As an emotionally wounded biology professor, Natalie Portman gives Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller the soul it needs

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Strange things are afoot in “Annihilation,” a beautiful, riveting sci-fi mystery that annihilates any notion of what a big-budget studio thriller can be.

Writer-director Alex Garland, who made a sizable splash with 2015’s atmospheric, whip-smart sci-fi grabber “Ex-Machina,” tiptoes around easy meanings and convenient answers in this ambitious puzzler. Audiences should expect to have this one lingering in their minds, and to form their own interpretations of the forces and themes at play. Those seeking quickie escapist thrills need not apply.

Natalie Portman stars as Lena, an ex-Army soldier who is now a biology professor at Johns Hopkins University. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac, reuniting with his “Ex-Machina” director), is presumed dead after going missing for a year following a top-secret Army mission. When he suddenly shows up at Lena’s door, she quickly notices all’s not right with him. When she rushes him to the hospital, they’re hijacked by a squadron of black SUVs and taken into custody.

They’re brought to a government facility dubbed Area X, which sits on the perimeter of “The Shimmer,” an area, growing in size, that is surrounded by a sort of translucent force field that looks like what happens when sunlight catches a soap bubble. No one is quite sure of what the Shimmer is, where it came from or what it’s doing, but several crews have disappeared while investigating it, including one led by Kane.

Lena learns that Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist at the facility, is putting together a small team to enter the Shimmer. She joins up along with Josie (“Thor: Ragnarok’s” Tessa Thompson), Anya (Gina Rodriguez) and Cass (Tuva Novotny) because she feels she owes it to her husband to find out what happened to him. Once inside, the crew encounter a series of strange mutations and evidence of nature taking over and starting anew, with or without the help of humans.

There are a handful of spectacular, tense sequences once inside the Shimmer, including one white knuckle stunner with a wildebeest-like creature, but for the most part “Annihilation” is slow and deliberately paced, more like a character-driven drama than an action film. There are shades of smart, risk-taking recent sci-fi films like “Under the Skin” and “The Fountain” in “Annihilation’s” DNA, and even hints of “mother!” in its environmental messaging.

Portman gives a crisp, emotionally wrought performance, all raw and wounded. This is a character with deep emotional scars, and Portman is unnervingly good, especially in a flashback scene where she sleeps with a co-worker and dismisses him immediately afterward. “Annihilation” is an emotional and mental tightrope, and Portman navigates it perfectly, grounding the film in the human reality it needs to follow its own path.

Garland is then free to tell his story, and he proves himself once again to be one of science fiction’s most exciting, visionary talents. With “Annihilation” he’s given film fans and academics plenty to chew on, and this is a film that requires dissection and discussion. Sharpen up. “Annihilation” leaves a mark.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘Annihilation’

GRADE: A-

Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality

Running time: 120 minutes

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