The Quiet Astonishment of ANNIHILATION

Five women journey into the unknown in Alex Garland’s new sci-fi thriller.

Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Annihilation from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) adapts the first novel of the Southern Reach trilogy for Annihilation, now in theaters. Perhaps, like this reviewer, you read Jeff VanderMeer’s book as soon as you heard Gina Rodriguez and a number of other actresses were cast. If so, you might want to ignore most of what you learned from the book, because Garland’s cinematic version bears small resemblance to the source material. Even though I’d forgotten much of the plot from the book, I found myself waiting for specific events or discoveries to show up in the film only to be unsettled when they didn’t.

Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist and former soldier, whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns after a year of no communication. She volunteers to enter the “Shimmer,” a mysterious section of land that is slowly encompassing more area. She joins the already-formed team consisting of a medic named Anya (the aforementioned Rodriguez, from the award-winning Jane the Virgin), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), scientist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny, Eat Pray Love), and psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They hope to survive the mission that has proved fatal for previous teams.

It’s beyond refreshing to see a sci-fi film with a woman-centric story (even if Garland adjusts the heroine’s quest from the scientific focus of the novel to the “maybe she can save her husband’s life” path of the movie). Portman’s Lena prefers to keep mum while others talk, not offering much information about herself. Anya, however, is vocal and brash, unafraid to speak her mind. Rodriguez and Thompson, with her understated performance, are impressive in Annihilation.

Garland’s visual effects team has created a breathtaking wonder in this mysterious world. The women encounter horrific hybrids of flora and fauna. Distortion and dissonance are visual themes, whether the image of a couple’s clasping hands is refracted by a water glass, an ill Kane is viewed through a hard plastic curtain, or visions are reflected through windows.

Annihilation moves with a startling quiet — indeed, it seems a tad slow at the start — which makes the quality of the audio production stand out. The scoring by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (who teamed together on Ex Machina as well) sounds like something from a José González album, until the mind-bending conclusion.

Annihilation makes magic of the unexplained and is thought-provoking at the same time as it draws chills. The non-linear storytelling structure beguiles and leaves the viewer trying to piece the puzzle together hours later. This critic who usually can’t handle scary movies is curious to see the film again and catch what I might have missed.

Annihilation is in theaters now.

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