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edge staff writer


Too weird to live and too rare to die – ‘Annihilation’

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There are certain literary works that, for one reason or another, are deemed unfilmable. Whether it’s a question of scale or story or power or perspective, these books seemingly defy any effort to effectively translate them to the big screen.

A lot of people hung that label on Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, a collection of genre-bending books telling a surreal, dreamlike and very weird story about an unknown presence encroaching on the southern United States and the agencies tasked with dealing with it. VanderMeer isn’t what you’d call a conventional storyteller – the three books (“Annihilation,” “Authority” and “Acceptance”) are well-written, well-regarded and compelling as hell, but stylistically, they’d seem to warrant the unfilmable tag.

But Alex Garland cares not for your labels.

Following up his exceptional directorial debut “Ex Machina,” the filmmaker chose to bring “Annihilation” to cinematic life. Garland worked from his own screenplay adaptation of the book, bringing together an exceptional cast, a unique visual flair and a powerful understanding of the book’s weird and visceral nature to create a moviegoing experience that, while somewhat removed from the source material, remains unabashedly challenging and vividly intense … and one of the strangest big-budget releases we’ve seen in years.

Lena (Natalie Portman, “Song to Song”) is in isolation, being debriefed by a quarantine suit-wearing man named Lomax (Benedict Wong, “Doctor Strange”). He’s questioning her about experiences that she seems to only vaguely remember and about people whose fates remain unclear to her.

Flashing back, we see that she’s a professor of cellular biology who is dealing with the lengthy and mysterious absence of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), a soldier who embarked on a secret military mission a year ago and never returned.

Until he does.

However, Kane is in a state of shocked confusion, unable to clearly state where he has been or what he has been doing. He’s also very ill – so ill that Lena calls for help. But they don’t get far before they are swept up by a military team that brings the two of them to a facility located in the simply-named Area X.

This is where Lena learns the truth about where her husband was. A gradually expanding area surrounded by a strange barrier called “the Shimmer,” a mysterious stretch of Florida swampland that is now playing host to … something. All efforts to explore the area have met with failure – until Kane, no one who entered the Shimmer ever returned.

To save her husband, Lena asks to be included in the next mission – a mission led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, “Good Time”). Joining the group are Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny, “Borg McEnroe”), Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez, TV’s “Jane the Virgin”) and Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson, “Thor: Ragnarok”). The five of them make their way through the Shimmer and into the midst of the mystery.

What happens next is a topsy-turvy cavalcade of weirdness. They find themselves cut off from communication with the outside – same as with all previous missions. But they also find that large chunks of time are disappearing; blank spots that can conceivably be measured in days. The flora and fauna they encounter are unlike anything that they have ever seen before - or that anyone has ever seen before. And when they discover evidence left by some of the previous expeditions – including some startling and disturbing video – it becomes clear that the greatest dangers are yet to come.

With little understanding of the rules of this ever-changing new realm in which they move, the group can only press onward in hopes of finding answers to their many questions and – maybe – getting out alive.

And through it all, we’re periodically brought back to the isolation chamber, where Lena struggles to share her story and proffer the answers that Lomax – and by extension, the entire organization – so desperately want to hear.

I honest can’t remember seeing a wide-release film as utterly weird as “Annihilation.” The aesthetic is surreal and dreamlike, filled with vivid color and design choices. The narrative is paced in a manner that is up and down and sometimes jarring in its shifts. There are moments of languid tranquility and quiet reflection that are occasionally punctured with visceral horror that borders on shocking.

It’s excellent, a moviegoing experience unlike anything we’re likely to see again anytime soon.

Much of the credit goes to Garland, whose adaptation veers significantly from VanderMeer’s book while still managing to stay true to the foundational truths of the material. He’s always been able to fold thought-provoking ideas into genre-driven scripts. His screenplays for “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd” all transcended their sci-fi/horror frameworks; he took it to the next level with “Ex Machina” and continues to do so with this film, though it doesn’t quite reach the heights of that previous offering.

The cast sure helps. It’s a phenomenal collection of talent. Portman is an ideal fit as Lena, projecting a quiet power and a stoicism that only occasionally peels back to reveal the churning emotional turmoil beneath. Leigh is outstanding as Ventress, projecting a wonderful coldness that is both calculating and compelling. Novotny is great. Thompson is a star in the making. And Rodriguez is a revelation, turning in a nuanced performance that doubles as evidence that she could carry her own action movie. Isaac and Wong are very good, but their work is secondary to that put forth by the women at the film’s center.

“Annihilation” is a challenging, complicated film that almost certainly won’t be a financial success, thanks to bet-hedging by Paramount regarding its release. It is stunning and strange, a movie experience that is simply too weird to achieve massive popularity. It’s also outstanding, one of the most engaging and interesting sci-fi offerings in years.

[5 out of 5] 


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