Producer: Scott Rudin, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich and Eli Bush
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, David Gyasi and Benedict Wong
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Combining bits of “The Thing” (the Carpenter version) and the “Aliens” franchise with themes reminiscent of “2001” and his own “Ex Machina,” writer-director Alex Garland offers an adaptation of the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy that’s consistently tantalizing but also deliberately obscure. “Annihilation” should appeal to the same audience that embraced Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival,” but will probably leave as many moviegoers scratching their heads in frustration as that film did.
In a tale dominated by female characters, Natalie Portman is Lena, a biologist specializing in cell reproduction who’s going through life in a daze over the disappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) in a secret military operation. When he suddenly returns inexplicably after months of absence, unable to remember anything about his experience, and then falls terribly ill—only to be virtually kidnapped by soldiers on the way to the hospital in an ambulance—Lena, who has a military background herself, is carted away with him.
Lena awakens in a secret government facility in Florida, where Kane is now being treated (none too successfully, it appears) and she is confronted by a no-nonsense commander, Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who explains to her what her husband’s mission was: to enter a zone on the coast called Area X along with some colleagues and report on what was happening there. His was only the latest such squad send into the region, and he was the only one to return alive—how, no one knows.
And what is Area X? It is a place around a lighthouse where a meteor struck, creating a zone surrounded by an undulating, colored shroud. The zone, nicknamed The Shimmer, is constantly expanding. It has been quarantined under the guise of protecting people from a toxic waste accident, but its growth will soon engulf populated areas. It is imperative that the government find out what is happening within it.
So Ventress is preparing to lead anther mission into Area X. Other members will include hot-tempered Anya (Gina Rodriguez), smart physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). Determined to find out the truth, Lena joins the expedition, and the five intrepid women pass through the shimmering border with weapons at the ready.
What they find cannot be revealed in detail, but suffice it to say that they discover a world in process of transformation, with strange foliation and mutated animals. The effect of whatever power is being exuded from the lighthouse on human beings is unclear—is it causing them to go mad and kill one another out of fear, or is its impact stranger and more dangerous to humanity as a whole? The title of the movie indicates the answer, but exactly how the disaster it predicts could happen is something you will have to learn—and puzzle out—for yourself.
While they make their way to the lighthouse, the women encounter curiosities aplenty, but nothing odder than what those who survive the journey confront in the basement of the ruined structure itself. There are also mutated beasts that threaten them—and worse—in episodes reminiscent of Carpenter and Scott. Throughout the actresses handle themselves mostly with aplomb, with Leigh positively exuding toughness and Rodriguez doing a wacked-out episode that’s pretty intense. It’s Portman, however, who provides the glue holding it all together, conveying Lena’s grief over her husband’s loss convincingly before turning into an action heroine with more than a bit of vulnerability beneath her strong exterior. This is a film in which the male presence is distinctly secondary, but Isaac endows Kane with cheerful virility in the flashbacks and persuasive befuddlement in the return sequences.
Other positive elements are the technical contributions. There are some striking and beautiful effects from the team supervised by Andrew Whitehurst, while Mark Digby’s production design adds to the sense of otherworldliness. Rob Hardy’s cinematography and Barney Pilling’s editing accentuate the visuals’ sense of skewed familiarity, and the score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow uses electronic sounds to reinforce the overall weirdness.
You might come out of “Annihilation” wondering about what you just saw, but the sense of wonderment will stay with you.