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Annihilation is a ferocious, feral, female-centric update of fearsome monster classics like The Thing and Alien. In the much-anticipated follow-up to his auspicious debut feature Ex Machina four years ago, writer-director Alex Garland shows an unerring hand in building a sense of unease about what evil lurks in a forest that’s been taken over by some kind of “other,” and then making it pay off. Fright fans as well as connoisseurs of seriously good filmmaking should turn this finely tuned thriller into a much-needed hit for Paramount and, as the remaining two entries in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy have already been published, the studio should get the next film installment rolling post haste.
One immediately appealing factor is that no big deal is made out of the fact the expedition is all-female; the military exploratory team requires assorted scientific and medical specialists, and women are assigned. They also happen to carry heavy-duty artillery, and they know how to use it.
“Dread” is the operative word for what drenches all concerned here. Microscopic imagery of cells dividing, the sight of a lighthouse being zapped by some kind of ray and a dazed, bed-ridden Lena (Natalie Portman) being asked questions she can’t answer are disorienting, as is the sudden appearance, after a year’s absence, of the distraught Lena’s husband Kane (Ex Machina star Oscar Isaac), who has been assumed dead.
Instead, Kane is shell-shocked, incapable of explaining where he’s been or what happened to him; his vocabulary has basically been reduced to “I don’t know.” Before long, he starts hemorrhaging, and a prevailing mood of enforced silence and secrecy pervades all exchanges, official and private. Inquiring minds want to know: What’s going on here?
The unexpected answer to that is nothing you could either know or guess, even if you’ve seen hundreds off science-fiction films, because it’s something you’ve never heard of before: the Shimmer, to be precise. This doesn’t sound like the scariest thing in the world and, at first glance, it doesn’t look like it, either; it resembles undulating colored waves cascading slowly upward through forest trees. All the authorities know is that this weird force is drawing closer to inhabited areas and that, over the three years that rangers have been sent into the Shimmer-infected zone, no one has ever come back, except, it would seem, for Kane.
The setting up toggles back and forth in time for a half-hour before the women finally set out on their expedition. Leading the team is Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist determined to get to the source of the Shimmer, believed to be the lighthouse. Former soldier and now biologist Lena is recruited, as are three others constituting a fierce, diverse group of self-described “damaged goods,” none of whom has children or family ties that will result in anyone missing them: bespectacled and formidably smart doc Anya (Gina Rodriguez), kick-ass physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) and older anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny).
Garland sets an elegantly eerie mood with the astutely judged help of cinematographer Rob Hardy’s striking lateral tracks and mix of greens and colors resembling rotting fruit; physically, the film Annihilation most resembles is Walter Hill’s visually lustrous 1981 action drama Southern Comfort. The rumbling, churning electronic score by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, who previously collaborated on the score to Ex Machina, finds a path directly to the viewer’s anxiety button and presses it incessantly.
Soon enough, large mutant creatures of assorted persuasions start emerging from the forest, which itself takes on evermore bizarre and overgrown looks as the women proceed deeper into the Shimmer.
All the characters get a chance to make a strong impression. Leigh, last prominently seen on the big screen spewing obscenities and blood in The Hateful Eight, could scarcely be more different here as the tough, watchful, oddly edgy group commander, while Thompson gets a few good verbal licks in.
But Portman remains the chief among relative equals, both because she’s the star and because her character has the connection to the only known survivor of the Shimmer to date. The actress may not be the physical equal of some of the others, but she compellingly conveys Lena’s fierce determination to both figure out what happened to her husband and solve the mystery of this colorful but terrifying unknown force of nature. You’re left keen to see her further exploits as Lena, sooner rather than later.
To be sure, the climax delivers copious amounts of blood and guts and tension and look-away temptations. But there are enough interesting surprises, in addition to the narrative promise, to provide for the presumed, and now quite desired, sequels.
Shot in the forests of Great Britain rather than anywhere near the novel’s North Florida settings, Annihilation looks fabulously verdant as well as threatening, just the right combination for a film that wants to welcome you into its world in order to shake you up. This is one classy serving of cinematic red meat — perfectly cooked on the outside, but saignant inside.
Production companies: Scott Rudin, DNA Films
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac
Director-screenwriter: Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff Vandermeer
Producers: Scott Rudin, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Eli Bush
Executive producers: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger, Jo Burn
Director of photography: Rob Hardy
Production designer: Mark Digby
Costume designer: Sammy Sheldon Differ
Editor: Barney Pilling
Music: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
Visual effects supervisor: Andrew Whitehurst
Casting: Francine Maisler
Rated R, 115 minutes