"The Shimmer," as it became known, arrived when an object penetrated the layers of the Earth's atmosphere and crashed into a lighthouse standing sentinel and overlooking the sea. Groups of explorers attempted to enter it, but none have returned. Its form is some combination of liquid, solid, and gaseous, and nothing electromagnetic seems to penetrate it. What resides within the Shimmer would be criminal to reveal in a review, but let us only say that it doesn't only scramble signals and magnets. It also houses creatures straight out of the nightmares of most people, yet they are, in their essence, earthbound in nature.

We never really understand the source of these threats, the cause of the collision that in turn triggered the Shimmer. We certainly understand that it, unlike everything else within this anomalous stretch of the beach, is extraterrestrial by definition. One of the cleverest things about director Alex Garland's screenplay for Annihilation is that it never acts with any pretense that its characters magically understand this phenomenon. They are as baffled as anyone who would be unprepared to enter such a domain, and these are women experienced enough in various fields that their bafflement would be worrisome to an outsider.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a Johns Hopkins professor whose seven years in the Army preceded her career as an academic. In the service is where she met her husband, who went by his surname Kane (Oscar Isaac) until his mysterious disappearance on a mission that had to do with the Shimmer (but which, of course, he couldn't discuss). We don't learn a lot about the other women on the team, each of whom has a single defining characteristic - Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is spearheading the entirely covert operation, Anya (Gina Rodriguez) is a paramedic, Josie (Tessa Thompson) is a physician, and Cass (Tuva Novotny) is an anthropologist - and a handful of personal demons. Lena has her own, too, which she believes may have pushed her husband to volunteer for his fateful mission.

The characters are ultimately tools in Garland's screenplay for the various machinations of this external threat, which means that the middle act enters something of a routine: A new minor threat emerges and throws the team into disarray somehow, growing stranger and more fatal as each set piece passes. Even if it is a routine, though, it's an effective one, particularly because its set pieces are extraordinarily unnerving, including attacks by a frightful bear that is bigger and faster than the ones to which we are accustomed, an alligator with a particularly vicious mutation, and (in the most frightening single movie sequence in some time) a third creature whose properties should not be discussed.

Everything shifts for a third act that confronts the threat directly. Whereas most mysteries at the center of a sci-fi puzzle give us some clear indication of the resolution (thus usually undermining the impact of that mystery), nearly all the questions beyond the experiential remain intact. This is an act of defiance on Garland's part, because it takes a certain amount of trust in the audience to fill in the gaps. It also means that Annihilation feels a little cold to the touch in its deliberate pacing toward a place of uncertainty that remains a mystery. Still, given the compelling vision, a little coldness is an affordable price to pay.

Film Information

Natalie Portman (Lena), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dr. Ventress), Tessa Thompson (Josie), Gina Rodriguez (Anya), Tuva Novotny (Cass), Oscar Isaac (Kane), Benedict Wong (Lomax), David Gyasi (Daniel).

Directed and written by Alex Garland.

Rated R (violence, bloody images, language, sexuality).

115 minutes.

Released on February 23, 2018.

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