Annihilation is a shimmering sci-fi trip

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      Starring Natalie Portman. Rated 18A

      So much of Annihilation’s success has to do with director Alex Garland’s uncanny ability to create a sense of doom. Just as with Ex Machina, you feel the dread from the first minute. He’s perfected an atmospheric cocktail of foreboding music, the threatening half-dark of twilight, and mysterious characters who bury secrets.

      Without such depth, the story, based on the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s best-selling Southern Reach trilogy, could easily have become just another digitally cranked creature feature. Instead, Garland soaks his hallucinatory world in themes of loss, betrayal, and the human tendency toward self-destruction, taking sci-fi into compellingly personal territory.

      It opens with Lena (Natalie Portman) being interrogated by men in hazard suits. Garland flashes back to her grief over the disappearance of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), on a secret military mission. But then Kane suddenly returns, looking catatonic, empty-eyed, and unwell.

      When her husband is quarantined, Portman’s soldier-biologist joins an all-female squadron sent into the place where he’d disappeared. Nicknamed the Shimmer, it’s an ever-expanding area of Florida swampland that’s surrounded by a prismlike aura. The women all have scientific expertise to study and try to destroy the Shimmer, but each also has her own reason for submitting to such a suicide mission. Portman has some unresolved guilt about her husband, but what about Jennifer Jason Leigh’s grim and enigmatic psychologist?

      To simply describe the plot is to make it sound like an extended camping trip into the unknown—a place where different flower species grow wildly on the same vine and gators and bears morph into monsters. But Garland builds the world into a sort of warped paradise, where the laws of nature have spiralled out of control and danger looms. Annihilation ultimately mashes the sci-fi horror of The Thing with the dreamscapes of Avatar and the she-power of The Descent.

      The result looks and feels different from anything you’ve seen before. It doesn’t always fully cohere—Ex Machina was a much tauter study of human desire. Annihilation has a different kind of payoff. It’s a trip, man, but one driven by a guy who can master the molecular science and the human psyche as much as the jump-scares.

      Watch the trailer for Annihilation.