Searching for answers that remain elusive in “Annihilation”

The Shimmer is beautiful. Inside, The Shimmer is even more gorgeous. This would be a bountiful tourist attraction, except for one problem — those who go into The Shimmer never come out. This can be daunting, given that the territory The Shimmer is encompassing is expanding.

This is the basis for “Annihilation,” the latest sci-fi  film from writer-director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”). Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation” explores a theme of many science fiction books and movies — things arriving from outer space that are mysterious and can either be beneficial to Earth or catastrophic. What makes “Annihilation” stand out is that it focuses on a team of five women who without hesitation plan to enter The Shimmer despite knowing it very well could be a suicide mission.

At the center of this group — though not the leader — is Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist who is personally invested in this mission because her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) previously went into The Shimmer — which formed after what appeared top be a meteor crashed into a lighthouse —  in a top-secret mission that Lena knew nothing about. She had been under the impression he was on some covert military operation.

Kane is missing for a year, presumed dead by Lena until he shows up at home one evening. But clearly something is wrong with him mentally and physically. When his condition becomes critical, Lena summons an ambulance, but en route to the hospital the ambulance is stopped by government agents who seize the extremely ill Kane and sedate Lena.

Lena later awakens to find herself in some fortified facility called Southern Reach, located a mile or so from The Shimmer. There she meets the stoic, enigmatic psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who enlightens Lena about what Kane had been up to the last year. Kane is vital because he is the only person to have returned from The Shimmer, although being near death, anything he can reveal about what he discovered in there may perish with him..

Ventress tells Lena she is going to lead another expedition into The Shimmer, and Lena insists on going in also. Lena then meets the other members of the group: physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez). Lena opts not to tell these women that Kane is her husband.

Were it not for the fact that The Shimmer apparently has racked up a death toll, the women might have felt they had entered a paradise. That illusion fades when it seems they are having inexplicable bouts of amnesia. Then they have a terrifying encounter with a mutated alligator with shark teeth. This scary episode at least makes  the women happy to have Lena on hand, as her adept handling of a weapon prevents them being an appetizer for an alligator.

Their mission to unravel the mystery does lead to discoveries, but at quite a price. The group’s excursion into The Shimmer is seen through flashbacks as Lena, being questioned by a government official named Lomax (Benedict Wong), recalls the key incidents.

But even at the end, Lena cannot provide definitive answers other than to theorize what the purpose of The Shimmer is.

All five of the main cast members get an opportunity to stand out, however briefly. Cassie holds an opinion as to why each of the  women was willing to take this potentially fatal trip, mostly pointing to rough patches or tragedies these people endured earlier in their lives. Anya is the tough one in the group and consequently the one most on guard for any breakdown within the group’s dynamics. Josie is the one who correctly identifies one key element of what is happening in The Shimmer and is able to make peace with its results.

Ventress remains a mystery throughout. Mostly devoid of emotion and focused on the mission, it almost seems she has some sinister motivation, which proves not to be the case.

Lena, though not the leader, really is the emotional core of the group, because at this point she has the most personally at stake and sees the need to keep things together until the answers are found and they all can return to the Southern Reach — where she might have a chance to save Kane’s life.

Factoring in the end credits to the film’s 115-minute running time, “Annihilation” requires a brisk pace to tell the story, leaving little calm time to focus on the personas of the five women. Luckily, the script by Garland is adept  at making the most of what such pauses in the action to help us learn about the characters and subsequently find empathy with them..

And like Lena’s inability to be 100 percent sure what happened, “Annihilation” also  leaves audience not all that sure.


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