Combustible Celluloid
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With: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, Sonoya Mizuno, David Gyasi
Written by: Alex Garland, based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer
Directed by: Alex Garland
MPAA Rating: R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality
Running Time: 115
Date: 02/23/2018

Annihilation (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Shimmer School

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Alex Garland's second directorial outing after the excellent Ex Machina, this brainy, metaphysical sci-fi is even more ambitious and more amazing, but its challenging conclusion could be a hard sell.

In Annihilation, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is mourning the loss of her soldier husband (Oscar Isaac). In the process of repainting their home, he suddenly shows up, extremely disoriented and unable to remember anything. But when Lena tries to take him to the hospital, they are intercepted and taken instead to a secret government facility. There, Lena learns about The Shimmer, a mysterious force that has appeared and seems to be expanding.

All efforts to enter into it have met with failure; no one has come back alive except Lena's husband. Teaming up with four other women — Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Cass (Tuva Novotny) — Lena volunteers to go into the unknown area, hoping to save her husband, but also in an effort to solve the mystery. However, what she finds inside is beyond even her wildest expectations.

Based on Jeff VanderMeer's novel, Annihilation slightly resembles Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), a highly artistic masterpiece from a much braver time, when audiences did not balk at ambiguity. Like Blade Runner 2049, Garland manages to combine strange, imaginative visuals, ideas, and sounds with more traditional audience-aimed thrills, but does so far more seamlessly. It's less focused on climactic battles, and instead heads toward a far more poetic, strange, surreal ending.

The shape of Annihilation is nothing short of brilliant, with a linear, minimalist starting point, consisting of simple, straightforward images (like a lighthouse). It then opens up like weird flowers, following different offshoots to new, unexpected points in its unpredictable world. The movie is also admirable for its choice of five women and no men as the ones who embark upon the journey, and Portman's performance especially makes it an emotional one.

However, given that it's sometimes creepy, and perhaps even unsettling, it sets itself up as an item for a cult audience — it's closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey than to Star Wars — than it does an audience favorite. But those that prefer their sci-fi deep are in for a treat.

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