Fear of the unknown

Into the scary world of Annihilation

Starring Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Directed by Alex Garland. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas, Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R.
Rated 5.0

Annihilation is billed as sci-fi/fantasy, and it is both of these without question. On top of that, it is one of the scariest films you will see this year, and could also be classified as a legitimate entry in the horror genre.

Alex Garland directs and co-scripted this alien-invasion movie—loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel of the same name—that explores themes of self-identity and love (much like the filmmaker’s 2014 debut, Ex Machina) while mixing in environmental terror involving nightmarish creatures and mutating landscapes. There’s a lot going on in this movie, yet Garland and company balance it all in a stunning piece of brainy entertainment.

In an opening sequence reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing, an object enters Earth’s atmosphere and crashes to the planet. The zone surrounding the crash site becomes something known as The Shimmer, an environmental phenomenon surrounded by a swirling, bendy, translucent barrier that no one can figure out. Numerous expeditions into The Shimmer have resulted in the disappearance of many people, but one man, Kane (Oscar Isaac) does return a year after going in.

Kane is husband to former Army biologist-turned-professor Lena (Natalie Portman), and he doesn’t seem all there when he sits down at the kitchen table after his mysterious return. He starts convulsing and spitting up blood, which prompts a trip to the hospital, and along the way government types overtake the ambulance and Lena wakes up in a strange facility in the care of military physician, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Lena finds out where it is her husband has been, and soon she joins the doctor and three other women—Anya the paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), Cass the geologist (Tuva Novotny) and Josie the physicist (the amazing Tessa Thompson)—on a mission to collect data at the edges of the mysterious Shimmer.

Fat chance.

Once the team enters, we see how crazy it is in The Shimmer, and how unkind it is to those who visit. Among the horrors they discover: videos left behind by former explorers, mutated wildlife and a general tendency to make those inside batshit crazy.

There are at least three scenes in this movie that made me want to die rather than watch because they were so damned scary, and a good chunk of the running time had me uncomfortable. High praise for a horror movie.

To go with the dread and the sci-fi, Garland also mixes in some scary elements involving the Lena-Kane marriage, and the results are a movie that goes to great lengths to challenge your mind while freaking you out.

Portman is great (as usual) as someone who will endure many layers of psychological and physical horror to find out the root cause of her husband’s illness. Her cohorts—Rodriguez, Novotny and Thompson—each have shining moments, while Leigh provides a nice anchor.

Only two movies in, Garland proves he’s multifaceted. Already a first-rate auteur in the sci-fi realm, he’s also no slouch with pure drama and in capturing stellar performances. And, without a doubt, he possesses some major horror chops.

Annihilation owes a lot to Ridley Scott (Alien), John Carpenter (The Thing) and any incarnation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, yet it is still original. It might be 2018’s first masterpiece.