Movie Review: ‘ANNIHILATION’ will send you mind on a phenomenal run

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

ANNIHILATION

Rated R, 115 minutes.
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Natalie PortmanJennifer Jason LeighTessa ThompsonGina RodriguezTuva Novotny and Oscar Isaac

The IQ at the cinema this year has taken a sharp turn upward with the release of ANNIHILATION, writer-director Alex Garland’s follow-up to 2015’s EX MACHINA. Don’t get me wrong: ANNIHILATION is filled with terror, massive filmmaking on a grand scale and doesn’t look down its nose at its genre. But it’s also a film that demands that the audience pay attention and think — a rare thing to occur so early in the year.

Garland’s gamble may prove too challenging for crowds looking to see Natalie Portman simply go up against an otherworldly environment, but I believe ANNIHILATION is well worth the effort. It’s a near seamless blend of a thinking-geek’s sci-fi spectacle, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, with the genetic makeup of ALIEN: COVENANT, ARRIVAL and UNDER THE SKIN. The difference being, where those movies tickled, ANNIHILATION scratches.

Based on the book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer – the first in his SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY – the story revolves around an army veteran-turned-biologist named Lena (a very good Portman), who is shocked that her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns home from a mysterious mission that she thought he died in. His work requires him to not disclose any details of his whereabouts to anyone, not even his wife. So when you haven’t heard from your husband for over a year, one can only let the imagination wander.

Soon after his return, Kane becomes deathly ill, and he and Lena are taken to a location called “Area X” by the same organization that sent Kane’s unit on the mission. It is later revealed that an Aurora Borealis-like bubble known as “the shimmer” is slowly growing and taking over Earth. Although the true nature of its existence has not been discovered yet, because all who’ve gone in, don’t come back – or in Kane’s case, they don’t come back the same.

The cast of ‘ANNIHILATION’ from left to right: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez. Courtesy of Paramount.

In an effort to save her husband, Lena joins a new expedition in this place on the edge of reality to solve the mystery of its source. The team is led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and filled out by Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson of THOR: RAGNAROK) and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). Each member has their own reason for signing up. However, as they venture further into the shimmer, their quest becomes increasingly dangerous.

ANNIHILATION is a box full of secrets waiting to be discovered. It has the markings of classic science fiction, but like the impact the shimmer has on life within its walls, it has been modified to the point of unrecognition. So much about Garland’s film has never been seen before. It’s so chock-full of ideas that it’s easy to find yourself lost down its rabbit hole.

The film leads you to believe that it’s a well-defined feature. With its story and dazzling visuals, it all but could have something on the level of Ridley Scott’s most recent ALIEN movies. There’s curiosity built into the framework, but how the story breaks basic structure by focusing on three different timelines and presents characters that don’t insult your intelligence, we’re dealing with a whole new animal.

Myth, the spiritual dimension, and evolution all surface in the story. Some may be willing to engage in its high-minded concepts, while others may dismiss the film as too smart or strange for its own good. Honestly, I wouldn’t blame you if you landed on the too-heady-for-me end of the spectrum. Watching the film, my mouth was agape at the sight of its life forms inside the shimmer, but others felt the impulse to laugh because of its eccentricity. ANNIHILATION is a divisive film. Your enjoyment all depends on what you bring to the theater, what meanings you pick out and how you react to certain plot elements, most notably the final third of the film.

ANNIHILATION is an expert analysis of humanity. If you’re expecting Garland to spoon feed you and color in all the gray areas, you may walk away disappointed. But if you open your mind to its endless possibilities and interpretations, you will be in awe of its wonder.

[Grade: A]

ANNIHILATION is now playing in theaters.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.