There’s an early scene in Annihilation, Alex Garland’s cerebral sci-fi-horror drama, where the biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) examines a cluster of kaleidoscopically mutated flowers. “They’re growing from the same branch structure, so it has to be the same species,” she mutters to her all-female squad of researchers. “You’d sure as hell call it a pathology if you saw this in a human.” The team, led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is tasked with exploring the Shimmer: a sinister dome of iridescent light that has consumed the Florida coastline.
In this realm, Lena and her crew encounter anthropoid shrubs, luminous deer, and houses overgrown with brightly colored moss. As the film goes on, they realize that the Shimmer’s fauna and flora are encroaching upon them and threaten to consume them entirely. But the Shimmer’s plant life is also a visual metaphor for the women’s psychological wounds—their grief, anger, and loneliness. Annihilation notably refuses to fall back on the predominantly male worldview that underlies many sci-fi classics, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Unlike in these films, where women are primarily defined by their relationships with and duty to men, Annihilation’s female characters mostly seek to interrogate the purpose of existence itself.