Annihilation is being tipped as the best sci-fi film in years

Oscar Isaac On Filming 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' and 'Annihilation' at the Same Time

It has an incredibly compelling mystery at its heart, it's filled with nuanced performances by awesome actors, and it looks unbelievably fantastic. Opening this week, it represents thoughtful science fiction at its most engaging. Annihilation has all this - and yet it comes just shy of reaching true transcendence.

The film was written and directed by Alex Garland, who wrote the cult novel The Beach (later turned into a critically panned but nonetheless iconic film starring Leonardo di Caprio), and made his directorial debut with another sci-fi thriller, Ex Machina. The estrangement between Kane and Lena may be framed in near-cosmic terms, but at its core is a much more simple inquiry, wondering whether two people can build a marriage anew after changing and almost destroying who they were together.

Honestly, though, this premise is worth the price of admission. The film does at least feature people of color in prominent roles, including Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Benedict Wong, but this may be cold comfort considering the erasure of the central protagonist's ethnicity. Where did this place come from? Why don't we see any Asian women in films?

Lena and an all-female team enter the Shimmer to try find out what happens to her husband and of course, shit gets weird. Microscopic imagery of cells dividing, the sight of a lighthouse being zapped by some kind of ray and a dazed, bed-ridden Lena (Natalie Portman) being asked questions she can't answer are disorienting, as is the sudden appearance, after a year's absence, of the distraught Lena's husband Kane (Ex Machina star Oscar Isaac), who has been assumed dead. Ultimately, firepower outweighs brain power, much like any action film populated exclusively by men. "Everything else", in this case, means an exploration of this undiscovered world, and Garland lets his imagination run wild in it.

And while there are many unanswered mysteries here, Garland does clear up some of the book's more vague plot points like the origin of the Shimmer and its effect on living things. But here his ambition actually matches his environment.Working from the bestselling 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Garland hasn't so much adapted the source as mutated it: same basic building blocks, deconstructed and rebuilt in new and horrifying ways. It's hard to describe all that happens in this movie, but it's operating on a level that we never get in February, that's for sure. If you look around a room and everyone looks like you, get out of that room. Even the exciting moments don't deviate from that as much as one would expect. That movie was incredible. Garland has far more on his mind than how to creatively dispatch a list of ciphers and his film is wonderfully unknowable, a crackling tension underpinning the unpredictable narrative.

That's an evergreen premise and I'd definitely be interested in seeing a new version.

Portman, though nearly going through the paces, displays a calm and serious demeanor that reminds me of what made her acting so impressive even when she was a child. Portman gives her saturnine character a chilly resolve, keeping her at a bit of a distance, only occasionally exposing a raw emotional register. Leigh, Tessa Thompson, and Gina Rodriguez opened up to Variety about it during a recent interview.

But Portman remains the chief among relative equals, because she's the star and because her character has the connection to the only known survivor of the Shimmer to date.

It's hugely refreshing, and remarkably uncommon, to watch a genre film that revolves around intelligent characters reacting intelligently to fantastical events. Annihilation is a sci-fi film that works well as a straight-up horror film, much like Alien used a sci-fi premise to deliver the scares. There's no doubt that it's a great film, but it feels like a movie best appreciated after two viewings or even three. But it's not an overtly evil entity, merely one that wants to survive, grow, and multiply like any species in existence such as the shape-shifting alien in John Carpenter's remake of "The Thing". In fact, it won an Oscar, and now Alex is back with his second movie called "Annihilation", and it is a trip.

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