Otherworldly beauty and stomach-knotting horror walk hand-in-hand in Annihilation, the stunning, nerve-jangling, ambitious and nightmarish science-fiction thriller, one of the best and most ambitious genre movies to come along since Ex Machina. Both of those films were written and directed by Alex Garland, who hereby establishes himself as one our era’s great and most provocative filmmakers.

On its face, much of Annihilation—based on the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s award-winning “Southern Reach” trilogy—almost feels like Alien meets Predator meets Heart of Darkness meets I Married a Monster From Outer Space. It’s tense and jangly, delivering more than a few jump scares. But with its deliberate, meditiative pace and slow reveals, it also demands you pay it very close attention because, if you let it grab you, it will do much more than rattle the hell out of you. It’ll get you thinking about the unfathomable complexity of human beings, the overwhelming power of nature, the thin line between life and death.

Biologist, Johns Hopkins professor and Army vet Lena (a strong, no-nonsense Natalie Portman, betraying traces of her Jackie accent) is in deep shock and mourning over the disappearance, and possible death, of her Army husband Kane (Oscar Isaac, terrific and enigmatic). One day, out of nowhere, he reappears, but his behavior is spooky and odd. He can't—or won't—answer Lena’s questions. Where has he been? What did he experience? Then, he begins bleeding from the mouth and gets rushed to a private medical facility where Lena, too, is housed.

Unlike most simplistic, tidy, instantly disposable Hollywood sci-fi fare, this one doesn’t spoon-feed.

For reasons best left unspoken here, Lena decides to try and find a cure for Kane’s spiral toward death by penetrating with an all-female expedition force an abandoned, quarantined area in which a baffling, strangely beautiful phenomenon called “the Shimmer” has overtaken an entire region–and is mutating and swallowing surrounding acreage by the minute. In this bubble, our explorers encounter bizarre, overgrown plants, charred corpses, skeletal remains and phantasmagorical animal/plant mutations.

In Area X, Northern Lights-like skies are constantly fluid and kaleidoscopic, and here, earlier military explorers–including Kane–have either vanished, gone mad, turned homicidal or suicidal, or been consumed by multiple organ failure. Lena’s fellow explorers are a similarly grim, determined and troubled lot, including chilly psychologist Ventress (a compelling Jennifer Jason Leigh, muttering in disembodied monotone that makes us lean in), self-harming Josie (Tessa Thompson), former addict Anya (Gina Rodriguez, still bringing the laughs but a long way from Jane the Virgin) and grief-ravaged Sheppard (Tuva Novotny).

The smart, accomplished women gut their way through a tough, intense journey, a kind of super violent, relentlessly brutal And Then There Were None. But while the movie sometimes reminds us of previous films and novels, the inner and outer worlds Garland and his collaborators conjure deliver new visual and aural thrills, let alone complex ideas and possibilities. He rubs our faces in mystery and ambiguity, in fact, and lets us ponder over whether what’s happening in the Shimmer is good or bad, beautiful or repulsive, exhilarating or terrifying.

Unlike most simplistic, tidy, instantly disposable Hollywood sci-fi fare, this one doesn’t spoon-feed. It Kubricks us, leaving us scenes, sequences and especially a finale that, like the enigmatic wonders of 2001, will have viewers arguing over meanings and interpretation. This is a great, uncompromising movie of and rather than or, one in which a character repeatedly answers her interrogators with the only possible sane response—a profoundly baffled “I don’t know.” That makes it a rarity in our era of pretested, predigested, predictable movie fare.

The cast, and everyone involved, is in peak form, and the movie’s hypnotic power is underscored by fantastic sound design and an offbeat soundtrack composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (the latter of Portishead). Preview audiences apparently found the movie challenging somehow, so Paramount got jittery and sold off the international rights to Netflix; most audiences outside of the U.S. will only see it on smaller screens. That’s a damn shame because, love it or not, Annihilation is epic and special, indeed.


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