[if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE Annihilation is gorgeous and uncomfortably thought provoking

   Annihilation is a tough film to recommend, though not because it is a bad film. Far from it, the film is rather pointedly excellent, the kind of mind-bending science fiction that often doesn't get the big screen, big budget treatment yet somehow is miraculously realized by the increasingly impressive auteur hand of Alex Garland. (If you haven't seen his previous film, 'Ex Machina,' get on that.) However, what is going to turn many audience members away is that the film refuses to hold your hand in terms of explanation, and should you understand what the narrative is saying about its characters and the role they play in the film's Big Idea, you're likely to be more than a little uncomfortable with the thematic implications. And that's just perfect.
   The film opens on biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman) as she ponders the year-long disappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Issac) after he left to participate in a covert military operation. When Kane suddenly reappears in their home, Lena questions him about his whereabouts, only to find that he is bizarrely unresponsive and in severe medical distress. On the way to the hospital, though, they are abducted by government agents who bring Kane and Lena to the mysterious site of Kane's operation, a translucent bubble along the coast of the American South known as The Shimmer. Every expedition that has gone in has never returned, save for Kane. This prompts Lena to join the next group of scientists bound to enter The Shimmer, so that she may discover just what happened to her husband, but also to confront her own demons that sprung up in his absence.
   What happens inside The Shimmer is best left for personal discovery, and if you've read the Jeff VanderMeer novel this is based on, do not expect a literal translation. Rather, what we are led to experience is a dark and cynical look at the nature of life itself, or more to the point, how life is defined by its tendency to self-destruct. This is reflected in the attitudes of the five women who enter The Shimmer, whether it be the self-harming tendencies of a physicist (Tessa Thompson), the alcoholism of a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), or the mysterious motivations of a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The culminations of these characters' experiences are disturbing and often gruesome, but they aren't without purpose, as Garland weaves a tale of biological fate and bleak inevitability that threatens to tear apart one's presumed understanding of life's worth. It's a tricky, complicated web of thought that actively discourages passive absorption, but penetrating that membrane only serves to provide an enriching—and existentially horrifying—experience.
   This is realized with some of the most gorgeous visual effects you're likely to see all year, bridging a line between realism and abstraction that brings to mind the third act of 2001: A Space Odyssey, though perhaps a bit more straightforward in its interpretation. The only large failing the film has is in the unfortunate implication that, because all the principle characters are women, their individual emotional damage may be attributed in part to their sex, but because the film would have worked just as well regardless of the cast's genders, that point is more unintentional subtext than an active thesis. Regardless, this is a film that is intense, challenging, and unsettling, but also full of visual splendor and rich with philosophical depths. 'Annihilation' isn't for the faint of heart or those looking for a casual action adventure, but for those who can brave the experience it offers one of the most engrossing cinematic experiences we're likely to see all year.
4.5/5 stars

Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.