Natalie Portman plays a cell biologist and ex-soldier in “Annihilation.” Her name is Lena, and at one point she says, “Something here is making giant waves in the gene pool.” That’s an understatement. Plants have taken on human forms, crystal trees are growing in swamps, little prancing fawns have sprouted blossoms on their antlers, and mutant monsters are licking their hideous chops at the sight of Lena and her fellow explorers. They are five resolute women, all with specialized skills, and they’ve plunged into something called the Shimmer. It’s a sort of land-based Bermuda Triangle on the Florida coast that has devoured male soldiers before them, and suddenly threatens to devour the whole world. Alex Garland’s film is a mutant in its own right, a cross between classic creature features and the classic Lewis Thomas book “The Lives Of a Cell,” along with spawn of “Alien,” shades of “The Twilight Zone,” traces of “Ghostbusters” and philosophical ruminations that evoke “2001: A Space Odyssey” minus the trippiness. The result is daringly original and frequently beautiful a shimmering treat from a singular intelligence.
It starts superseriously with lots of show-and- tell about cells—how they divide and how they may have started with a single cell four billion years ago. This is followed by a slow setup centered on Lena’s husband, Kane, a special-ops soldier played by Oscar Isaac. Kane has managed to escape from the Shimmer after a long mission to a location called Area X, but he’s suddenly beset by organ failure and, in a deep sense, not himself.
That’s when Lena decides to find out what happened to him and goes into the Shimmer herself with a paramilitary group commanded by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress, a psychologist who talks in furtive murmurs. And that’s when “Annihilation” turns plainly though not simply enjoyable. It’s a genre movie with a gender twist. There they are, five women with checkered histories marching through the thick vegetation of theme-parky precincts with heavy packs on their backs and heavy weapons at the ready. It’s a movie that swings freely between adventure, some of it silly, and serious mystery, with plenty of questions and few answers. What happened to the men who were lost in the Shimmer? How did Lena’s husband make it out? We see what the women see when they come upon clues, but the meaning remains ambiguous—and really scary.
And what is the Shimmer? It seems to be of alien origin, but what do the aliens want? To annihilate our species? The closest thing to an answer lies in a sense of unstoppable change, from the cellular level on up. Everything changes, the film seems to say—not for the better or worse, but for the different, the unavoidably new. “Annihilation” is new. It wants us to think, and feel, while we’re having fun.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.