‘Annihilation’ offers a surreal distortion of genre thrills

: In director Alex Garland’s exotic version of the final frontier, life’s answers lead to even bigger questions for a fiercely resistant Natalie Portman.

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No other major studio is taking risks like Paramount, the distributor that heavily marketed Mother! and Downsizing before both flopped in wide release. The effort it put into each wild card is admirable even if box office doom was inevitable for such original work. It’s more of a shame that the third strike had to be Annihilation, arguably the most accessible to mainstream audiences. The good news is Columbia’s Ragtag Cinema will begin screening the film (adapted from the novel of the same name) on March 23 as it disappears from other local theaters less than a month after release.

“Isn’t self-destruction coded into us?” Alex Garland’s anticipated follow-up to Ex Machina opens with a biologist regarding an expedition into a quarantine zone termed “the Shimmer.” Lena (Natalie Portman) enters the anomalous region after her military husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns home as a bizarrely ill lone survivor. To learn more in the wake of uncertainty about her life and marriage, she volunteers for the Area X mission with a group of soldier-scientists who are each broken in their own ways.

The Shimmer is like an iridescent jellyfish mushroom that rapidly expands over the Southern coastland of the country, mutating all its inhabitants. It is an extraterrestrial phenomenon that formed in a lighthouse on a beach after a meteor strike. As each character moves farther into an opaque jungle, their psyches become increasingly disfigured. Josie, the physicist, (Tessa Thompson) suffers from depression and begins to realize the environment acts on organisms the same way a prism distorts and refracts light. These effects become alarming when the team paramedic, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), descends into mania.

Like the creature in Alien or the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Shimmer represents the unknown in which sci-fi characters push their existential boundaries. It functions as the main source of the film’s thought-provoking themes as well as its psychedelic playground of engaging set design. Mutations range from beautiful to demented and provide the audience with several scary set pieces like a shark-toothed alligator and a bear with a skull face. Everyone who enters the shimmer awaits a separate fate, but Lena and psychologist leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) reach an especially strange destination in the film’s final act.

Portman could carry the movie herself, but she is enlivened by skilled performers in this rare female-fronted action-horror film. It might not be as convincing as Black Swan or Jackie, but that’s partly due to the fact that the film stumbles slightly when it comes to effective character drama. However, Garland comes close to balancing personal subjects against sci-fi spectacle like in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. Tying both elements together, the score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury features acoustic guitars, orchestral synths and a touch of electronics.

Annihilation is a lot like if Earth had a form of cancer. At one point, Lena realizes, “It’s not destroying … it’s making something new.” In a climax of hallucinatory craziness, she struggles while resisting nature’s transformative power. Sure to leave hearts beating and minds wandering, the last moments are a visual experience that must be seen to believe.

Edited by Claire Colby | Ccolby@themaneater.com

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