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Visuals of “Annihilation” thrill even when film falters

Natalie Portman (left) and Tessa Thompson (right) star in the science fiction horror film “Annihilation.” PETER MOUNTAIN/PARAMOUNT PICTURES

Deciding whether a movie is good or bad is a relatively simple task that can be accomplished by assessing one variable: whether it is a pleasurable experience the whole way through. It’s a simplistic and effective way of looking at an art form, but movies like “Annihilation” put that notion into question.

Released on Feb. 23, the film is at times confusing and disorienting. These are things you can hardly call pleasant experiences, yet I still admit that “Annihilation” was a riveting movie-going experience.

“Annihilation” is the latest creation from the mind of Alex Garland, the author-turned-director known for writing and directing 2016’s “Ex Machina.” Garland’s follow-up to his directorial debut has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor. Based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, the film chronicles the expedition of five scientists, all women, into a mysterious area known as “Area X” or “The Shimmer,” which has appeared on the Florida coastline following a meteor strike. Within The Shimmer, plants and animals are in a state of near-constant mutation, and it is expanding, threatening to engulf nearby towns and cities. 

While the expedition is supposedly a scientific one, biology professor and U.S. Army veteran Lena, portrayed by Natalie Portman, undergoes the mission with an ulterior motive. She wants to find out what happened to her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, who went missing for a year after being sent into The Shimmer on a military mission before mysteriously reappearing.

The visuals in this movie are extremely impressive. They help to build The Shimmer into a place that is both psychedelic and ominous, one where you’re both entranced by the beauty of it all and simultaneously afraid of what will develop next. The visuals give the movie an interesting balance of awe and tension, which it pulls from as the plot grows bleaker and the scenes become more grisly and violent.

Despite the excellent cinematography, the movie seems to lack direction in terms of the message it intends to express. The theme of self-destruction is brought up, with members of the expeditionary team grappling with things like attempted suicide, addiction and cancer. Yet, these more personal plots are thrown into the background by the movie’s more gripping central mysteries. Similarly, the film’s central driving relationship, between Lena and Kane, does not get significantly developed, which leaves a bit of hollowness in the center of our protagonist’s motivations.

Even the stellar mystery Garland established at the film’s onset, starts to unravel in the film’s third act. The film falls into familiar science fiction tropes and becomes more predictable as it goes on. These weaknesses do not ruin the film, but there is certainly room for improvement from Garland, as “Ex Machina” had many of these same weaknesses.

Ultimately, the imagery of “Annihilation” is stunning and creative, ranging from serene beauty to disturbing bodily horror. The main plot and the movie’s central mystery are intriguing and keep the viewer invested in the movie. The cast all put forth stellar performances. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s chillingly detached performance as the team’s psychologist is a stand-out. And Oscar Isaac does well in his relatively small role as Portman’s husband, Kane.

The insights into humanity Garland explores are not necessarily clear at the film’s end, which may frustrate audiences. Regardless, “Annihilation” is a gripping and visually intoxicating film that’s definitely worth taking a look at.

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