Review: 'Annihilation'

Alex Garland, director of 'Ex Machina,' turns in another beautiful, confounding film
Based on Jeff VanderMeer's 'Southern Reach' trilogy, 'Annihilation' echoes 'Body Snatchers' and 'Stalker.'

The raving-mad Ophelia: "Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be"—what we may become, that is. That fearful potential for metamorphosis is at the center of Annihilation, directed and adapted by Alex Garland, following up on his brilliant Ex Machina. The film is based on novelist Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. While it's better to crunch three volumes into one movie than to divide a book into three movies, a la The Hobbit, some material gets brushed upon—particularly elements about the marriage of the grieving heroine, a cellular biology professor named Lena (Natalie Portman). We first see Lena in quarantine, the only survivor of a doomed squad of all-female first responders.

A dreadful anomaly has occurred in a remote coastal wetland. It's nicknamed "The Shimmer," a filmy permeable dome, swimming with iridescent colors like a splash of gasoline on wet pavement. Those who go inside never return. The head of the project to studying The Shimmer is a numb psychiatrist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who has a theory about what's occurring—either something kills the intruders within, or something drives them mad so that they kill each other.

Garland, one of the smartest directors making speculative fiction films today, fills his screen with terrible beauty. It's like a good museum: on the walls of abandoned dwellings, multi-colored lichens spread thick as the impasto on a painting by the artist Jess. Bosch-like chimera spring upon and devour members of the team, and the mystery's ... not solution, but definition ... takes place on a Dali beach of baleful skies and crystal trees.

The books are said to be dreamier, with unnamed characters defined by their roles (Lena was "The Biologist"). As in David Lynch, what happens in them is a matter of opinion, more than a matter of fact. The film nails stuff down, and the truth is that the long-memoried will find some of this familiar, anticipated by the spore-like Body Snatchers, and Tarkovsky's Soviet speculative films Solaris and Stalker.

Still, the underplayed tone in Annihilation is quiet and elegant: one character describing the agonizing fate of a comrade murmurs, "I wouldn't like that." As in David Cronenberg's films, Annihilation seems to be about cancer as a science-fiction metaphor. Patients are told to visualize the disease as part of the process of "kicking cancer's ass," as they say. And what ass would that be? The terrifying part of the disease's rampage is that it's nothing personal.

R; 115 Min.

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