By Kiana Lei Yap | Opinion Columnist

Natalie Portman leads the Annihilation cast as Lena, a biologist who ventures into the mysterious realm of “The Shimmer.” (Courtesy of The Atlantic)

Alex Garland’s newest film, “Annihilation,” is a sci-fi thriller that encapsulates viewers in the disorienting, yet beautiful world of “The Shimmer.” Set in modern America, the film is host to a female-lead cast, featuring Natalie Portman as the biologist Lena and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the enigmatic psychologist Dr. Ventress.

The film begins when Lena is recruited from her cancer cell research position at Johns Hopkins to journey with Dr. Ventress’ team to investigate the extraterrestrial phenomenon of “The Shimmer,” which has overtaken a Floridian marshland and whose range continues to grow. The ominous danger of the trek lies in the premise that almost nothing—be it human, robot, or communication signal—has returned from their mission into The Shimmer’s realm, except one: Lena’s husband (portrayed by Oscar Isaac). Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler; the trailer all but dumps the entirety of the movie up until the climax into the viewer’s lap.

A majority of the film takes place in the extraterrestrial world where the audience journeys alongside Lena, Dr. Ventress, and their three-person team. Cinematographer Rob Hardy gives us a dreamlike world that holds the viewer’s gaze within the creepy, menacing aura of the film. Plants and animals are alluringly, yet grotesquely, mutated, as creation and destruction affect all creatures in the realm, even including Lena and the team. As the plot’s build-up progresses and the team nears the source of The Shimmer, the metamorphoses grow darker for all, yet the beauty of their environment remains a sickening presence. There are a few slightly gruesome scenes, but they draw more mind-tripping intrigue than horror.

What I appreciated the most was the artistic grandeur of both the film and its score, composed by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. For a typical sci-fi thriller, one might only expect droning “Blade Runner” or “Arrival”-esque ambient tones, but what was most surprising was the use of an acoustic guitar-driven melody in the earlier scenes. We are introduced to the oddly-fitting, floating melody as the crew wanders through the forests and marshlands in imaginative discovery. The film still has those sci-fi atmospheric tones, but they’re featured primarily in the climax, which is carried into completion entirely without dialogue. The climax’s ambient sound is one segment that transitions from orchestral hums, to a simple but standout four-note synth tone (featured in the trailer), and fades out with a glittering choral decrescendo.

In an interview with Slate writer Marissa Martinelli, the composers commented on the structure of the score in the climax: “You are hearing synths…it’s the only time in the score that synths and electronics make an overt appearance. They do so purposefully in this part of the film so that [the climax] stands apart…Sometimes the most arresting things are the simplest things.”

This film is a cinematic marvel with Garland’s subtly detailed use of imagery and foreshadowing. There’s a recurring motif of cell division, hearkening back to Lena’s cancer cell research profession. Representations of rebirth, growth, and destruction are seen throughout: floral genetic mutations, bizarre animal deformities, and even the team’s own psychological and physical changes after an alarming realization about midway through the film.

What the movie showcases is Garland’s aptitude for transforming the most simple shots and objects into vehicles of foreshadowing. In two separate scenes, Garland makes use of a simple water glass, distorted reflections, and lighting to alert viewers, with a certain unease, of a signal of the foreboding events to come. This is all accomplished with a glass of water.

Where the film fails for me is in its muddled scramble of a climax. The build-up to the climax envelopes us in the glistening glory and gnarled anomalies of The Shimmer’s world. We’re on the journey alongside Lena, traveling deeper into the marshland to find the source of the alien development. We reach the climax, and it’s a weird (but not in the intriguing sense like the rest of the movie) and sloppy reach for closure. The featured review for the film on IMDb calls the climax “much more of an intellectual payoff than a spectacular action scene,” which lessens the appeal for someone wanting more action and less perplexity. Does it make the film not worth watching? Absolutely not. But it is a considerable letdown after such a well-executed, thrilling rise.

Despite how the film has been doing in box offices—grossing at a minor 25 percent of its overall budget on opening weekend—it’s a rare sci-fi film with emotional and intellectual substance, not just action and lens flares. In a review by Brian Tallerico on the Roger Ebert blog, he writes, “‘Annihilation’ is not an easy film to discuss. It’s a movie that will have a different meaning to different viewers who are willing to engage with it…It’s meant to linger in your mind and haunt your dreams.”

The movie’s direction and design give the film its artistic appeal, while its narrative execution draws us to engage with it and, perhaps, see a version of ourselves in The Shimmer, too.

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