In his 2014 speculative thriller “Ex Machina,” writer-director Alex Garland created a haunting, stylishly atmospheric meditation on what it means to be human, building a credible world just this shy of the future in which humanoid robots moved, loved and deceived with all the nuance and subterfuge of their flesh-and-bone counterparts.
Garland brings his considerable talents for weird vibes and arresting visuals to “Annihilation,” which this time dwells on nature run amok rather than technology — and to less successful effect. In his adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, Natalie Portman plays a biologist and U.S. Army veteran who is tasked with investigating a mysterious entity, called the “Shimmer,” which has begun to envelop the southern United States. Previous teams have gone into the Shimmer and never returned, presumed to have either gone crazy or been killed. Together with a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez) and an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny), Portman’s character plunges past an undulating rainbow-hued scrim into a forest teeming with familiar flora and fauna, as well as new life-forms as beguiling as they are horrifying and potentially deadly.
A tale of horror and suspense cut from the same jump-scare cloth as “Alien,” with a dash of “Arrival” thrown in — with its subtext of a woman mourning an unspoken loss — “Annihilation” initially exudes a form of magnetism every bit as somber and determined as Portman’s tersely self-possessed protagonist. As he did in “Ex Machina,” Garland exhibits exquisite taste in manifesting the Shimmer, as well as the fecund Florida swampland it’s overtaking with disquieting efficiency. (VanderMeer was reportedly inspired to write “Annihilation,” as well as its two sequels, after a visit to the state’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.) Graced with moments of astonishing, even psychedelic beauty, including profligate flowers and vines, sporelike growths worthy of Antoni Gaudí and fantastical beasts of the Southern wild, this is a movie that moves quietly, its meditative tone deepened by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s counterintuitive score, composed largely of soothing acoustic guitar riffs, rather than the usual synthesized bloops and beeps.
Garland effectively ratchets up the mystery of a story in which crucial pieces are missing for a reason; we see brief flashbacks that put Portman’s marriage into context that doesn’t clarify as much as make “Annihilation” increasingly more impenetrable (Oscar Isaac stars as her absent husband). What promises to become a genre exercise punching far above its thematic weight, in terms of metaphysics and deep meaning, instead devolves, in its final moments, into a muddle of histrionics and deeply unsatisfying weirdness for its own sake.
That’s a shame, because for its first hour or so “Annihilation” presents a bracing if enigmatic example of filmmaking at its smartest and most highly attuned. For all her fragility, Portman exudes a dominating screen presence, playing off her similarly sturdy and self-assured co-stars with convincing seriousness of purpose. And there’s something undeniably of-the-moment in watching five credible, competent women stride off into an unknown future, with little more than their wits and a few weapons between them and almost certain destruction. It’s when the dream of “Annihilation” collides so felicitously with lived reality that the film coalesces and takes hold. It may be broken eventually, but for a while the spell is a powerful one, and nearly irresistible.
Annihilation (115 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, bloody images, coarse language and some sexuality.