Annihilation (R) ★★★

Natalie Portman stars in Annihilation. Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Although a Box Office Disappointment, Annihilation is Worth Renting

If you missed Annihilation when it hit theaters in February, you are not alone. The sci-fi / horror flick came out at the same time that Black Panther was setting box-office records. It also suffered from a problematic release as the director and studio disagreed over the film’s finale, and even dumped the film on Netflix for the international release. Despite it’s weak box-office showing, the film is a beautifully shot and thought-provoking work from writer-director, Alex Garland, who directed the outstanding psychological thriller, Ex Machina and wrote the influential 28 Days Later and The Beach. So, if you are looking for a break from the summer slate of superheroes or juvenile comedies, Annihilation, which is now available to rent, may be the answer.

The story opens with the protagonist, Lena, (Natalie Portman, Song to Song, 2017) being questioned by a scientist named Lomax (Benedict Wong, Infinity War, 2017). As the camera pans out, we discover that Lena is quarantined at a military base and is surrounded by more scientists and military personnel. She had just returned from the Shimmer, a mysterious area surrounded by a rainbow-hued bubble that has unusual electromagnetic properties and has grown into the size of a large city. What makes Lena so fascinating to the scientists is that she (and her husband before her) are the only people out of hundreds to make it back out alive from the unexplainable area. The majority of the film is shown via extended flashbacks as Lena describes her journey to Lomax.

Prior to her encounter with the Shimmer, Lena was a cellular-biology professor at Johns Hopkins and a former soldier married to fellow marine, Kane (Oscar Isaac, Stars Wars: The Last Jedi, 2017). Kane had been missing for over a year before he mysteriously returned home to Lena. Although Lena is overjoyed upon his return, she quickly notices he has changed. He can’t seem to describe where he has been, is unusually quiet and promptly grows sick. As Lena rushes him to the hospital, she is run off of the road by medical and military personnel, who take them both to a special military medical complex. At the facility, Lena, meets with Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Good Time, 2017), who tells her about the Shimmer, an area which originated from a mysterious space object crashing into a nearby lighthouse on the coast. The area has since grown exponentially and scientists are baffled at how to explain it or stop it as it swallows up more land. Lena is told that her husband, Kane, went into the Shimmer with a squad of soldiers, but he was the only one to make it back out alive.

Dr. Ventress, who is in charge of selecting candidates, can no longer accept sending others into the abyss, and is going to lead a small group of scientists into the zone to find out what is going on for herself. Lena, who struggles with this shocking news, goes to the edge of the facility and stares at the border of the Shimmer, which is under a mile away. There, Lena encounters the all-female team of scientists who are heading into the unknown: an astrophysicist named Josie (Tessa Thompson, Thor: Ragnorak, 2017), an anthropologist named Cassie (Tuta Novotny, Borg/McEnroe, 2017) and a paramedic named Anya (Gina Rodriguez, Deepwater Horizon, 2016). Lena, who has military experience volunteers to join this team in order to discover the truth and possibly find a way to save her husband whose health is failing. As the team ventures inside the Shimmer, they quickly realize the extreme danger they are in as their bodies and minds come under attack from the strange energy force. They also begin to notice that the land itself has changed from the negative energy and dangerous creatures lurking within.

Despite its box office fizzle, Annihilation, is definitely worth watching if you enjoy smart sci-fi films like, Arrival or Ex Machina. In addition to the interesting storyline and questions it poses, the movie is beautifully shot, especially the scenes from within the Shimmer. There is a strong possibility that the film could get Oscar attention as well for its visual and special effects. The story, which is based on a popular novel of the same name, includes enough suspense and scares to be a stand-alone horror movie, especially when you see the dangers that confront the team during their mission. Young children should not view this film as there are several gory scenes that could easily frighten them.

To go along with the impressive production value and well-crafted story, the cast, which is small, offers captivating performances to boot. Natalie Portman, who receives the majority of the screen time, gives a notable performance especially given her lack of experience with action / sci-fi films. Jennifer Jason Leigh also shines as the tough leader of the expedition, who is willing to give her life in order to find the truth.

Bottom Line: This is a case where box office ticket sales don’t reflect the quality of the film. Fans of smart sci-fiction and horror will enjoy the interesting premise and thrilling story of Annihilation. If you are in search of a good summer flick that isn’t a sequel or superhero film, this may be an unhidden gem for you.

Credits: Written and directed by Alex Garland

Cast: Natalie Portman (Lena), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dr. Ventress), Tessa Thompson (Josie Radek), Tuta Novotny (Cassie Shepard), Oscar Isaac (Kane), Benedict Wong (Lomax), Sonoya Mizuno (Katie), and David Gyasi (Daniel)

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Running Time: 115 minutes

Jessica DeLong © June 23, 2018