Film review

Annihilation: A head-trip wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a sci-fi horror flick

Natalie Portman stars in the visual poem about a mysterious thing called The Shimmer, engineered to make you think — and rethink

  • Natalie Portman in 'Annihilation.' (Paramount Pictures)
    Natalie Portman in 'Annihilation.' (Paramount Pictures)
  • Natalie Portman tinkers with a mutant crocodile in 'Annihilation.' (Paramount Pictures)
    Natalie Portman tinkers with a mutant crocodile in 'Annihilation.' (Paramount Pictures)
  • Natalie Portman in 'Annihilation.' (Paramount Pictures)
    Natalie Portman in 'Annihilation.' (Paramount Pictures)
  • A still photo from 'Annihilation.' (Paramount Pictures)
    A still photo from 'Annihilation.' (Paramount Pictures)

NEW YORK — Sometimes you need to see something to see that that something was something you needed to see.

Sorry if that sounds overly Midrash-y, but “Annihilation” is just that type of heavy, head-trip motion picture.

Which isn’t to say that it isn’t swell entertainment. In addition to the hard-to-explain moments of visual poetry, there’s a sequence in which Natalie Portman wears battle fatigues and blasts a mutant crocodile to bloody bits. (Again, something I never knew I needed to see, but boy did I ever.)

Portman’s Lena is part of an exploratory mission into an unexplained zone of weird phenomenon called The Shimmer.

In ‘Annihilation,’ Natalie Portman’s Lena is part of an exploratory mission into an unexplained zone of weird phenomenon called The Shimmer. (Screenshot)

What lurks inside The Shimmer remains unknown, but as this area grows it alters (destroys?) all life within it. Eventually it will leave the small American swamp and swallow up the entire world! But before it can be stopped it needs to be understood. Every group that has entered (where no radio signals can emerge) has never been heard from again — that is, until the strange return of Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac).

We learn through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards that Kane works with special forces and has been gone for about a year. Just when Lena, a retired military scientist now teaching biology at Johns Hopkins University, is ready to give up on ever seeing him again, he pops up. But he’s clearly not himself. His memory is fuzzy, and then he starts spitting blood.

A still photo from ‘Annihilation.’ (Paramount Pictures)

Next thing you know Lena and Kane are at some sort of black site. Lena soon believes (or allows herself to believe) that the only way to save the now comatose Kane is to enter The Shimmer herself.

Director Alex Garland visualizes the exterior of The Shimmer as if the very air were somehow smeared with soap. Once inside, where light, sound, DNA and eventually thought are “refracted,” the production design is really quite unlike anything you’ve seen before.

These aren’t special effects that grab you by the chair and rattle you. These are gorgeous-yet-terrifying plant and animal mutations that are eerie in their quiet horror. Can a flower be scary? Yes, a flower can be scary.

Natalie Portman tinkers with a mutant crocodile in ‘Annihilation.’ (Paramount Pictures)

Lena is the newest member of the crew. With her are a band of other scientists played by Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and, the erstwhile leader who was a psychologist back at the base, Jennifer Jason Leigh. All women, because the previous missions were predominantly military.

(There is more specific reasoning given in the book, I am told. I have not read the book, but discussions with those that have, and my Wikipedia research, back writer-director Alex Garland’s claim that his film and Jeff VanderMeer’s novel are two very different animals.)

Despite Lena’s greenhorn status, her expertise with human cells is key to unlocking the film’s mysteries on a plot and emotional level. Duplication and self-destruction are recurring themes, without giving too much away.

What’s most interesting is how this film is willing to let its characters get a few steps ahead of the audience.

There are times when you really don’t quite know what Lena is thinking or doing. This is anathema to wide-release Hollywood filmmaking, and part of the reason why the studio (in this case, Paramount) hit the panic button on the movie’s release. It is being released theatrically in the United States and China only. The rest of the world can watch it on Netflix.

That’s something of an artistic crime, as this is very much a “see it big” type of movie. The film’s climax clearly wants to swim in big ponds like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker.” (There are also some visual similarities to the cult favorite “Carnival of Souls.”)

Some in the audience I saw it with made some clear “what the hell?” grumblings during the film’s conclusion. I can’t really explain precisely what happens at every beat, but I have an instinctual understanding based on impressions. (The two most plot-heavy images come at the very beginning and very end, and both are about five seconds long.)

Natalie Portman in soldier’s uniform in ‘Annihilation.’ (Paramount Pictures)

More importantly, though, “Annihilation” totally earns rewatches and what I suspect will be a minor cult offering their interpretations.

Our gal Natalie is extraordinary in the central role. Brave at times, heartbroken at others. There’s been, however, some behind-the-scenes brouhaha of an embarrassing nature that ought to be addressed.

“Annihilation” is part of VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy,” and even though the book and film are quite different, it is revealed in book two that the Lena character is Asian. (Maintaining dramatic distance is, apparently, part of VanderMeer’s magic.)

Alex Garland claimed he didn’t know this when he cast Portman. I find that highly doubtful. Even though these are “weird books,” if the character is Asian, he should have cast an Asian actress. These are very delicate times concerning the topic of Hollywood whitewashing. I’m on the fence about whether Portman herself is in the wrong, but someone in her camp should have flagged this and suggested she maybe step aside.

But she didn’t, and the movie is finished and it’s here and something of a minor classic. There are so few action-oriented science fiction/horror films with big stars that actually require you to think. We need to embrace this one before every executive in Hollywood willing to take a risk is annihilated.

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