Oh, Natalie Portman, it's so very nice to have you back where you belong.
Portman, whose turn two years ago in Jackie left me breathless, is once again in sensational form, this time in Alex Garland's eerie and inspired, if also uneven Annihilation. It's a sci-fi picture that recalls the likes of Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing (and, in terms of sheer look and feel, is a dead ringer for Arrival) and, on occasion, hits the same sky-high heights of those classics.
Based on Jeff VanderMeer's eponymous 2014 novel, the film opens on Lena (Portman), a biologist, professor and former soldier, suddenly visited by husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who has been missing for more than a year. Kane hasn't a clue where he's been and, shortly after his arrival, he falls gravely ill and, alongside Lena, is captured by the Southern Reach, a government organization.
At the Southern Reach compound, Lena is informed by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that Kane is the sole survivor of a mission into the mysterious Shimmer, a region within a national park that formed after an extraterrestrial object struck a lighthouse within the park. With Kane on the verge of death, Lena volunteers to join the next expedition into the Shimmer. Alongside Ventress, physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) and paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), the quintet ventures into the Shimmer and well, let's just say a whole lot of freaky shit goes down over the next hour and a half.
Much of Annihilation, in the early-going at least, rings of those fabulous sequences in the aforementioned Ridley Scott and John Carpenter films, in which our crew investigates the abandoned surroundings of former/now deceased visitors. Garland's vision for the Shimmer is as splendid as it is unsettling. Kudos to the filmmaker, production designer Mark Digby and cinematographer Rob Hardy on their inventive efforts here.
The cast, too, is aces. Beyond Portman (who, per usual, rocks), Novotny and Thompson are terrific and I was especially taken with Rodriguez, who gets one scene in particular (which also happens to be the scariest in the film) that will strike many as just batshitcrazy but had me thinking 'Oscar clip!' Oh, and you can't go wrong with the legendary Leigh.
My qualms with Annihilation come with the picture's final half hour or so, in which at least one of the crew members actually manages to make it all the way into that lighthouse. Instead of building on all of the momentum leading into this finale, we're treating to some not-so-convincing CGI and a sort of battle of the wits that some may find captivating but struck me as supremely silly. The film, thankfully, ends on a note that is intriguing and satisfying enough to mostly make up for some of the missteps.
Annihilation is hardly pitch-perfect and I'm not convinced, years from now, will necessarily be looked upon as one of the great contemporary sci-fi features. That said, the cast is gangbusters, there are at least a dozen deeply unnerving or downright terrifying moments and Garland continues to prove himself one of the more innovative and idiosyncratic filmmakers working in this genre today.