To call Annihilation writer-director Alex Garland the thinking geek's new sci-fi guru is probably to jinx his box-office chances. Look where thoughtfulness got Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049. But Garland is the real-deal for generating rattling tension and mind-blowing mojo. Annihilation, an eco-thriller based on the first book in the acclaimed Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, gives Garland a shot at stretching the cerebral and scare muscles he flexed so brilliantly in his 2015 directing debut, Ex Machina, a fierce and acidly funny take on artificial intelligence that asked provoking question about what defines humanity or lack of same.
The provocations have intensified but the laughs are few in Annihilation since its five female protagonists are playing a deadly game. A dynamite Natalie Portman, radiating ferocity and feeling, stars as Lena, an ex-Army biologist on an expedition into the "Shimmer," an overgrown, undulating forest located in Florida (but shot in the U.K.) that seems to be infecting everything it spreads its spores on. The government has cordoned off the space, known as Area X, but who are the Feds kidding. The Shimmer is threatening to shim on inhabited areas and it means business. The trip is organized by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, making sanity look anything but). No one came back from the last trek, except for Lena's husband Kane (Ex Machina's Oscar Isaac in superb form). Kane has showed up at home after a year looking the same but acting body-and-spirit snatched. Lena wants answers.
So do audiences. And so do her fellow voyagers into the unknown, physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) and paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez). All the actors come up aces, but Rodriquez deserves cheers for erasing any trace of her sweet character on the CW's Jane the Virgin. Her breakdown scene is one for the books on batshit crazy. In fact, all five women display self-destructive tendencies that intensify with continued expose to the Shimmer. Ok, the Shimmer sounds like something out of a shampoo commercial, but Garland makes sure the area's surface allure hints at the dread of what lies beneath. Annihilation isn't a creature feature, though a few beasts show up at different intervals (oh that albino gator!). It's the violence of the mind that Garland plumbs with such merciless menace.
As the women cut deeper into the forest and this review edges into spoiler territory, it's crucial not to reveal the film's tantalizing secrets, many of them found at the lighthouse which marks the end of Lena's journey. What you need to know is that Garland blends hardcore suspense and intellectual curiosity with the skill of a master.
Cinematographer Rob Hardy creates indelible images of beauty and terror set to a pulsating electronic score by Ben Salisbury and Portishead's Geoff Barrow. Other cinematic tropes are evoked, from the literal monsters of Alien (yes, a chest cavity is breached) and to the subconscious anxieties of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not since James Cameron's underrated 1989 gem The Abyss has a failed marriage become a microcosm of psychological terror in which each character's capacity for good and evil is tested. The effect is relentlessly unnerving.
Annihilation is pulp transcended. But there are hurdles it must overcome. Test screening audiences reportedly found it too complicated. Readers of the books, to which the film is often intriguingly unfaithful, object to the white-wash casting of Portman and Leigh in roles written as Asian and Native American. Otherwise, Garland need make no apologies for Annihilation. It's a bracing brainteaser with the courage of its own ambiguity. You work out the answers in your own head, in your own time, in your own dreams, where the best sc-fi puzzles leave things. Get ready to be rocked.