‘Annihilation’ Creates an Unnerving and Intelligent Sci-Fi Experience

Annihilation” is a strange, hypnotic nightmare of a movie. In the tradition of classic science fiction it conjures threatening, otherworldly visions and combines them with ideas that are convincing in their plausibility. This is director Alex Garland’s follow up to his 2014 breakthrough “Ex Machina,” which dealt with artificial intelligence in a reflective, disturbing way. That was a fascinating film that now seems small compared to “Annihilation,” which sees Garland going for grandiose visuals and larger settings with touches of horror, while not losing the intelligence and atmosphere that are his trademarks. This is a movie that is more about thinking than twists, about its ideas rather than its special effects (although they are beautiful). It is directed with patience and a command of tone.

As the film opens a space object of some kind, possibly a meteorite, crashes into a lighthouse in the coastal United States. Cut to biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year on an unknown mission. Just when Lena considers him dead, Kane reappears at their doorstep, but hazy and quiet. Soon he’s coughing up blood and picked up by government officials, who reveal to Lena that Kane had been part of a force entering “The Shimmer,” a zone encapsulated by a pulsating, multi-colored barrier emanating from the lighthouse where the space projectile crashed. Herself former military, Lena is soon recruited to enter the area with a team of fellow scientists and experts including Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Once inside the Shimmer the team finds strange mutations in the local wildlife caused by radical cell restructuring and strange, tumor-like material infecting certain areas. This alien presence seems to seek humans to bond with for unknown, disturbing reasons and as the team enters further into the Shimmer their lives and sanity become threatened.

What Garland achieves with “Annihilation” is a visual and sonic experience driven by a plot built in intriguing layers. At first the movie feels like a typical rehash of a plotline we’ve seen in countless other science fiction movies (alien materials land on Earth, weird things happen as a result). Instead this is a movie like “Under the Skin” or “Arrival,” where its effect is based on visual richness combined with a vivid imagination. Do not walk into this movie expecting a purely action-driven film, clear your mind of such habits. Garland wants to immerse the viewer in the film’s world. Some scenes have a Stanley Kubrick tone to the sharpness of the cinematography and atmosphere. Think of this as arthouse science fiction. Like “Solaris,” the visuals are meant to pull you into an environment. The Shimmer is a jungle terrain with reflected light coloring surfaces. There is a translucent glow to this zone yet an eerie, threatening ambiance. The strange materials and fungi the team encounter looks otherworldly, but organic enough to feel familiar and realistic.

Like the “Alien” movies, this one understands that unique way in which sci-fi uses our human fears of the parasitic, of alien substances invading our bodies. Cinematographer Rob Hardy’s lighting hides little during the day, and scenes of sudden carnage are jarring in their detail. The effect is more striking because Garland doesn’t over-do it. He lets the characters journey, ponder and debate inside The Shimmer, and then shatters the serenity with sudden rushes of nightmarish visuals. A man’s organs seem to move like a snake, a disembodied voice emanates from a half-dead creature, strange mutations change the physiology of crocodiles. It’s classic sci-fi, but Garland frames it elegantly and with just enough gore to rattle you, but not too much to where it becomes overkill. The music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is a weirdly evocative electronic score that can sound like some distorted transmission.

But a thoughtful viewer might find themselves more engrossed by the ideas and characters than the moments of creepiness. The screenplay by Garland is based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer and combines science with psychological tension. There is a running theme about the nature of cells and biology, and the mutations of both nature and life itself. As the journey into the Shimmer progresses we learn more about Lena and her marriage, and the way in which cells spontaneously go berserk or mutate becomes a metaphor for the unsteady nature of our own human selves. Yes, it’s that kind of sci-fi movie. Garland is good at building up to a big finale. In “Ex Machina” the meditative storyline suddenly spirals into bloody murder. Here he goes for an epic, “2001”-style closing where all of the film’s ideas about genetics and mutations hurtle into a visually stunning crescendo.

There has been much press over Paramount’s apparent hesitancy to really push for this movie on its release. It is a cerebral film that doesn’t depend on big action scenes or endless streams of carnage. It harkens back to the kind of science fiction that stays with you because of the questions it poses and the landscapes it imagines. It may find its audience outside of the big weekend box office figures. Few movies these days try to immerse us, they just want to entertain. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with just having a good time, “Annihilation” is the kind of movie worth seeing if you’re looking for a little more.

Annihilation opens Feb. 23 in theaters nationwide.