Rated R, 110 minutes
The cerebral new sci-fi thriller "Annihilation" is a long, strange trip into a land that might be inhabited by aliens. Or is it? That's the premise of the thought-provoking, sporadically tense new film from "Ex Machina's" starring Oscar-winner Natalie Portman and based on Jeff VanderMeer's novel of the same name. Though occasionally plodding and heavy-handed, the excellent turn from Portman and some slick visuals keeps the unconventional narrative flowing.
Alex Garland A group of soldiers enters an environmental disaster zone and only one soldier (Oscar Isaac) comes back out alive, though he is grievously injured. In an attempt to save his life, his wife Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist, volunteers for another expedition into the zone to figure out what happened to him.
Weird, scary and heady, the slick "Annihilation" is written and directed by Garland, who changes some elements of VanderMeer's sci-fi novel - it adds more horror flourishes than the book - but keep the same narrative structure. That narrative, with lots of symbolism and flashbacks, reminds of "Contact" or Garland's own "Ex Machina," but Garland fills it with some nice touches throughout not to mention a strong female cast.
The central problem with "Annihilation" is a sluggish first act - I actually dozed a couple of times in the first 30 minutes - but once the story picks up some energy in the second act - it will take hold and not let go until that nice, twisty ending that will surely have people talking in the same way that "Ex Machina" did. It's grounded by a superbly pensive turn from Portman, as well as nice support from Isaac as her missing husband, and Oscar-nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh, as a psychologist who knows more than she lets on.
Though Garland has a diverse cast, the film has been met with some criticism of whitewashing, given that both Portman and Jason Leigh's parts in the book were actually of different races. The casting doesn't the hurt the film, though, and Portman and Jason Leigh perform their parts beautifully. Rounding out the cast is "Jane the Virgin's" Gina Rodriguez, "Westworld's" Tessa Thompson and Swedish actress Tuva Novotny.
A tense scene with a mutant bear (the film's scariest scene) and a mind-bending climax help add intensity and texture to a film that could've use some additional energy in those slower paced initial chapters. You won't understand all of "Annihilation" but it a solid, entertaining entry in the sci-fi genre.