Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS for Annihilation ahead
Annihilation is Ex Machina director Alex Garland’s new mind-bending science fiction film, loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name. Lena (Natalie Portman) travels with a team of her fellow scientists into “The Shimmer,” a transformative and mysterious landscape, to learn what happened to her husband there in the hopes of saving his life. Like the book, the film’s plot is not linear, and the viewer weaves between Lena’s life before, after, and during her experiences in The Shimmer as the plot unravels.
As in the book, there are five scientists on the expedition team. Unlike the book, the movie actually gives them names. Here’s a breakdown of the main team, the people they leave behind at home, and how each of the characters compare to their counterparts in the novel.
This Page: The Expedition Team
Next Page: The Home Team
Lena (Natalie Portman)
Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Annihilation
While the protagonist of VanderMeer’s novel, “the Biologist,” is a misanthropic ecologist, Lena is a cellular biologist and professor at Johns Hopkins. She previously served in the Army, where she met her husband, Kane. Kane is often away on covert missions, and during that time Lena has an affair with her colleague, Daniel. After Kane “returns” from the Shimmer with massive organ failure, Lena volunteers for the next mission in the hopes of finding some way to cure him.
While in the Shimmer, Lena discovers that her cells – and presumably her teammates cells – are mutating at an alarming rate. Her blood joins with a shifting life-form in the cave within the lighthouse to create a doppelganger that mirrors her movements and eventually her physical features. It appears that Lena kills her doppelganger with a grenade and escapes the Shimmer, but the film is largely a frame narrative from Lena (or her doppelganger’s) perspective. The final moments of the film show that Lena’s eyes shift colors with the same way that Kane’s doppelganger did. It’s clear that whether or not Lena or her doppelganger actually survive, they will never be free of the Shimmer.
Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh)
Dr. Ventress is a psychologist who was responsible for choosing candidates to enter the Shimmer. Tired of waiting on the side lines, she decides to lead Lena’s expedition. Ventress is pessimistic, musing to Lena about how all human beings are self-destructive, but she is also determined to reach the Lighthouse and the source of the Shimmer. In a cave within the Lighthouse, she is enveloped by a force to become a shifting and shimmering substance, what seems to be an entirely new life force. Lomax later reveals that Ventress was dying of cancer and had no intention of returning from the Shimmer, which most likely influenced her decision to continue moving forward even after the death of Cass Sheppard.
Ventress’s character is close to her book counterpart, the Psychologist, who is the former Director of the Southern Reach (the organization exploring Area X). The Psychologist, who is also dying from cancer, is calculating and uses hypnosis to control the other members of the expedition.
More: The Cast of Annihilation
Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny)
Cass Sheppard is an anthropologist, but she is very different to the book’s Anthropologist, who is young, eager to prove herself, and talkative. Sheppard, in contrast, is mature, pensive, and understated. She reveals to Lena that her daughter died of leukemia, and that the loss drove her to come on this seeming suicide mission to the Shimmer.
When the team camps at the abandoned Southern Reach base for the night, Sheppard is dragged off by a genetically mutated bear. Lena later finds her body and confirms that Sheppard is dead. The bear returns with a call that mimics Sheppard’s final screams, and Radek hypothesizes that some part of Sheppard may have fused with the bear when it killed her.
Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez)
Anya Thorensen is the team’s paramedic, and before entering the Shimmer she is outgoing, friendly, and funny. When Sheppard gives explanations of why each team member is going into the Shimmer, she profiles Thorensen as a former addict. Initially, Thorensen looks out for Josie Radek, who is incredibly shaken by their encounters with the mutated crocodile and the first video tape, in which Kane mutilates a team member in a previous expedition. After Sheppard’s death, Thorensen is the most outspoken about turning back, but is manipulated by Lena into continuing forward.
The effects of the Shimmer begin to get to Thorensen, and her paranoia takes over. She ties up her team members and begins to interrogate Lena about why she omitted to tell the group that her husband, Kane, was on the previous expedition. Thorensen begins to threaten Lena, but she hears the cries of a genetically mutated bear, which mimics the screams of Sheppard as she died. Thorensen, believing that Sheppard is alive, goes to save her and is killed in the ensuing struggle with the bear.
Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson)
Josie Radek is a physicist who, before joining the Southern Reach, had just finished a post-doctorate at Cambridge University. Sheppard tells Lena that Radek wears long sleeves in order to hide the cuts on her arms, implying that Radek’s mental health may have influenced her decision to come on the expedition to the Shimmer. Radek is unnerved soon after they arrive, when a mutated crocodile grabs hold of her and her pack. Her discomfort only increases when the team discovers the video tape in which Kane cuts open one of his team mates to reveal moving intestines.
After the deaths of Cass Sheppard and Anya Thorensen, Radek sits with Lena. She reveals her arms, which have started to sprout plant buds, and tells Lena that she does not want to leave or destroy the Shimmer. She transforms into a flowering tree.
Page 2: The Home Team
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