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 Wipe Out 

Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman
Paramount Pictures
 115 Minutes
Directed byAlex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh 

The most divisive film of 2017 was probably Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, which many critics love, others hated, and those few people who saw it at the box office despised with a passion. An early entrant for that same “prize” this year might well be Alex Garland’s Annihilation. Like the Aronofsky film, Annihilation features an Oscar-winning actress in the lead role (Natalie Portman, instead of Jennifer Lawrence), some dazzling visuals, and a script that winds up being extremely confusing. However, as opposed to Mother!, at least in this reviewer’s mind, Annihilation gets about three-quarters of the way through before collapsing and, viewed as a horror movie at least, those first three quarters are genuinely creepy.


In Annihilation, Portman plays Lena, a biologist whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns from a year on a top-secret mission mumbling and shambling in a trancelike state with no memory of what he had been doing the last year. He soon collapses and, before Lena can get him to the hospital, the couple are abducted by military types in hazmat suits and taken to an unknown location. There, Lena eventually learns that a substantial section of what appears to be coastal Louisiana has been transformed, following a mysterious meteor strike at a lighthouse on the beach. The area is surrounded by a translucent, curtain-like barrier dubbed the Shimmer, which is slowly expanding. The government has sent in several military teams to investigate, but the only survivor has been Kane.


The latest mission is getting ready to go through the Shimmer, and, unlike earlier expeditions, this one is all female, based on some sort of theory that women might have some better ability to survive. In one of those bizarre plot contrivances that only exist in films like Annihilation, Lena has the exact set of skills that the expedition needs to complete its roster, so she is allowed to go on the mission, along with the leader, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Cass (Tuva Novotny).


Once through the Shimmer, the expedition discovers that time and location seem greatly distorted (they can’t remember their first couple of days inside) and that the various animal and plant life they discover have developed some bizarre mutations. Some of these are dazzling, like some vibrantly beautiful flowers, while others are deadly, like an alligator with a whole lot of teeth, and a giant bearlike creature with big fangs of its own. The team also discover bits and pieces of what happened to the people on the last mission, including Kane, by means of various recordings the earlier group left behind.


Until Lena and some of the others arrive at the beach, Annihilation resembles a monster horror movie like a terrestrial Jaws, and a very effective one at that. Director Garland keeps the film going at a deliberate pace, avoiding cheap jump scares in favor of building an overwhelming sense of dread. Despite the floral splendor, the movie’s atmosphere is chokingly, deliberately oppressive, thanks in part to a camera that seems perpetually befogged (the heat from the swamp is palpable) and a somber score. Everything in the film is out of place just enough to create a completely alien sensation. This is old school horror at its best, building a sense of dread in scene after scene, calling classics like Ridley Scott’s original Alien to mind.


The plot, at least when stripped of its science fiction elements, resembles just about every expedition-into-hostile-territory movie ever made, with characters getting extremely on edge, arguments about whether to abort the mission, at least one character going completely over the top, and an ever-dwindling number of survivors, including Lena, that make their way to the ocean. Normally, it might be at least a marginal spoiler to reveal that Lena makes it to that point, but Annihilation begins with Lena being interrogated by a group of scientists about what happened to her, so her survival is a given.


Like many horror movies, Annihilation can get by for a considerable length of time without trying to provide a “scientific” basis for the bizarre goings on. Unfortunately, Lena eventually does arrive at the beach and sees what’s inside the lighthouse, and it’s here that the movie falls apart to a certain extent. As in Mother!, the lighthouse scene in Annihilation contains some very strange visuals, including a scene involving mirror images that is a unique twist on a familiar film theme. But, after 20 minutes or so, when Lena emerges from the lighthouse, the audience still isn’t sure what they have witnessed or, frankly, what the various bits and pieces of an explanation that were scattered through the earlier sections of the film meant.


Alex Garland, who was an accomplished novelist before he became a screenwriter, adapted a popular science fiction novel by Jeff VanderMeer, but the screenwriter/director admits he didn’t follow the novel very closely, instead using just the bare bones of the story and going off on his own direction. In so doing, the novel’s more-or-less definitive explanation of the alien presence is replaced by, essentially, a shrugging of the shoulders. And, for a film that didn’t make a great deal of sense earlier, this seeming authorial disinterest or inability is unsettling.


Having said that, I would note that the plot of Annihilation is far better structured than Mother! ever managed to be. Garland shrewdly anchors the scenes in the Shimmer with both flashbacks explaining Lena’s behavior and flash forwards to scenes with Lena safely outside. Those scenes actually improve the movie, much as similar scenes helped in a similarly moody, sometimes confusing film, last year’s Arrival. Garland succeeds in postponing his movie’s problems most of the way and letting his visual style and the mood he creates carry Annihilation for a long time. A somewhat better script might have made this movie one of the year’s best, but, even as it is, Annihilation will be one of the year’s scariest movies.  

In this scene, Natalie Portman and her party enter the Shimmer.

Read other reviews of Annihilation: 

Annihilation (2018) on IMDb