Trippy fantasia feast for the eyes

Rarely has a film conjured such a thick atmosphere of dread and wonder as "Annihilation."

"The Shimmer” is the name given to the mysterious phenomenon that, after a meteor strike, settles along a swampy coastline in Alex Garland’s “Annihilation.” It’s an area enclosed by a fluid, translucent wall bathed in an eerie rainbow glimmer. The Shimmer’s steady expansion threatens to swallow surrounding towns, cities and, eventually, everything.

Naturally, this is Florida. Efforts to determine what’s inside the Shimmer have proven futile. Except for one survivor, none to enter have ever returned. To step inside is to step into the unknown.

This is the bigger-budget follow-up to Garland’s directing debut, “Ex Machina.” The novelist-turned-screenwriter (“28 Days Later...,” ‘’Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go”) has here made good on the promise of “Ex Machina,” a heady if sometimes flat chamber piece about the invention of a very human-like artificial intelligence.

Trippy fantasia feast for the eyes

Natalie Portman plays an ex-Army biology professor in the film “Annihilation.”

“Annihilation,” which is partly based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, has plenty of forerunners (namely Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”) and it’s not flawless. There’s an often awkward distance here between Garland’s grand ambitions and his mid-sized-budget visual effects, between VanderMeer’s immersive imagination and the necessities of physicalizing fantasy in a movie.

But rarely has a film conjured such a thick atmosphere of dread and wonder as “Annihilation.”

Lena (Natalie Portman) is an ex-Army biology professor. Her soldier husband (Oscar Isaacs), after being gone for a year, returns from a secret mission unable to explain where he’s been. Dumbfounded, he promptly begins to split up blood and, in the ambulance ride to the hospital, is overtaken by a swarm of police vehicles.

Lena is introduced to the Shimmer by a laconic psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in charge of fielding missions. She is going in, pulled by inescapable curiosity. Lena joins their group, an all-female squad including a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist (Tessa Thompson) and an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny).

They enter the Shimmer where bewilderments and horrors await. They immediately wake up in their tents, unsure how they spent the last three days. In the lush, tropical forest, they marvel at the teaming mutated species while evading fantastical beasts. It’s equal parts dream and nightmare. 

Trippy fantasia feast for the eyes

In the film, an all-female squad enter the Shimmer where bewilderments and horrors await.

It’s an intoxicatingly weird fantasia, beautifully photographed by Rob Hardy, that’s genuinely head spinning. While early on the music fails to match the visuals, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score grows steadily more hypnotic until a sonically shattering climax.

As frightful as their surroundings are, self-destruction is the theme of “Annihilation.” Each of the five come into the Shimmer marked by their own interior afflictions — a suicide attempt, cancer, addiction, or, Lena’s case, the guilt of betrayal. “Annihilation” is filled with the science of mutating cells — “the rhythm of the dividing pair” — and the suggestion that self-destruction is natural, in molecules and in relationships.

If this is all sounding rather soupy, well, it is. “Annihilation” struggles to connect that insight into its psychedelia. Lena’s backstory is only glimpsed in brief flashbacks, and her companions’ emotions are unexplored. Something doesn’t quite sync, even as “Annihilation” renders those inner conflicts with cosmic grandeur.

Like virtually every science fiction before it, once “Annihilation” starts solving its enigmas, the spell begins to break. But Garland’s film is seldom not something to behold. In the unexplained, unknowable world of the Shimmer, there are moments electric with possibility that anything can happen. That’s a rare feeling in big-screen science fiction, and Garland’s film can be pulverizing. “Annihilation” nearly lives up to the promise of its title.

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