“Annihilation” is a sterile sci-fi acid trip into the unnatural world

“Annihilation” / Screencap courtesy Youtube

There’s a very dry “2010s” visual aesthetic that defines a lot of newish heady sci-fi. That kind of IKEA showroom sterility that shows up in, say, Amy Adams’ immaculate living room in “Arrival” or any number of of “Black Mirror” episodes. You know what it looks like: cavernous rooms with untouched hardwood floors and abstract furniture that looks unblemished by a human buttocks. Maybe there’s a lab set with sliding glass doors and an LED touchscreen. This is the case in Alex Garland’s directorial debut “Ex Machina” and it’s definitely the case in his follow up, “Annihilation.”

But while the antiseptic quality of other recent science fiction outings is usually unremarked upon set dressing, the excruciating cleanliness of “Annihilation” feels like an important narrative feature. Our occasional glimpses at the home life of biology professor/grieving Army widow Lena (Natalie Portman) are deafening in their emptiness. The bars of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s ‘Helplessly Hoping’—implied to be Lena and her husband’s “song”—drifts through barren hallways from unseen Bluetooth speakers. Even the film’s brief scenes of physical intimacy feel oddly sexless. It’s not exactly subtle, but these snapshots of Lena’s soured domestic bliss are an effective contrast to the overgrown and unpredictable nature of “Annihilation’s” primary setting, the mysterious Area X.

While based on the initial entry in novelist Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy, “Annihilation” doesn’t feel like the perfunctory adaptation it otherwise might have been. Garland’s film version veers wildly from its source material, which feels appropriate for a movie about standing unbowed in the face of the unknown and unknowable. In a nutshell, the plot of both film and book follows a five-woman team of specialists as they journey into an otherworldly environmental disaster zone where biology and physics have gone wrong. Portman’s Lena volunteers, hoping it’ll offer answers to the inexplicable reappearance of her husband (Oscar Isaac) and his ensuing illness. The previous teams that attempted to investigate the growing blight of Area X never returned and each member of the party has their own reasons for joining what is ostensibly a suicide mission.

Eventually, what you’d expect to happen in a movie called “Annihilation” happens. Radios and compasses prove unreliable. Tensions run high. There’s gruesome snuff film footage in an abandoned military base. The size of the expedition steadily gets smaller. Garland’s film is definitely in the same vein as haunted house sci-fi pillars like “Aliens” but here the goal is to unsettle rather than outright scare the audience. The film populates Area X with a variety of freaky flora and fauna, from a pair of lithe otherworldly deer to an albino alligator with blender-like teeth to a skeletal grizzly bear that makes familiar human screams. “Annihilation” posits these movie monsters as mindless symptoms of the film’s central antagonist, Area X itself. There’s no malice when a helpless linguist is dragged away to her doom, only a terrifying new ecosystem playing out like a vaporwave nightmare edit of a “Planet Earth” episode. When Portman or a teammate blows away a visually stunning CG creature with automatic rifle fire, it’s cathartic, but never triumphant. The film’s stunning visuals are its strongest asset, a prismatic house of horrors with only locked doors.

The human stars of “Annihilation” play second-fiddle to the movie’s funhouse mirror garden of eden but still shine through the unnatural weeds and vines. Jennifer Jason Leigh, as the amoral psychologist heading up the mission, parlays her trademark sneering viciousness into an unreadable and unnerving pokerface as she leads her team into alien oblivion. Tessa Thompson and Swedish actress Tuva Novotny both avail themselves admirably as scientists, but the real scenestealer here is Gina Rodriguez as the tough but friendly Anya. There’s something remarkably satisfying in watching the star of CW’s “Jane the Virgin” chew scenery as a Colonel Kurtz-style maniac and her eventual breaking point torture of her teammates is excruciating to behold. Portman herself is never as intriguing as her on-screen colleagues but delivers a solid, fairly nuanced performance nevertheless. She shines most when playing off her unwitting coworkers’ fraying wits or in her fleeting moments with Isaac’s no-first-name-given Kane.

Still, Portman’s Lena is the lens through which we view “Annihilation.” The film ultimately boils down a woman torn between the comfort of a stolen past and her uncertain but looming future. Garland draws plenty of visual parallels between the ever-growing Area X and the cancerous cells Lena studied as an academic. Lena is a woman in crisis and Earth is a planet in crisis, each unable to return to what they were before. It’s safe to say “Annihilation” isn’t the kind of smart sci-fi movie interested in a tidy finish, only the inevitability of an ending.

“Annihilation,” directed by Alex Garland, is now playing.

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