Alex Garland’s potent feature debut Ex Machina won critics over with its mix of sharp effects work and meditations on humanity, but was marred by a near impenetrable coldness and third act leaps of logic.
Three years later, his adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation is similarly tense and alluring from the start, yet soon surpasses its predecessor is nearly every conceivable manner.
Tingling viewers’ minds with a meteorite hitting a lighthouse, the film cuts to Lena (Natalie Portman) sitting in a room, surrounded by people in hazmat suits, answering questions from Lomax (Benedict Wong) regarding her lone survival status from a deadly realm.
The emergence from a place where logic doesn’t apply sets the intrigue bar high and Garland capitalizes on that potential as Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns from over a year away on a secret assignment, soon falls seriously ill and is carted off to a covert government complex with his wife in tow.
The mystery grows as cagey psychiatrist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) illuminates Lena on The Shimmer, an ever-growing oily wall emanating from the lighthouse and altering all in its path, a zone from which only Kane has come back — if his comatose status indeed qualifies.
Since apparently all-male military groups haven’t succeeded in providing answers about the alien threat, the powers that be send in a team composed entirely of female scientists. Like Lena and Ventress, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (Tessa Thompson) are flawed, troubled women and their backgrounds organically issue forth as Lena gets to know them amidst the creative, heightened surroundings.
Whereas Ex Machina feels like almost pure pastiche, the imagery of Annihilation doesn’t seem beholden to any influences and thereby serves as one of its foremost strengths. Trekking through apparent practical scenery of woods strewn with flowers covering the color palette of a 64-piece crayon box and then some, there’s a sense that anything can happen in The Shimmer, yet the crew’s journey feels grounded on a human level through the strong performances and Lena’s personal investment in the mission.
Tonally consistent in its balance of the intimate and grandiose, the film masterfully builds suspense through not merely the unknown but a disorienting timeline that could very well be a product of the alien environment and the feeling that the women’s pasts may soon haunt them.
The discovery of video footage from previous crews, revealing inexplicable bodily changes, only elevates the fear factor, and when threats indeed arrive they live up to the promise of a setting with endless possibilities — namely a truly terrifying scene in which a departed crew member returns in a…let’s say “modified” form.
Subsequent horror films will have a difficult time topping those moments’ soul-rattling intensity, and yet they wind up being merely preamble for a spellbinding finale that’s bravely allowed to play out long past the point where more conventional fare would pull back.
In its wide-eyed glory, Annihilation’s home stretch does what Ex Machina, Under the Skin and other indie sci-fi weren’t able to accomplish, delivering awe bolstered by a near air-tight build-up that saves its best for last.
Grade: A-minus. Rated R. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Paramount Pictures)