‘Annihilation’: Innovations abound as Natalie Portman ventures into the unknown

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A biologist (Natalie Portman) investigates her husband’s disappearance in an environmental disaster zone in “Annihilation.” | Paramount Pictures/Skydance

One of my favorite movie scenes of the 2010s is the “I’m gonna tear up the f—in’ dance floor” sequence in “Ex Machina,” with Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno doing a bizarre, “Saturday Night Fever”-tinged routine while bathed in blood-red light.

Writer-director Alex Garland was the architect of that disturbing and oddly hilarious cinematic moment. For me, “Ex Machina” as a whole fell just short of becoming a modern classic of the genre, but it was further evidence Garland (who wrote the much-admired “28 Days” movies) is a major talent.

Garland’s work reaches new heights with “Annihilation,” a bold and innovative sci-fi horror thriller that contains at least three sequences — no wait, make that four or five sequences — at least as daring and loony as that weirdo dance routine in “Ex Machina.”

Yes, this is the kind of film where you might find yourself turning to your movie-mate and whispering “How GREAT is this!” just as your companion is putting the popcorn under the seat and is about to suggest cutting your losses and getting the heck out of there.


At times “Annihilation” has the chilling subtlety of one of those Ray Bradbury adaptations where on the surface everything appears to be normal, but we know — we just know — something’s not quite right. Other moments are big and bold, and laden with art direction and special effects that come across as cutting edge, but also influenced by 1980s-era sci-fi movie technology.

At just 36, Natalie Portman has already delivered enough performances to fill a career highlight reel. Portman’s work here is as good as anything she’s ever done, including her Oscar-winning turn in “Black Swan.”

Portman plays Lena, a respected biologist and professor with a military background. Lena’s husband Kane (Isaac, re-teaming with his “Ex Machina” writer-director) is a special ops soldier who was sent on a mission into an environmental disaster zone that is glowing with mysterious colors and pulsating with a protective (or is it aggressive?) life force after having been struck by some sort of bolt from the sky.

Neither Kane nor anyone else from the mission team has been heard from in a year. The presumption is they’re all dead.

One afternoon Lena is painting a room in the house she shared with Kane, as “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills & Nash plays in the background.

Did he hear a goodbye, or even hello?

They are one person

They are two alone

They are three together

They are for each other…

Stephen Stills wrote those lyrics nearly a half-century ago, but let’s just say this song is the perfect fit for the moment that is about to occur, and for the overall story about to unfold.

In a setup reminiscent of “Arrival,” in which Amy Adams’ linguist finds herself at a military base established in the shadow of a strange and otherworldly and perhaps destructive something, Lena is taken to a secret government facility teeming with doctors, scientists and military personnel, all trying to understand and combat that inexplicable and expanding force in the woods, which seems to be on a course to consume and destroy the planet.

Determined to find out what happened to her husband in that deadly zone, Lena joins an all-female expedition, which is led by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress and includes Gina Rodriguez’ Anya, Tessa Thompson’s Josie and Tuva Novotny’s Cass.

Each of these women has a reason for volunteering to enter the belly of the beast. They’re not exactly forthcoming with one another about those reasons, which leads to a few classic sci-fi horror scenarios where they begin to question and in some cases even turn on each other.

The world inside the contaminated zone is alternately horrifying and beautiful. Wild mutations abound, from breathtakingly beautiful flora to heart-stopping fauna.

Garland (adapting a novel by Jeff VanderMeer that is the first of a trilogy) does a masterful job of building the mystery, dropping plot hints like so many bread crumbs, jolting us with “gotcha!” moments and sprinkling in flashbacks that gradually reveal why Lena will stop at nothing to learn the truth about her husband and perhaps even save him, if he is indeed alive. (The more we learn about Lena, the more impressed we are by Portman’s performance.)

“Annihilation” becomes ever more trippy and challenging — and thus ever more interesting.

There’s been a lot of talk in the entertainment media about battles over the content and the distribution deal for “Annihilation.” Last December, the Hollywood Reporter ran a piece reporting a major investor in the film expressed concerns it was “too intellectual” and “too complicated” after a less-than-successful test screening.

The esteemed producer Scott Rudin (“No Country For Old Men,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Social Network”) reportedly had final cut on the film, and he sided with Garland’s vision. So we’re seeing “Annihilation” as the filmmaker intended it to be seen.

Kudos to Garland and the cast, but bravo to Scott Rudin as well. Apparently you knew a masterpiece when you saw it, and you made sure we were able to see it as well.


Paramount Pictures presents a film written and directed by Alex Garland, based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer. Rated R (for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality). Running time: 115 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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