“Annihilation,” a mind-bending foray into the unknown from the British writer-director Alex Garland, leaves you in an entrancingly beautiful daze. That may be an odd thing to say about a movie with mutant crocodiles, killer bears and an unflagging sense of menace, but for all its surface perils the picture also has a disquietingly serene core. It broods, stalks and sometimes pounces, but mostly — not unlike the five intrepid women who venture into its heart of darkness — it’s content to observe, almost as though it were studying itself through the lens of the camera. It gives itself, and the audience, an awful lot to see.
Freely adapted from the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy, Garland’s movie tracks an expedition into a swamp where an enormous translucent canopy called “the Shimmer” has descended, inexplicably warping all plant and animal life in the vicinity. It’s a story with eerie echoes of science-fiction novels like J.G. Ballard’s “The Crystal World” and Stephen King’s “Under the Dome,” though I confess that an early shot of a meteor crashing into a lighthouse put me briefly in mind of a dystopian Nicholas Sparks.
Maybe that’s no accident: This grave, moody, unapologetically cerebral thriller is not without its tortured romantic side. At the heart of the story is a Johns Hopkins University biologist, Lena (Natalie Portman), who hasn’t seen her husband, Sgt. Kane (Oscar Isaac), since he left on a top-secret military mission a year earlier. But when Kane mysteriously returns one day, coughing up blood but no answers, government officials suddenly appear and whisk the couple off to a research facility in a remote coastal territory known as Area X.
The subject under scrutiny is the Shimmer, which hovers ominously in the air nearby, pulsing iridescently like a fog made from plastic wrap. Several parties have gone in to investigate over the years, but were never heard from again; Kane is the only one who ever made it out alive, and only then just barely. With the Shimmer already threatening to expand, Lena decides the best thing she can do for her deathly ill husband is to find out the truth for herself.
And so she joins an expedition led by a tetchy, cynical psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), along with a paramedic, Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez); a physicist, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson); and an anthropologist, Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). Together, armed with rifles, wits, gallows humor and unimpeachable credentials, they march into the Shimmer, where they quickly lose all communication with the outside world.
As the women make their way toward the elusive lighthouse at the Shimmer’s point of origin, Sheppard observes that nearly all of them have endured some life-altering trauma, whether it’s a terminal illness or the loss of a loved one: They have everything to offer their mission and nothing to lose. Lena, for her part, must do her mourning in private, as only Dr. Ventress knows that Kane is her husband — a strategic deception that affirms Lena’s detached professionalism, even as it adds to the mounting sense of dread and unease.
In confronting an extraterrestrial presence through the gaze of a human female, emphasizing her intelligence and composure while sneakily teasing out her emotional history, “Annihilation” at times suggests a more ferocious companion piece to Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 thriller, “Arrival.” It’s a connection that Garland reinforces aesthetically in the absorbing but unhurried pace established by Barney Pilling’s editing, the muted grays and sudden eruptions of color in Rob Hardy’s sun-streaked cinematography, and, above all, the pulsing, otherworldly drone of Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score.
But “Annihilation” is very much its own beast, so to speak, as becomes clear when its heroines stumble on an old hut partially submerged in a lake. Marveling at the genetic anomalies apparent in the area’s brightly hued vegetation — the Shimmer, it seems, basically makes your DNA drop acid — Lena and her colleagues soon find themselves face to face with a litany of half-concealed horrors, the scariest aspect of which may be their curious indifference to the group’s survival. In the cold, rational, beautifully decaying world of “Annihilation,” death isn’t just a violent end; it’s another state of being.
A veteran screenwriter with strong roots in speculative fiction (“Sunshine,” “28 Days Later … ”), Garland made a knockout directorial debut with “Ex Machina” (2014), which gave us the gift of Alicia Vikander playing a sinuous female robot, plus the equally unforgettable image of Isaac tearing it up on the dance floor. Isaac is sadly immobilized for much of “Annihilation,” but that only makes it easier for Garland to put women matter-of-factly front and center: Portman’s Lena shoulders the dramatic burden with unsurprising ease, but her four formidable colleagues provide their own invaluable assist.
At first, the movie suggests an unusually cerebral variation on the doomed-mission template: Despite the actresses’ variable screen time, Rodriguez’s outspoken intensity, Novotny’s quiet sensitivity and Thompson’s riveting calm all register so vividly that you regret knowing some if not all of them will be eliminated. That’s not a spoiler; nor is it even half the story. With the exception of one genuinely breathtaking, blood-curdling ambush, “Annihilation” has little interest in the conventional mechanics of suspense and surprise, as evidenced by an array of flashbacks and flash-forwards that reveal at least one outcome of Lena’s journey (she lives!) in the very first scene.
Grounded by the grainy recurring image of a cell rapidly dividing, “Annihilation” is itself a fluid exercise in genetic mutation: It begins with scenes from a marriage, then quickly evolves into a wilderness adventure, an environmental horror flick and a striking depiction of physical and psychological entropy (emphasis on the “trippy”). Its most impressive achievement may be how easily it welds the mechanics of genre and the cinema of ideas. Garland’s movie has its grisly flourishes, but unlike so many thrillers that preoccupy themselves with spectacles of death, it’s more interested in pondering the strange, inextricable link between creation and destruction.
All of which makes it even more of a pity that although “Annihilation” is opening theatrically in the U.S., Canada and China, it will head straight to Netflix queues in other territories. No small screen, in particular, could do justice to the movie’s hypnotic final half-hour, a cosmic brainstorm of indelible images — gnarled branches, spiraling staircases, an ecstatic vision of the void — that earns its near-wordless homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
That Stanley Kubrick colossus, you may recall, was drawn from an Arthur C. Clarke novel that later spawned several sequels, the implications of which scarcely diminished the movie’s looming sense of mystery. Garland and his collaborators, intent on making their own stand-alone picture, deliberately avoided reading “Annihilation’s” two sequels — a purist approach that resulted in at least one awkward if unintended departure from the source material. As a result of VanderMeer’s deliberately cryptic play with narrative, it isn’t revealed until “Authority,” the second book in the trilogy, that the character who inspired Lena is of Asian descent, while the character who inspired Dr. Ventress is half Native American and half white.
Given the movie’s own not-insignificant strides for inclusive casting, it’s all the more disappointing to see it become the latest case study in Hollywood’s ongoing struggle with “whitewashing” — a crude catch-all term for an industry-wide problem with its own endless strains and variations. The representational confusion here scarcely negates the picture’s effectiveness, but neither does it exist in a vacuum. “Annihilation” is a remarkable movie, a skillful and ingenious sophistication of a standard B-thriller template, but it also bears the flawed genetic imprint of the industry that spawned it.
Rating: R, for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: In general release (opens Feb. 23)