It starts with a meteor crashing into a lighthouse on an average sunny day, and widens – over what’s whispered to be a few years – into a government secret called Area X. You pass through the 'Shimmer' (basically a jellyfish-tinted screensaver) into a zone where time stops, compasses spin out and the beaches sprout crystal trees that wouldn’t look out of place at a fancy ET’s Christmas party. 'Annihilation', a visually rapturous and sometimes unsettling movie, derives from a serious piece of sci-fi writing, Jeff VanderMeer’s Nebula-winning 2014 novel of the same name. The film, creatively adapted and directed by 'Ex Machina'’s Alex Garland, has grand concepts in mind, ideas about self-destruction and rebirth. If it gets to them via some old moves out of the Ridley Scott playbook, so be it.
Cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is one of those grieving 'Arrival'–style widows, still not over the presumed-dead disappearance of her husband, a military officer who vanished a year ago. Just as she’s working up the strength to repaint the bedroom, long-lost Kane (Oscar Isaac) is back, but he’s basically a ghost, mumbling non-answers and bleeding from the nose and mouth. He’s a belated casualty of Area X, Lena learns, and too quickly, she’s on a covert mission of her own, alongside an all-female squad of heavily armed soldiers led by the terse Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Why all women? That’s part of 'Annihilation'’s mystery, which comes into focus amid the swampy, shifting, pink-fogged terrain beyond the Shimmer—a place with a mind of its own. (Maybe it’s a county over from the Zone of Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic 1979 brood-a-thon, 'Stalker'.)
After pulling off an incredible feat of psychological ruination in 'Jackie', Portman is somewhat underemployed here as a rifle-toting Ripley, even if her character’s curiosity is never in doubt. 'Annihilation' serves up a few red-meat action scenes involving jittery videocam footage and slobbering mutated animals, but you wait for it to get back to the weird stuff – the stuff that will preoccupy you for much longer. Garland’s creeping pace lulls you on an almost molecular level; he’s made something akin to an end-of-the-world film, but one in which the changes afoot might not be wholly bad, title be damned. You’ll want to open your mind to it, even if that’s the last thing these characters would suggest.