'Annihilation' is a trippy mindwalk 

From director Alex Garland.

click to enlarge SWAMP SHIMMER: Natalie Portman is a biologist studying the creatures within a freaky bubble.
  • SWAMP SHIMMER: Natalie Portman is a biologist studying the creatures within a freaky bubble.

There's a scene midway through "Annihilation" that confirms it as a bona fide freaky-ass sci-fi. Five scientists outfitted with military gear — headlined, if not led, by Natalie Portman as an Army vet biologist named Lena — have entered a mysterious, seemingly malignant bubble known as the Shimmer and found the digs of the previous team of special-ops sorts who went in to investigate. Dudes left behind a memory card with a note to watch, and watch the newbies do. Without quite spoiling it, let's just say the video is of some impromptu surgery with a big ol' knife and a dude in a chair whose insides are not what you'd like your insides ever, ever to look like. It's one of the most chilling bursts of body horror that has appeared on a big screen in forever.

Director Alex Garland ("Ex Machina"), who also adapted the screenplay from the Jeff VanderMeer novel of the same name, must have known in part that he was playing against the expectations of the casting alone. All of the leads — the science expedition crew — are women, leaving the only male role of much note that of Oscar Isaac, playing Lena's husband, who was on that ill-fated earlier mission into the Shimmer. In all, "Annihilation" tracks as a less action-driven, more exploratory disaster sci-fi; despite some moments of intense fighting and horror, its tone tilts decidedly feminine. It's a trippy mindwalk for anyone who geeks out on how life forms and evolves, and it's a reminder of one of the strange truisms of being a person, which is that pretty much anything gets scarier when it's alive.

We find Lena as a professor at Johns Hopkins University talking about how cancer cells metastasize. It's been 12 months since her husband, Kane, vanished on a mission he told her nothing about. Weirdly, though, Kane reappears at her house. Shell-shocked, he explains that he can't tell her anything about where he was or what happened to him. Then all his organs start failing, and on the way to the hospital, heavily armed dudes in black SUVs snatch them off to a secret military facility.

There, a psychologist named Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) explains: Kane was in this miles-wide bubble on a coastal swamp, you see, with translucent rainbow walls like a motor oil sheen. Somehow this mass has remained under wraps for three years (the only "wait, what, seriously?" moment in the film) since an asteroid struck a lighthouse at its center. Damn thing is growing, and no one ever walks back out of it. Lena's freaked, but decides to join the team gearing up: Anya Thorensen the geologist, Gina Rodriguez the paramedic and Tessa Thompson as a physicist. They go tromping through the wall together and weird stuff starts happening.

A word about the effects: They are, in places, spectacular and devastating and haunting. At several points, they elevate the film's thinking — which is, in parts, open-ended in a way that will leave some viewers asking a simple "why," a "why" that ain't going to be answered in any pat fashion. And another word about Natalie Portman: She's her own effect here, at turns brittle and vulnerable and funny and physically adroit. "Annihilation" will draw at least superficial comparisons to another brainy, lady-scientist-forward ostensible alien invasion pic — "Arrival" — from 2016. But the speed and thrum and sheer visceral pleasures of "Annihilation" may make it the longer fan favorite even as "Arrival" stands to live longer as prestige cinema. Put it this way: "Annihilation" is one of the only recent movies I can think of that may warrant a second viewing just on a sound effect alone, one that drops into the soundtrack during its freaky-ass conclusion. An immersive, beautiful, ambitious sci-fi with a dashing heroine and just a dash of nightmare fuel? Yes, please. More.


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