Approach Area X, the strange landscape at the heart of Annihilation, with the same trepidation and curiosity as the movie’s explorers. The movie poses more questions than answers: What is Area X? What makes Area X so inexplicably weird? What is that bear thing? Keep your eyes wide open, because you won't want to miss a clue to unraveling the mysteries.
Since you’ll be paying such close attention to Area X, you might miss clues embedded in the movie’s less radical landscapes. Annihilation switches between the violent weirdness of Area X, and Lena’s (Natalie Portman) conventional life with her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). At one point, Lena is reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a bestselling nonfiction book by Rebecca Skloot, on the couch. Lena doesn’t know it at the time, but the contents of that book correspond to the phenomena she'll encounter in Area X later on.
It makes sense why Lena, of all people, would be drawn to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Lena is a biologist, and Skloot’s book is about the story behind the HeLa cell, a human cell that has the ability to reproduce infinitely. HeLa cells have been incredibly instrumental in furthering science. As the book's prologue reads, HeLa “cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukaemia, influenza, haemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers.” Essentially, these are the most important cells when it comes to medicinal research.
Lena specialises in cell reproduction, so she might be especially shocked by the HeLa cell's dark history. In 1951, a woman named Henrietta Lacks went to the Johns Hopkins hospital to receive treatment for cervical cancer. Without Lacks' knowledge or consent, cells were harvested from her tumour during a biopsy. Scientists found that her cells were remarkable. Up until this point, scientists had been unable to keep cells alive on their own. Lacks’ cells, on the other hand, bred every 48 hours. They were the first immortal cells.
Henrietta Lacks died the same year those cells were harvested, but her cells have lived on. “One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing,” Skloot writes.
Despite the importance of the HeLa cell, Lacks’ family never received compensation. Skloot’s book reveals the injustices that were done against the Lacks family, and historical exploitation of Black Americans for medical research.
But how does this discomfiting story tie into the Shimmer, Area X, and a landscape that distorts everything inside it? The key comes in the HeLa cells themselves, which are able to multiply indefinitely, even though other cells could not. HeLa represents a mystery of science on a granular level. What differentiates Lacks’ cells from all the rest?
Annihilation is asking similar questions about the nature of cells. The plants and animals in Area X are strange, because they’ve been tampered with on a cellular level. After passing through the Shimmer, an organism's cells change fundamentally. Organic beings can take new shape. Humans can be regenerated as flowers; bears can take on the voice of a human. Life continues to grow explosively, but differently than it had before.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks shows up in Lena’s hands for a very deliberate reason. The book signals that Annihilation will be a movie about life — and the components that build life up. Annihilation is a reminder that, for all our "civilisation," humans can be boiled down to cells, just like the trees we cut down and the deer we hunt. Once the explorers in Annihilation lose their "humanness," their cells get whole new lives.