ANNIHILATION
(***)
"A motion picture of imagination and humanity, a melding of the sumptuously scientific and the thrillingly cathartic..."

Annihilation is hard sci-fi for the mind, eyes and ears

(032418) Superficially, "Annihilation" may look from the outside like yet another derivative facsimile of many other sci-fi films. Elements of Kubricks' “2001”, “Solaris”, as well as 2016's “Arrival” come to mind. Writer-director Alex Garland (2015's "Ex Machina") does not deal in mimicking what has come before. Thus, while the nuts-and-bolts premise sounds like the set-up for the familiar, what viewers are treated to instead is altogether fresh and mesmerizing and thoroughly unshakeable, a thought-provoking story of grief, lost loves, unearthly metamorphoses, and the delicate yet all-powerful cellular make-up which connects everything in the world—for better and for worse.

It has been one year since Lena's (Natalie Portman) soldier husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), abruptly left and didn't return from an expedition into the Florida Everglades, the site of an ever-expanding, unexplainable disaster zone known as The Shimmer. No one who has ever gone into The Shimmer comes back out. And then Kane does just that, appearing in his home with few memories he is willing to divulge about his time away. When his body suddenly experiences massive internal bleeding and multiple organ failure, Lena, a biologist and Johns Hopkins professor, wants to get to the bottom of what has happened to her husband. Recruited by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to accompany her and three fellow specialists—medic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny)—into The Shimmer, Lena accepts what could very well be a suicide mission. Where they go and what they experience within their deceptively beautiful, increasingly malignant surroundings will test their strength, their fortitude, and their determination to reach the spot of initial impact—a lonesome lighthouse standing along the shore—where all their answers may lie.

Based on Jeff VanderMeer's 2014 novel of the same name, "Annihilation" is the kind of film that sticks in the mind long after viewing. Impossible to discount, it reveals increasingly captivating layers throughout and even more once it's over. Like 2016's astounding Denis Villeneuve-helmed "Arrival," this is serious, thinking-person's sci-fi set within a world that feels as real as our own. A motion picture of imagination and humanity, a melding of the sumptuously scientific and the thrillingly cathartic, "Annihilation" successfully skirts the line between upscale and down-and-dirty.

The initial introduction of Lena's central cohorts feels slightly stock, each one receiving little more than a one-sentence description before they are heading into the hornet's nest. While more might have been done to build them up at the onset, hints about who they are and why each one is willing to risk it all for this perilous expedition gradually and effectively reveal themselves. That they are all female is passingly mentioned once and never again, beside the point and better for it. It is Lena whose journey we most intently follow, however, and her life both before and after Kane's disappearance is methodically dispersed in poignant introductory scenes and insightful flashbacks. An early montage of Lena's struggles to move on, scored exquisitely to Crosby, Stills & Nash's " "Hopelessly Hoping," is particularly effective.

'Unforgettable' is also a word which could best be used to describe The Shimmer, a landscape marrying the familiar with the alien, where plant DNA, animal DNA, and human DNA refract upon each other like a macabre evolutionary prism. A rousing accomplishment in conceptual and technical creativity, it's a rainbow-fogged, genre-lover's paradise of sheer intoxication and untold horrors. Just as the visuals themselves have a way of getting under one's skin—they're fantastical, gorgeous, and nightmarish all at once—so, too, does the melodically screeching, hauntingly otherworldly music score by composers Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury. The sound design, full of deviously ethereal and ingeniously subliminal cues, is one of the most impressive in recent memory. And may be even more effective then the visuals. It is a mid-section set-piece wherein the women are stalked by a hybrid bear seemingly born from their wildest fears that takes the cake, though, approaching a level of unquenchable fright not often or easily obtained in film.

The encroaching scares, when they come, go for the jugular without overplaying their hand. From a chilling find in a drained swimming pool to the lighthouse-set third act, the film provides new, unsettling sights never before glimpsed.

Unfortunately, the films central performance by Natalie Portman as Lena (2013's "Thor” The Dark World") is the movies sour note. Portman has always been an actor that never fully connects with a character. The mechanics of her ability are there. But that's all. The machinery is moving. But it never fully engages. Lena is supposed to be an emotionally complex protagonist who has reached a fateful turning point in her life. The more we learn about her mistakes as well as her devotion, the more authentic—and sympathetic—she should become. That never happens. The character remains at arms length. It's a problem the film has to work hard to overcome.

She is joined by other wonderful actors: Gina Rodriguez (TV's "Jane The Virgin"), whose Chicago medic Anya may not be as tough as she lets on; Tessa Thompson (2015's "Creed"), whose restrained, measured Josie hides untold pains and sadness behind the sleeves of her shirts; Tuva Novotny (2010's "Eat Pray Love"), whose Cass has lost the person she once was in the shadow of tragedy; Jennifer Jason Leigh (2015's "Anomalisa") as Dr. Ventress, shielding her own personal reasons for why she is so determined to learn the genesis and motive of the anomalies all around them; and Oscar Isaac (2017's "Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi"), making a deep impression in the small but pivotal role of Lena's husband, Kane.

The deeper one digs into the shuddersome, biologically interconnected pleasures of "Annihilation," the more momentous it feels. Beyond the realm of what one could envision for the planet's future yet eerily plausible all the same, the film expertly builds a skewed fictional reality before reaching a harrowing conclusion impossible to predict. Although this is the first in what could potentially become a series (it is based on book one in author Jeff VanderMeer's so-called "Southern Reach" trilogy), it is a testament to Alex Garland's talent as a filmmaker and writer that it could entirely stand on its own. In spite of its title, "Annihilation" isn't just about the end of things, but also about the beginning of something else—an insinuation of profound and portentous consequence.

Directed & Written by:  Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer
Starring:   Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson
Released:   022318
Length: 115 minutes
Rating:   Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality

ANNHILATION ©  2018 Paramount Pictures
Review © 2018 Alternate Reality, Inc.