Cerebral science fiction master Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Never Let Me Go) has again arrived to drag his viewers into his weaving, creative world. In Annihilation, an adaptation of the first book in Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, a biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) volunteers for an expedition into a quarantined zone called The Shimmer after her long missing husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns from his mission with complete amnesia. Paired with a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and three scientists (Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny), the women enter the unknown to try to reach the epicenter of the phenomenon.
Diverging from the book but maintaining the mystery, the women find a world adapting in a convergence. Various species of plants growing on the same branch, an alligator with rows of shark-like teeth. Without survivors returning, the women follow the trails of their predecessors to determine how to maybe not die a gruesome death. Tense, inexplicable manipulations of the environment lead into a fugue state of a movie. This film tumbles through the missteps of this crew unaware of their surrounding dangers. The final chapter, sudden, beautifully scored, and wonderfully intriguing leaves so many questions, particularly if anyone will attempt to follow-up with the subsequent novels. I was entertained if occasionally confused, even having read the books (though that might have actually added to some confusion). The story is worth seeing, particularly for fans of Under the Skin, Arrival, and Moon.
Portman is a strong lead, though her character’s personal interludes are distractions in a veign of Nocturnal Animals, more staring off than productive storytelling. The reactions to her forest discoveries speak more to her current state than the Lena from before the border. Jennifer Jason Leigh is distant as the psychologist, a quasiominpetent member of the crew with greater experience or information than the rest of the team. Her role is hushed and more than a little creepy. Shot through a purple lit hue with low angles and shadowed bunkers, Rob Hardy brings to life the filtered light of the forest and the grotesque destruction developing within. Production designer outdid herself with a coral encrusted lighthouse and infestation results within a drained swimming pool. The imagery is haunting, and the pace is exciting, even when all the bits don’t fit together. Another fine submission from this artistically distinct filmmaker.