Natalie Portman is armed and eerie in the peculiar sci-fi mystery, Annihilation. Based on the "Southern Reach" trilogy by James VanderMeer, Annihilation is adapted for the screen by Director Alex Garland (Ex-Machina). Strange is an understatement. The film is graphically violent with a bizarre, time-twisting narrative. There's a horror aspect that will have you jumping out of your chair at times. It's an altogether uneasy mix that succeeds in being highly disturbing. Garland sets a frightening mood, but takes too many liberties establishing the plot.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, an army veteran turned biology professor. She's stunned when her husband (Oscar Isaac) shows up in their home, after being missing in action for a year. He has no recollection of where he's been or who he is. Lena is brought up to speed on his top secret mission by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The government has been covering up a phenomenon called the Shimmer. It is an area of coast and swampland being enveloped by an unknown energy field. The field is growing at an alarming rate. Every mission sent into the Shimmer vanishes. Lena's husband is the first person to ever come back. Lena decides to join an all female team, led by Dr. Ventress herself, into the Shimmer to get answers.
Annihilation will have you rapt at attention. The film is a slow crawl creep show. It goes back and forth explaining events. All the while Garland hints at his characters motives. Everyone on the team has a different reason for embarking on such a dangerous mission. One particularly interesting scene, outside of Dr. Ventress ear shot, is whether they are all suicidal. Why else would anyone volunteer? This human nature aspect of Garland's script lays down a thorny bed of underlying tension. Outside of the sci-fi twists, this is the best part of the film.
Annihilation leaves a lot unexplained. This works to a point, then becomes nonsensical. I can only assume so much in a story before questioning it. The primary issue is the make up of the team itself. Lena goes from finding her husband, to chatting with Ventress, to armed, locked, and ready to rock on the team. A huge chunk of the story is left untold. The women are just gung ho into the Shimmer. This didn't make any sense at all. How where these women chosen? Why is Lena allowed to join the team? If they're going somewhere presumably dangerous, why aren't they in biohazard suits, or in an armored vehicle? VanderMeer's book might have explained this, but Garland's script has zero exposition in this regard. It's a failure that Annihilation never overcomes.
Natalie Portman is in almost every frame of this movie. She's brilliant in some aspects, but maybe out of her element in others. Portman is fantastic as the grieving, then confused wife. Where the hell has her husband been? Why doesn't he remember anything? She's also good as the biologist uncovering the clues methodically. The characters enter the Shimmer knowing zilch. They reveal the mystery inch by scary inch. Where Portman struggles is as the bad ass with a machine gun. The women have assault rifles as their primary weapon, but it seems Lena is the only one who knows how to shoot one. Portman fires a lot of bullets, but to be frank, doesn't realistically sell her "army vet" skills. The team is woefully unprepared for violence. This is another unexplained issue. You'd think they'd have a combat officer, and be armed for the apocalypse. They don't and it's almost as weird as what they find.
Garland's use of music is quite skillful. The score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is instrumental in building anxiety. The same team worked together on Ex-Machina. They use odd sound effects, followed by guitar melodies to alternately creep; then lull before pivotal scenes. It's a winning combination that delivers some first rate scares.
From Paramount Pictures, Annihilation is a must see for sci-fi and horror fans. The irrational bits are overcome by the surprises. There are some good jolts that may send your popcorn airborne. Alex Garland is on a sci-fi roll. His follow-up to Ex-Machina is certainly interesting. He's got me on the hook for potential sequels.