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'Annihilation' is strange, beautiful biological mystery

Natalie Portman in a scene from "Annihilation." (Paramount Pictures/Skydance via AP)
Published Feb. 22, 2018

Alex Garland's Annihilation is a bracing blend of cerebral sci-fi and grindhouse terror, a genre movie that's more, maybe too much for some viewers.

Based on Tallahassee author Jeff VanderMeer's novel, Annihilation on the surface is a dead-ducks mission like Alien with the Ripley factor times five. That's how many intelligent women with guns will be stalked and worse by mutant creatures in a supernatural setting. Garland stages dread and body horror with the best of 'em.

Look and listen closer. Annihilation is also a biological mystery stemming from simple laws of cell division, a process Natalie Portman's professor Lena teaches at the outset. Everything strange, beautiful or repellent Garland presents in "the shimmer" where new species are born is BIO 101 imagined to scary effect.

Garland teases our understanding of Lena, starting with interrogation by a haz-mat scientist, questions she can't answer. Flashback to her isolation after work, a missing military husband, a meteorite striking a Pacific coast lighthouse. Lena doesn't know, but that's where she's heading.

Her husband Kane (Oscar Issac) returns unannounced from another covert mission, eerily distant and soon belching blood. His ambulance ride is hijacked by mysterious agents whisking them to top secret Area X where the shimmer — a soap bubble spectrum jungle — is growing from the lighthouse. Explorers enter but never leave except Kane. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wants to know how.

Lena joins the next expedition to discover what happened there to Kane. She won't like the answers, plural in Garland's trippy, slightly off-putting conclusion. Joining Lena are Dr. Ventress, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson) and Cass (Tuva Novotny), each of them academia specialists not played as nerds or reckless. Fantastic situations like ones they'll face are made more credible and thrilling when smart people deal with them.

The shimmer is a production design marvel with Mark Digby's colorfully mutated flora and fauna making this sinister place beautiful. Everyday sights — a campground, a boat landing — are contrasted with odd hybrids and eerie topiary. Garland's special effects team whips up some lovely mutations; deer-like creatures with blooming branch antlers and jelly eel minnows among them.

Then there's the brutal side of this new nature, an albino alligator with a killer shark's maw and attitude, a gut-churning parasite, a bear whose decaying skull suggests he needs a few minutes extra in the evolution oven. The carnage and boo-jumps these critters bring are B-movie contrasts to Annihilation's smarter, more deliberate instincts, and what will keep some folks interested.

For others like me, Annihilation confirms Garland as science fiction's most intriguing new cinematic voice, after debuting with 2014's Ex Machina, another subtly feminist fantasy with brains. By simple law of cell division we should have more talent like his working by now.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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