Spoiler-free review: Alex Garland's follow-up to 2015's "Ex-Machina" lingers with you long after you see Natalie Portman shoot giant mutated creatures.
"Annihilation" opens with Lena (Natalie Portman) listlessly staring at the glass panels of a decontamination room. Three imposing men in hazmat suits stand across from her. One (Benedict Wong) fires off a question. "What did you eat?" But Lena shakes her head, unable to describe her mysterious experience unravelled in Alex Garland's thoughtful sci-fi entry that extracts the DNA of "Arrival", "Aliens" and "Under the Skin" and makes something new.
Based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, "Annihilation" explores themes of self-destruction, ecology (a branch of biology) and change. It's clever: Plot is connected to character and setting. Garland, known for directing and writing the excellent sci-fi "Ex-Machina" in 2015, has a lot of elements to handle, and does so well, for the most part.
Flashing back we learn of Southern Reach, a research facility manning an impending disaster zone called "The Shimmer" or "Area X". Anyone who enters does not return. The army, including the inscrutable psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), tough-girl Anya (Gina Rodriguez), composed geomorphologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and shy physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), must enter. "All women?" Lena asks. "Scientists," Josie replies. The previous teams who entered were all military, all male.
The interactions between the women are nuanced. When Josie whispers she's completed a postdoc at Cambridge, Sheppard smiles and compliments, "She's very smart." Initially Anya takes a protective role over Josie, while Lena and Sheppard pair as leaders showing similar analytical calm in the face of the unknown.
The film's pace slows down in flashback scenes, but they feel necessary (to show twists that don't just come in big events, but character revelations). Portman and Oscar Isaac, playing her husband, Kane, are charming, but their relationship flirts with the saccharine in a few select moments. The downbeat soundtrack, featuring songs like "Helplessly Hoping" by Crosby Stills & Nash, doesn't help.
Thompson, who we recently saw as the drunken Valkyrie in "Thor: Ragnarok", is impressively understated as Josie. It's refreshing to see Isaac take the role of boyfriend/husband standing by while Lena takes charge. Portman nails the professor biologist: In a scene where her husband's rushed off in an ambulance, she never dissolves into hysterics. "Stay with me, baby," she says calmly. "I love you."
It occurs to you early on that Lena has survived Area X, given she's in debriefing for her time in there. It's a noticeable twist by Garland on the sole-survivor genre, and by the end you see why he's done it. It gives you the sense the script is as tight as it can be.
Oh, and "Annihilation" is scary. It's scary because Garland goes to lengths to keep the characters and their actions as true as possible, so that when the body horror and the creative mutations of Area X heat up, you're right there feeling it. The exploration of Area X and its trippy revelations are the best thing about "Annihilation".
And that's why the end of "Annihilation" doesn't quite hit the mark. The tone shifts to sci-fi that no longer feels grounded in science. It's still creative, but it's a case of the mystery being better than the answers themselves.
"Annihilation" has a unique story itself, hitting US cinemas, then going straight to Netflix for the rest of the world. I watched this on my laptop. While it doesn't feel like a blockbuster of "Aliens" proportions, it's up there with "Arrival". Just like that alien encounter, sound design and big ideas elevate it.
"Annihilation" is big on ideas, imagery and it registers as much more than just a female-led sci-fi. As Lena says of Area X, it's not destroying life, it's "making something new."
"Annihilation" came out in US cinemas on Feb. 22 and will be released on Netflix in Australia and the UK on March 12.
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