‘Annihilation’ Review

“Annihilation” doesn’t happen all that often. Part drama, part horror, director Alex Garland achieves the difficult deed of making the sci-fi smart and the scares unsettling, all amid the backdrop of a wonderfully beautiful, shimmer-laden swamp. It’s disturbingly gripping. And malignantly memorable.

Unlike most modern “scary” movies, the frights in “Annihilation” are neither cheap, plenty, nor snicker susceptible. Pay attention. You don’t want to miss them or the semi-subtle plot hints. With visuals as viscerally vibrant as those in “Annihilation,” it’s a wonder how anyone’s eyes can wander. (Though I did have to ask one young moviegoer to turn off his cell phone, making “Annihilation” all the more uncomfortable for him.)

From the soap-bubble-like sheen that permeates the death-laden landscape to the flowers that force their way through disconnected skulls and around skeletal-shaped trees, “Annihilation” looks like a hippie-made horror film. Though the quality of their construct is a bit questionable—i.e., they often look cheap—their intent and inspiration are captivatingly impressive. “Annihilation” inspires fascination from sight to story.

When former soldier and current scientist Lena (Natalie Portman) is relieved by her husband’s (Oscar Isaac) unexpected return home from one of his secret military campaigns, there’s an underlying sense that something is wrong—with both of them. That feeling is fulfilled when one of “Annihilation’s” several upsetting surprises happens, sending both to the alien-attacked “Area X.”

There, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leads Lena and a group of female forces—the latest in a series of failed expeditions—into the extraterrestrial translucent tumor that is slowly growing until, presumably, it covers the earth. Some go in with the intent never to return, others to fight, and one to find an answer.

In them, audiences will find a story steeped in science and survival.

But “Annihilation” is also not without its weaker elements. When a side character suggests that a disturbing discovery—caught on a previous mission’s camera recording—is a result of “lighting tricks,” one can’t help but wonder how such writing saw the light of day. Its shoddy computerized graphics are also deserving of some thrown shade.

But those quibbles don’t detract from the overall eclectic look or tonal inventiveness of “Annihilation.” That Garland imbues the acoustic sounds of Crosby, Stills & Nash to both quiet the craziness while their words instill an added sense of hopeless dread speaks to the director’s deft creativity.

Indeed, Garland is a gift to Hollywood desperate for something different. His debut “Ex Machina,” though a bit overrated, was a surprise sleeper that even brought home an Oscar for, of all things, visual effects. And although the alien-infiltrator film has been done before—see “Alien,” “Predator,” and “The Thing,” with “Annihilation” taking cues from each—Garland’s final act and ending leave a lasting or, rather, metastasizing impression.

“Annihilation” absolutely kills it.

4.5 out of 5

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