An addict, a cutter, an outcast, a grieving mother and a bewildered wife walk into a hallucinogenic lava lamp of an alien landscape, unsure of what they will find.
This five-woman team isn’t stranded in space on a foreign planet. They’re in the United States, in a lush coastal region dubbed Area X that looks strikingly familiar (maybe Florida?), where a meteorite struck a lighthouse about four years before.
Since the impact, a phenomenon has occurred. A glowing, pulsing, living dome, called the Shimmer, has ensconced the environment, and it’s slowly expanding, stretching its boundaries even as it transforms all life inside. New plants snake up from the soil. Kaleidoscopes of colored fungus splash across trees and the exterior walls of abandoned buildings. Two deer stop to sip water, their antlers sprouting vibrant flower blooms. A massive mammal roams the forest, its face skin and fur peeled back to expose new bone growth and razor-sharp teeth.
In adapting the first book of author Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, writer-director Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd, The Beach) has proved himself to be our go-to-guy for mind-bending, A-grade science-fiction.
As he did with Ex Machina, his remarkable exploration of sentient A.I., Garland grounds his story in basic human pathos. Lena (Natalie Portman) has spent the last year grieving for her military soldier husband Kane (Oscar Issac), who disappeared while on a top-secret mission. It’s no spoiler to report that Kane led the last team to venture into Area X.
After being taken into custody by a shadowy government agency, Lena meets Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist with no friends or family to speak of, and three female soldiers: Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a recovering addict; Josie (Tessa Thompson), who used to cut her forearms just to feel; and Cass (Tuva Novotny), still reeling from the death of a child.
Rodriguez, in particular, is remarkable as Anya, displaying a staggering depth and acting ability that transcends what audiences know of her from television’s Jane the Virgin.
Lena volunteers to accompany the women into Area X in a bid to reach ground zero, the lighthouse where the phenomenon first began. The government has evacuated everyone from this region since the meteorite’s impact, but now there is growing concern that the Shimmer might eventually cover the planet and eradicate all life.
Garland uses flashbacks and flash-forwards to guide viewers as he advances us through the Shimmer. For instance, we know Lena ultimately survived her immersion because we see her in a room being interrogated by scientists baffled as to how she survived four months inside Area X with just two-weeks-worth of rations.
“I don’t remember eating,” Lena says.
Lena is a biologist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University. In flashbacks, we learn that she had grave concerns about Kane’s impending assignment.
“I know there’s something strange about this mission,” she tells him. “The silence around it is louder than usual.”
What she doesn’t know and won’t until she herself is thick in the Shimmer, is that this alien organism isn’t necessarily hellbent on killing off life. It wants to reshape life into a freshly-mixed hybrid of intermingled DNA that creates new forms and, in at least two cases, new facsimiles of existing beings.
The further she goes, the more clues she discovers, including snippets of digital footage that document the fate of Kane’s squad.
In one tremendous sequence, Garland shows exactly how this DNA-morphing process might work when Kane uses a knife to cut open another soldier’s stomach to reveal his intestines roiling inside his body like a mess of oily snakes stuffed in a mason jar.
Garland’s visual artistry doesn’t stop there. Annihilation is marked by a series of brilliantly executed moments that display bursts of grotesque beauty and primordial terror.
The film is divided into three chapters bookended by present-day events. Garland saves his best for the third chapter, titled The Lighthouse, which explodes in a phantasmagoric feast of brain-burning visuals — crystallized trees, bone-fragment altars and an awe-inspiring nebula of energy and light that might just symbolize the birth of original creation.
As with Ex Machina, Garland leaves the answers just out of reach and open to interpretation, which is a consistent truth found in the best, most heady science-fiction.
February used to be Hollywood’s dumping ground, the time when major studios would roll out a slate of underwhelming clunkers desperate to collect as many ticket sales as possible before being jettisoned to a DVD discount bin at Walmart.
Coming on the heels of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther last week, Annihilation proves that the rulebook for February is being rewritten, and audiences should be joyous at having such a bounty of intelligent, thought-provoking and flat-out fun films to choose from.
4 out of 5 stars.
R. 115 minutes.
Directed by Alex Garland
Starring Natalie Portman, Oscar Issac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny.
Opens Friday, Feb. 23.