The visual effects of some movies color your dreams and make you readjust your expectations of what cinema can do. I'm thinking of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Thing, Star Wars and Avatar, among others. To this partial list you may now add Annihilation, a color-blasted head trip laden with gasp-worthy sights that also carries out the essential sci-fi mission of making us consider what it means to be human in a modern world.
None of this should come as a surprise. Writer-director Alex Garland previously gave us 2014's Ex Machina, one of the best sci-fi films of recent years and a promise of great things to come. With Annihilation, he's working on a much larger scale, and he attacks it with gusto. The film is bathed in painterly flourishes that never shrink or overshadow the story, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. Its images are both gruesome and beautiful, much like the natural world it so imaginatively probes.
With its tropical jungle universe and focus on species mutation, this is a science-fiction movie Darwin would appreciate, as well as Tennyson, who wrote of nature, red in tooth and claw. An unidentified blast has hit a lighthouse in a leafy state park and created a sort of force field, which comes to be known as The Shimmer. From the outside, The Shimmer looks like a collection of giant, freshly blown bubbles, melting upward. The military would like to know what's on the inside, but nobody it sends in to investigate comes out alive.
Then, somebody does. He's Kane (Ex Machina veteran Oscar Isaac), who wanders into the home of his wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), after a year missing in action. Kane doesn't quite feel himself, and not just because he's suffering from massive internal bleeding. From that point on, the movie belongs to Portman's Lena. A cell biologist who also happens to be a seven-year Army veteran, Lena and a team of four other women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny) are tasked to penetrate The Shimmer and bring back some answers.
The world of The Shimmer is a marvelous cinematic creation, and Garland immerses us with a prowling camera that keeps uncovering otherworldly phenomena: Fauna that seems to have taken a human form, or vice versa. Gloriously colored fungi. And, yes, some creatures for the ages. It's a gorgeous and often terrifying world, a dangerous pastoral haven in which DNA appears to be madly dividing and mixing and conjuring new forms of life.
There's something poetic in this age of #metoo about five women boldly making their way to the lighthouse. (Somewhere, Virginia Woolf is smiling). But the journey is ominous. For all the sun-dappled wonder, Annihilation is tense, dark, and, on occasion, flat-out terrifying. The squeamish need not apply. That doesn't mean it's gratuitous; Garland conjures the right images for the reaction he seeks. The film's scariest scene — and you'll know it when you see it — is also its most transcendent.
Does the science check out? I'll leave that one to the biologists. Does the story dot all the i's? I was too enraptured by the mood and imagery to really mind. It does take care to flesh out the characters, each of them damaged in some way, and the flashback/flash-forward narrative is elegantly structured. Annihilation sets the mind whirling through metaphysical questions. Its visual magic works at the service of the bigger picture.
Portman has a gift for making toughness feel vulnerable, and the rest of the performances, from Leigh's terseness to Rodriguez's fierceness, fill in the puzzle. There's a mortal heart beating beneath Annihilation's dazzling surface. As for that surface, you won't be able to peel your eyes away.
R (violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality). 115 minutes. In wide release.