Some biology Easter eggs for you from the movie Annihilation
Alex Garland’s new science-fiction film Annihilation is a wonderfully crafted exploration of a thought-provoking concept: what if our first — and perhaps our last — close, and I mean very close, encounter with life from beyond our planet came in the form of an undirected and unforgiving biological process.
The plot of the film is set in motion as a meteor trailing a plume of smoke through the sky makes landfall on an isolated portion of the Florida coast. The meteor impact triggers an expanding bubble of distorted reality known as the Shimmer which is centered around a lighthouse near the point where it strikes the ground. Within the Shimmer the laws of physics are “refracted,” and the mixing of DNA of the variety of organisms captured there takes place with reckless abandon resulting in a kind of creative-destruction of biological life that can be both terrifying and terrifyingly beautiful.
A team of four specialists is dispatched to investigate what’s going on inside, their predecessors having, mostly, never returned to communicate their findings to anxiously awaiting government officials. This team is led by cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) whose interest in the mysterious phenomenon is both professional and personal, her husband having been a member of one of the early teams.
Early in the film, wearing her hat as a biologist, Lena muses in a voice over about called the Hayflick limit, the number of times, typically between 40 and 60, that healthy vertebrate cells can divide before cell division comes to a screeching halt. This is the first of several biological Easter eggs that the filmmakers have tossed out for us to appreciate. They are delightful in their own right, but also point to deeper themes layered within Annihilation.
I must admit being unaware of the story behind the Hayflick limit until I read Meredith Wadman’s recent book The Vaccine Race, which, in part, details the story of Leonard Hayflick whose insight and hard work led the discovery of his eponymous limit and whose self-destructive striving for fame and fortune as a result led to his professional demise.
Fittingly, the theme of self-destruction also plays a prominent role in the movie. At one point, Lena describes what is known apoptosis, which is defined as the programmed death of cells that occurs as a normal and controlled part of an organism’s growth or development. In Annihilation, the idea of apoptosis applies to the human characters of the story, who seek their own self-destruction, not as a form of suicide, but as a kind of completion of their own development and as a sacrifice for the good of some greater human organism.
A third Easter egg appears when we spot Lena and her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), in flashback, reading side-by-side on the sofa. Lena is holding a copy of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. A triumph of investigative medical journalism, Immortal Life documents the controversy that began in the 1950s with the treatment of an African-American woman, Henrietta Lacks, for cervical cancer. Cells taken from her, without her consent and unknown to her family for decades, led to the development of the “immortal” HeLa cell line, a laboratory tool that became a cornerstone of pioneering medical research.
In this regard, Annihilation points toward an important question from Skloot’s book: does our biological storyline really come to an end with our deaths; is it possible for us to live on — and achieve immortality of sorts — in the cells that survive us, no matter how unlike us they may be?
Annihilation offers us a final Easter egg late in the film with mention of HOX, or homeobox, genes. These are genes, highly conserved over evolutionary history, that that dictate the development of the body of plans across several of biology’s taxonomic “kingdoms.” They are presented in the movie as a possible biomolecular mechanism that could account for the creation of the various hybrids encountered in the Shimmer, including ones that meld humans and plants genes into exquisite living sculpture.
No doubt there are additional, Easter eggs to be uncovered in Annihilation. It certainly merits a second viewing on that account alone. But even these four indicate what a smart science-fiction film it is with its hard-science references. And, I would add, not just mere biology factoids thrown in for our amusement, but observations about the world that point to the movie’s greater themes having to do with the preservation of personal identity in spite of inexorable genetic change and the fate of species, if not their origin, in a post-Darwinian universe.