When new directors are coming off highly celebrated films, it’s often tough to follow up with something as insightful. When that first film is “Ex Machina,” a film that was interested small questions like artificial intelligence and what it means to be a human, that follow-up is even more difficult. Yet that is what  Alex Garland was tasked with doing. Rather than seek a subject matter that is easy for audiences to grasp, Garland doubled down on cerebral sci-fi. The result is “Annihilation” a film that takes us into some weird places about the future of life and our interactions with our environments. Yet somehow, the film is about more than that, allowing the audience to take what they want from the sci-fi epic.

“Annihilation” follows a biologist, Lena (Natalie Portman) as she grieves the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). Kane has been missing for a year when he shows up at her house, disoriented and confused. As she asks him where he was, he begins to have a medical episode, during which the government arrives and takes Lena and Kane. Lena wakes up in a government facility and meets Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the woman in charge of a military base. Ventress shows Lena “The Shimmer,” a rainbow translucent entity that has been slowly spreading over the previous three years. Lena discovers a group of all female scientists (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny) are heading beyond the Shimmer. Lena volunteers to go along, but the world on the other side of the Shimmer is unlike any on Earth.

The film begins a psychological and metaphysical narrative that results in an epic sci-fi film. It is a slow-burn for sure, but the questions about humanity’s relation to nature are just a step into this world. The narrative is far from linear, bouncing back and forth to Lena and Kane’s relationship, as well as the missteps that have occurred. Garland makes audiences question what people in a relationship owe to each other, and what it means to love.

At the same time, he structures the world in a cancerous metaphor, where destructive acts and thoughts may eat away at what makes us who we are. What do we do when nature rebels against us, not just physically, but internally. The questions are large here, and viewers may take any meaning from it. The questions it asks will resonate with some and leave others annoyed at having seen the film it all. In many ways, it is a spiritual sequel of sorts to “Arrival,” both in its ambitions and themes. On the other hand, it never quite hits the emotional highs of that film, even as it destroys you for other reasons.

The film is strengthened by Garland’s strong direction and excellent writing. The ambitious nature of the film is present early, and the structure’s unconventional nature gives him the ability to inform the audience of backstory at his own pace. The disorienting aspects of the film affect the characters as well, as the film even uses night vision and shadows to hide some of its scarier moments. By grounding the film in Lena’s first-person view, we are forced to question what we see. Despite his choice to make this essentially a first-person film, where we only see one character’s perspective on the events, we receive no narration and are thus questioning the reliability of what we see as the narrative unfolds.

What takes the film from good to great are the performances and work from the crew. Portman is excellent, channeling some of the coldness from her “Jackie” performance, and making it feel fresh and unique here. This will likely be one of her great performances in her career, easily topping her roles in “V for Vendetta” or “Star Wars.” The scene stealer here is Gina Rodriguez, who channels much of the emotional rawness into the film.  She absolutely owns the film for good stretches, making it clear that she’s got a bright future ahead of her after she’s finished “Jane the Virgin.” Finally, Isaac’s shadow looms large over this film, even though he spends most of it on the sideline. He turns in another phenomenal performance, helping build his resume as one of the great actors of his generation.

Rob Hardy shows extreme promise as a cinematographer. The film is brilliantly shot and employs a rainbow lens flare to add style and color to almost every shot in the film. The production design by Mark Digby is a character in its own right in the film, as is the score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. Both contribute so much to the success of the film that you may even lose focus on the narrative and just wash in its brilliance. Both are incredible and deserve accolades for their influence on the film.

Overall, this film has a lot going for it, and it is shocking that the film is a February release. It is an exceptional film that immediately fills the “Blade Runner 2049” spot of last year. Ambition like this should be fostered by audiences, yet I can see how this film will turn some off. Yet the slow burn sci-fi is an incredible ride for audiences to jump into. This will be one of the best films of the year and may become one of the iconic movies of 2018. Watch this film, especially if you like sci-fi.

GRADE: (★★½)

Annihilation is now in theaters.

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