ANNIHILATION (7 out of 10) Directed by Alex Garland; Written by Alex Garland; Starring Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Benedict Wong; Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality; Running time 115 minutes; In wide release February 23, 2018. 

Writer-director Alex Garland follows up his mind-boggling robot film Ex Machina with what I’m told is a loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation.

Natalie Portman portrays biologist Lena whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has mysteriously returned after she believed him killed in a secret military operaion, and she has questions to which he has no answers. But he hasn’t come back unscathed, and after a harrowing ordeal she finds herself in a government facility being battered with questions herself.

She learns about The Shimmer, which appears to be a barrier just beyond the building, with iridescent swirls that resemble wand-blown bubbles. Her husband had ventured inside and is the only one who has returned.

A scientist with military experience, Lena can’t sit on the sidelines as her husband’s health deteriorates and miss the chance of figuring out what happened to him.

She joins the group of female scientists who are hoping to succeed where the ones before them have failed. Jennifer Jason Leigh is psychologist Dr. Ventress; Anya (Gina Rodriguez) is a paramedic, Josie (Tessa Thompson) is a physicist, and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) rounds out the group. They all have their baggage, and they add that to the rucksacks they take on their journey. Each aware that they may not come back alive.

As the team delves deeper into The Shimmer, they are met with terrifying creatures but also find beauty, such as vibrant flowers growing around a boathouse. We already know, due to flash forwards with Lena, how this turns out, but we can’t help but hope everyone gets back safely. Still, even with the foreknowledge, the tension is palpable.

And yet this is not a group that is easy to cheer for. They are hardened, embittered by their lives. They are already dying in their own way, literally and figuratively. Guilt, loss, mental health issues. Is it The Shimmer that will annihilate them, or will they annihilate themselves?

Portman and Isaac, along with Leigh, are the standouts in the cast, with their characters being most pivotal to the plot. Portman adeptly handles her gun when the need arises, and she is convincing as ex-military. Of course I had flashbacks of Padme Amidala from the Star Wars prequels. It didn’t help that Poe Dameron (Isaac) is also in the movie, but his accent and character is so different from the brash pilot that it didn’t distract me from the story.

And while audiences laughed at the “scary” scenes in Alien Covenant, the nail-biting horror sequence in Annihilation left audiences stunned silent. If only horror movies these days were a fraction as scary.

Annihilation is part-cerebral, part horror, part science-fiction, and it felt a bit as if Darren Aranofsky and the late Michael Crichton made a film together. Life finds a way amongst a surrealist landscape. And at the end we must ask ourselves, what the hell just happened?

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Tags: Alex Garland , Jeff VanderMeer , Annihilation , Natalie Portman