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Front Page - Friday, March 2, 2018

Critic's Corner: You might be blown away by ‘Annihilation’

Lena is standing at the edge of the Shimmer, an ever-expanding region of land encased by a translucent bubble. Consisting of swirling pastel colors, the outside of the anomaly looks almost inviting. But only one thing entering the Shimmer has come out: Lena’s husband. Or an odd approximation of him.

Lena, a cellular biologist, is entering the Shimmer because she needs answers. What happened to her husband? Can she learn something that will save him before he dies?

Four women go in with her, each outfitted with a heavy backpack, weapons and debilitating sadness due to personal tragedy.

Once inside the Shimmer, they find something odd: a sprawl of otherworldly blossoms that cover a fence like kudzu, each petal vastly different than the last one on the vine. Lena astutely observes that the plant is in a constant state of change.

Then something that should not exist slips out of the building beside the fence, drops into the adjoining marsh and attacks the women. After Lena utilizes her military training to end the creature, they take a closer look and discover an alligator with multiple rows of shark-like teeth.

What. The. Hell.

These early scenes might make “Annihilation” sound like good old-fashioned escapism. You would not be wrong in thinking so. In the tradition of great science fiction horror classics like Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” “Annihilation” shoves a small, isolated group of ill-fated humans into hell and then shuts and locks the door behind them.

The fact that the Shimmer functions as a genetic Cuisinart set on puree opens up all kinds of delicious –or horrific, depending on your perspective – possibilities. And “Annihilation” does not disappoint.

One particular scene has been etched into my movie-going memory as among the most terrifying I’ve seen. I’m not exaggerating. Writer and director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”), who based the film on author Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, baits the audience with lighting, sound and circumstance, and then once his characters are incapable of defending themselves, conjures a thing that really should not exist.

But Garland was not interested in making a film that offered only “Jurassic Park’’ popcorn thrills, although “Annihilation” contains enough of those moments to satisfy thrill-seekers.

Rather, he wants viewers to stare into the gaping maw of the infinite universe and see the frightening possibilities that lie within it.

Like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Annihilation” plunges into swirling depths of existential philosophy and explores the distant possibilities of its themes. And just like audiences were unprepared for Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi masterpiece, I doubt viewers are ready for the implications of Garland’s film, which asks probing questions about the human condition, the nature of existence and the future of mankind. I know I wasn’t prepared.

Even though “Annihilation” is intellectually challenging, it has its simple pleasures. One of these is anticipating the next step in the journey. As the women slowly make their way to a lighthouse that appears to be at the center of the phenomenon, they see and experience things of extreme imagination, and the Shimmer begins to affect each of them in profoundly personal ways.

Some of these moments had me staring wide-eyed at the screen in awe; others made me squirm. I cannot recall another film as rooted in the crossroads of beauty and horror as “Annihilation.”

Actor Natalie Portman is perfect as Lena. The story dictates she spend most of the film set on “intense,” but Portman subtly and capably reveals deeper aspects of her character that impact the film’s themes. Like Sigourney Weaver in “Alien” and even Linda Hamilton in the first two “Terminator” films, I cannot image a better actress to be cast in the role.

I also cannot picture a better ending. Gardner tilled the soil of the film’s climax with his carefully constructed screenplay, and the payoff is phenomenal – both visually and in terms of what’s taking place thematically.

When “2001” was released 50 years ago, some viewers were bored, others were perplexed and still others had their minds blown. As I sat listening to the music play over the end credits of “Annihilation,” I realized the film had metaphorically blown my mind.

Smart science fiction like “Annihilation” is rare and will never be as popular as “Star Wars,” and that’s OK. The important thing is that resourceful filmmakers like Gardner continue to realize movies like this need to exist.