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‘Annihilation’ is mysterious and new

Alex Garland, the writer-director behind the brilliant sci-fi movie “Ex Machina,” is back with cerebral sci-fi thriller “Annihilation.”

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This time, the danger isn’t the seductive appeal of man-made artificial intelligence but something much more amorphous. It’s a mysterious outside threat that seems to upend everything we understand about ourselves and our planet. And by movie’s end, that threat is no more explicable than it was in the beginning.

“Annihilation” may give us a lot to think about but answers are not on its agenda.

If that sounds more frustrating than intriguing, let me assure you that there are plenty of pulpy, horror film pleasures to be had along the way — animalistic monsters, blood-and-guts gore, a near-constant sense of dread, and jump-cut scares galore. It’s just that Garland has far grander ambitions than just a thrill-ride.

The film begins with a meteor crashing at the foot of a lighthouse in a state park in Florida.

A year later, the US government has quietly cordoned off the burgeoning area — now dubbed Area X. No one who has ventured forth inside, save for one special ops soldier, because of its surrounding soap-bubble-like sheen. That soldier emerged as a shell of himself and he can’t tell authorities a thing about his experience.

A team of women scientists with military training are next up, and the bulk of the film follows their harrowing journey into the Shimmer. What they find, in addition to thrills and chills, is confounding and profound. They quickly lose track of time and direction.

The flora and fauna inside the Shimmer defy the laws of nature, to both beautiful and terrifying effect. A single flower stem, for instance, impossibly holds many different kinds of flowers. Wild animals seem to have cross-bred across species. And it’s not just the world around them that seems to be mutating before their eyes. They too seem to be changing, physically and psychologically, and not in the same way.

The women who survive long enough to reach the Lighthouse, the meteor’s Ground Zero, are in for some mind-boggling revelations, none of which necessarily makes a lot of literal sense.

It’s no accident that our heroine, Lena, played with typical intensity by Natalie Portman, is an academic biologist who specializes in the life cycle of a cell. She points out that a cell doesn’t grow old. Instead, it divides and replicates. Are the cell mutations in the Shimmer like cancerous tumors or some kind of evolutionary biology at work? Are mirror images (or shells) of ourselves, corruptions of ourselves or extensions? Can DNA be refracted like light through a prism? And does that refraction explain the Shimmer? None of these questions, and many others is answered in “Annihilation.”

But Lena seems pretty adamant about one thing. When it’s asserted that the Shimmer was destroying everything, she retorts.

“It’s destroying everything.”

“It’s not destroying. It’s making something new.”

Garland too is making something new.

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