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‘Annihilation’ Review: Natalie Portman Leads a ‘Heart-Stopping’ Sci-Fi Thriller

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Several months from now, there will a daily heat index to monitor and baseball to watch and weekend beach trips to plan. And you’ll still be thinking about the closing moment of Annihilation.

I would not dare delve into it, only to say that it’s one of the sci-fi thriller’s many searing images. This is the brand of film that moviegoers should crave: Cerebral in its story and heart-stopping in its pacing. You thought Alex Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina, was wickedly disturbing? The writer-director delivers a similar meditation on the cutting power struggle between man and science — only now he’s been given a sky-high budget. The result is a stellar, dazzling wowzer that opens itself up to theories galore. That’s the mark of a true Thumbs Up.

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Natalie Portman Tessa Thompson Annihilation
Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson in ‘Annihilation.’ Peter Mountain

Though adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s book series, Garland has taken a few creative liberties for the big screen version. (FYI, I’m not referring to that white-washing character scandal.) This is a round-about way of suggesting to go in cold if possible. I’ll just wind up the plot here. Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist who spent seven years in the military. That’s where she met her husband (Oscar Isaac). In the opening scenes, he returns home after a 12-month mission and is immediately stricken ill. Instead of a hospital, the two end up in a government facility. Faced with the possibility of losing him, she decides that the only way to help him is to venture to the same environmental disaster zone — known only as “Area X” — and crack a cure.

Lena leads the expedition, which includes four other scientists (played by Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriquez and Jennifer Jason Leigh). The trip is laced with trepidation, with one member calling it a “suicide mission.” The reason is unknown but has something to do with “The Shimmer.” A toxic translucent bubble, it emanates from a light house and has begun to spread to the shores. Several military teams have already been sent in to explore this mysterious and dangerous biosphere. Lena’s husband was the only one to come back alive, and he’s close to death.

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Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tuva Novotnyin, Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez in ‘Annihilation.’ Peter Mountain

The mission isn’t just crucial, it’s significant: In a first, the team members are comprised exclusively of women. A few of them note the common denominator at the outset, but in a matter-of-fact way. The females are never used as a punchline or even an excuse. They’re all just concerned about doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. First a trio of fearless female warriors battle royale in Black Panther and now five intelligent scientists risk their lives to head into the unknown? What a way to start out 2018 at the movies. Each character onscreen is strong and defined, with Rodriquez as the outspoken wild card. Turns out Jane the Virgin is also a bad-ass.

Time and time again, Annihilation defies expectations. Once the scientists are secluded in The Shimmer, the easy narrative answer is for some sort of alien monster to pick them off one by one. We’ve seen this trite Ten Little Indians device used as recently as the new straight-to-Netflix Cloverfield movie. What happens to this crew is something far more intriguing, and, ahem, unsettling. I won’t pretend I grasped everything that transpired, seeing that I don’t have a college degree in microbiology. I probably didn’t latch on to all the philosophical metaphors either. I’m just grateful Garland mixed up the tension with some tranquil moments of beauty.

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Tessa Thompson Natalie Portman Annihilation
Tessa Thompson and Natalie Portman in ‘Annihilation.’ Peter Mountain

Many people will despise this movie. Bold storytelling doesn’t always go down with a spoonful of sugar. The mind-melding plot twists make Mother! look like Fifty Shades Freed. Annihilation reminds me a bit of the ABC classic Lost as well in that a small group of member must fight for their lives amid a lush and deeply bizarre atmosphere. A smoke monster and a polar bear on that South Pacific island can’t be explained any more logically than the crazy beasts inside the Shimmer. It’s frustrating when the dots don’t connect. We go along for the ride anyway because we care about the fate of the characters. We should also appreciate a writer-director that dares to go big and challenge an audience. Otherwise, you have no right to complain the next time a Transformers flick shimmers into theaters.

Annihilation opens in theaters on Friday, February 23.

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