This review of Alex Garland's sci-fi adventure Annihilation may turn out to be one big spoiler, but it needs to be announced loudly: The final 15 minutes of the movie contain one of the most magnificent displays of light-show wowie-zowie this reviewer has ever seen. What it signifies and its context in the story are better left undiscussed here for obvious reasons, but the work of visual effects supervisors Andrew Whitehurst, Sara Bennett, Simon Hughes, and the rest of their army of VFX technicians — IMDB.com lists 196 visual effects artists for Annihilation — eclipses the wonders of every FX-laden pic we can recall. To call it "eye-popping" or "a show-stopper" is a gross understatement. Trouble is, we have to sit through an hour-and-a-half of standard-brand science fiction to get to it.
According to director Garland's screenplay, adapted from the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is recruited by the government to investigate a mysterious phenomenon taking place in a national park along an unidentified tropical coastline in the U.S. A miles-high curtain of what looks like pulsating glycerin bubble liquid — they call it the Shimmer — envelops Area X, and only one member of the military teams sent into it has ever returned: Lena's husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). This newest expedition consists of five women scientists led by a Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who seems slightly unhinged. Unhinged is what Area X is all about. En route the women encounter a giant mutant crocodile, a bear with Predator-style teeth, and dead humans who have morphed into botanical hybrids. It's your ordinary disaster movie/monster mash/environmental nightmare and it moves slowly, until that grand finale.
Garland is the man responsible for Ex Machina, the 2015 techie-in-distress thriller most notable for introducing Alicia Vikander to American audiences as an alluring but deadly fembot — it also co-starred Isaac as the mad scientist. In Annihilation, the domestic love-scene flashbacks between Portman and Isaac hint at a movie that might have been, but all that is tossed aside on the trip though the rainforest. So what if the story veers into Invasion of the Body Snatchers turf (not to mention Kubrick-ville), or that we've seen innumerable horror-film characters disappear one-by-one like this? When Lena ventures into that hole in the floor of the lighthouse, the worlds she opens up are truly astounding. We might even say they're worth the trip.
Directed by Alex Garland. With Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac. Now playing.