[Screen It]


(2018) (Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh) (R)

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Sci-Fi/Horror: A small team of women enters an ever-expanding environmental anomaly in search of answers about what it is, what's inside it, and why no other team over the past three years has returned from it.
It's been three years since a meteorite struck near a lighthouse in southern Florida and created a mysterious environmental anomaly that's come to be known as The Shimmer. Slowly expanding, it's been investigated by both humans and machines, but neither has ever come back, with rumors that either whatever is in there is killing those who enter or they end up going crazy and kill each other. Unbeknownst to Army soldier turned biology professor Lena (NATALIE PORTMAN), her Army husband, Kane (OSCAR ISAAC), was sent on a mission into The Shimmer and it's been a year since anyone has seen him. Lena has tried to get on with her life, and is startled when Kane suddenly shows up at their home. But something's not right with him as he can't seem to recall any details and then suddenly suffers from multiple organ failure.

While he's being rushed to the hospital, Feds intercept their ambulance and take both Kane and Lena into custody. It's then that she learns all about the Shimmer from Dr. Ventress (JENNIFER JASON LEIGH), a psychologist who's been selecting and sending teams into the anomaly for years. Now, she's going to lead her own small team -- including medic Anya Thorensen (GINA RODRIGUEZ), anthropologist Cass Sheppard (TUVA NOVOTNY) and physicist Josie Radek (TESSA THOMPSON) -- into the unknown and Lena, wanting to know what happened to her husband, joins them.

With their communication and navigation gear useless, and with time seeming to pass them by without notice, the five women head through the thick forest in search of the lighthouse. But they must contend with views of and sometimes dangerous encounters with sped-up evolution involving plant and animal mutations along the way, initially unaware that their own DNA is being affected as well.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Over the ages, storytellers of various sorts -- cavemen, Roman philosophers, English playwrights and, more recently, writers of radio and TV broadcasts and films up on the big screen -- have examined the human condition from all angles, including what it means to be human. Thus, there aren't many, if any, novel ways to cover that sort of thematic material. But the clever ones of today's world take the familiar and turn it into something that manages to feel unique.

Writer/director Alex Garland brilliantly did that with his 2015 sci-fi masterpiece, "Ex Machina," that took a simple concept -- a programmer is tasked with determining whether a humanoid robot can pass the Turing test -- and turned it into a mesmerizing look at the human state and what it might evolve into in the near future. Featuring a terrific performance by Alicia Vikander as that robot, great special effects and an intriguing and captivating tale where you don't know who's gaming who, it was my number one film of that year.

Now Garland has returned with his sophomore outing, "Annihilation," and it likewise examines the notion of evolving "humans." Yet, rather than working from his own original screenplay, this time he's penned an adapted one based on Jeff VanderMeer's 2014 novel of the same name (and the first installment of three in a series called the Southern Reach trilogy). As a disclaimer, I haven't read any of them so there won't be any comparisons between the original printed tale and this filmed one or any changes that Garland might have made with the source material.

Even without any prior knowledge of the story, I was excited about this offering mainly due to having experienced "Ex Machina" and despite the releasing studio selling off nearly all of the foreign markets rights to streaming giant Netflix (something that up to this point was unheard of -- since most movies make the majority of their money overseas -- and that had me a bit concerned). Word is Paramount was worried the material would be a bit too intellectually heady for many a viewer and thus was hedging their financial bets on recouping some or all of its investment.

Whatever the case, I can verify that the material is indeed heady in terms of its sci-fi leanings, but it also features enough mystery, dread, action, and monsters to cover the storytelling longings of most viewers. That said, the biggest distraction for me was the cribbing of the atmosphere and story elements from so many genre flicks before it.

The "Alien/Aliens" comparison is inevitable in that a small team of people (played by Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny) enter a potentially dangerous situation and must contend with various dangers and dangerous critters while exploring an environmental phenomenon known as The Shimmer. The fact that no one or nothing that's ventured inside that over the past three years has returned obviously raises the tension stakes.

As does the anomaly's own anomaly -- the unexpected return of one such explorer (Oscar Isaac -- one of the stars of "Ex Machina") who's married to the protagonist but has come back a decidedly different man. That and a number of other factors that are revealed as the story jumps around through time lead Portman's Lena to join the latest expedition mainly to figure out what her spouse experienced and how that's changed him.

It's also too bad that of the five women who enter, only two (Portman and Leigh's characters) are developed to any noticeable extent, with the rest getting little more than cursory fleshing out (with two instances of that only stemming from brief dialogue from a third). All of which means we automatically know they're fodder for the inevitable meat grinder, so to speak, although one instance of that is one of the film's more harrowing moments.

But it and the rest of the material that follows will likewise dredge up memories of creatures and more from past sci-fi films ranging from "The Thing" to "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and even "Solaris" (another heady sci-fi flick featuring an anomaly where things weren't exactly what they seemed as flashback scenes showed a marriage in a trouble).

And then there's the ending. Without giving anything away, some will find it a brilliant conclusion to what's led up to that moment, while others will have a "is that it?" sort of response. I fall somewhat in the middle while leaning toward the latter in that I intellectually get what Garland was going for, but wasn't amazed by the story development or the way in which it was presented. Maybe that's my fault in that I had high hopes and expectations for this tale based on the one that preceded it.

While "Ex Machina" took a familiar genre story and made it feel fresh and original, "Annihilation" -- while brilliant at times -- feels like a hodgepodge collection of scenes and elements from past sci-fi films that starts off promisingly but loses steam as it unfolds. It rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed February 21, 2018 / Posted February 23, 2018

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