‘Annihilation’ is a trippy and frightful fantasia
Grade: 3 stars (out of 4)
Credits: Directed by Alex Garland; cast includes Natalie Portman
Rating: R for “violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality.”
Running time: 1:55
By Jake Coyle
AP Film Writer
“The Shimmer” is the name given to the mysterious phenomenon that, after a meteor strike, settles along a swampy coastline in Alex Garland’s “Annihilation.” It’s an area enclosed by a fluid, translucent wall bathed in an eerie rainbow glimmer. The Shimmer’s steady expansion threatens to swallow surrounding towns, cities and, eventually, everything.
Naturally, this is Florida. Efforts to determine what’s inside the Shimmer have proven futile. Except for one survivor, none to enter have ever returned. To step inside is to step into the unknown.
The same could be said for those who come to see “Annihilation,” a trippy, mind-bending cinematic experience that plunges you into a disorienting and dream-like science fiction that contorts and disintegrates much of the genre’s conventions.
This is the bigger-budget follow-up to Garland’s directing debut, “Ex Machina.” The novelist turned screenwriter (“28 Days Later...,” ‘’Sunshine,” ‘’Never Let Me Go”) has here made good on the promise of “Ex Machina,” a heady if sometimes flat chamber piece about the invention of a very human-like artificial intelligence.
“Annihilation,” which is partly based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, has plenty of forerunners and it’s certainly not flawless. There’s an often awkward distance here between Garland’s grand ambitions and his mid-sized-budget visual effects, between VanderMeer’s immersive imagination and the necessities of physicalizing fantasy in a movie.
But rarely has a film conjured such a thick atmosphere of dread and wonder as “Annihilation,” a movie that unfolds, grippingly, as an existential mystery.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is an ex-Army biology professor at Johns Hopkins whose soldier husband (Oscar Isaacs), after being gone for a year, returns from a secret mission unable to explain where he’s been. Dumbfounded, he promptly begins to spit up blood and, in the ambulance ride to the hospital, is overtaken by a swarm of police vehicles.
Lena is introduced to the Shimmer by a laconic psychologist (a miscast Jennifer Jason Leigh) in charge of fielding missions. She, herself, is going in, pulled by inescapable curiosity, and Lena joins her.
With “Ghostbusters”-like backpacks, they enter the Shimmer where bewilderments and horrors await. They immediately wake up in their tents, unsure how they spent the past three days. In the lush, tropical forest, they marvel at the teaming mutated species while evading fantastical beasts. It’s equal parts dream and nightmare.
It’s an intoxicatingly weird fantasia, beautifully photographed by Rob Hardy, that’s genuinely head spinning.