yet complex, characters that represent a range of femininity seldom seen on screen.

Just as Henrietta’s tumor cells were born from her womb, so the strange creations of the Shimmer seem born from a kind of womanhood. The characters’ cells refract through the atmosphere of the Shimmer, merging with plant and animal life to create new horrors.

When I read about Lacks now, I am appalled by the sociological horrors that governed her fate—segregated hospitals and shoddy medical ethics. But when I first learned about her I was struck primarily with biological curiosity. What happened to her tumor cells that made them immortal? Annihilation is ultimately a (thrilling) meditation on the same question—yielding to the metaphor that creation is a distinctly feminine act while but wondering what diversity, malignant or benign, womanhood might create.

headshotCecilia Nowell is an immigration paralegal by day and a freelance journalist by night. She writes about political art and feminism, among other things, and her writing has appeared in Bitch, The Establishment, and Argot Magazine. Find her on (her brand new) Twitter @cecilianowell.

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