Frail, shimmering love in ‘Annihilation’

Alex Garland's sci-fi fantasy is for both adrenaline junkies and the flawed hearts of lovers

click to enlarge Natalie Portman leads a team into The Shimmer in Annihilation - Photo: Paramount Pictures // Skydance
Photo: Paramount Pictures // Skydance
Natalie Portman leads a team into The Shimmer in Annihilation

The state of love in science-fiction films is a curiously fragile thing — as Alex Garland’s new Annihilation shows so very well. In this film, love is a human ideal under attack by looming threats from beyond.

An audio analogy would be the epically sublime soundscape from the 1980s, “Moments in Love” by the Art of Noise, with its near symphonic mix of beats and collected noise accompanied by the ethereal chant of the title. Over its 10-plus minute runtime, the song is less about erotic or romantic communion than the escalating tension in a fearful heart.

Writer-director Garland (Ex Machina) starts Annihilation, his adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s bestselling novel, with a foreboding interrogation that, upon further consideration, feels like a stunningly intimate confessional about how love (and all life on the planet) has been murdered; all that’s left is to determine why this horrific misdeed took place.

Lomax (Benedict Wong) questions Lena (Natalie Portman) about her participation in an expedition that obviously went awry. Lena is a biologist — with military experience — enlisted by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, brittle and aloof) to join an all-female team of explorers (Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, and Tessa Thompson) venturing into a field known as The Shimmer. It’s an expanding zone whose source was apparently ground zero for a mysterious alien infiltration.

Kept under wraps, a partnership between the scientific and military communities has sent a number of units in to ascertain what is going on in this mutating region. But no one has returned, until Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) somehow wanders home and doesn’t appear to be quite himself.

In flashbacks just prior to his mission into The Shimmer, Kane and Lena appear to be one of those picture-perfect couples. But Garland refuses to let us linger in their dreamy moments of love. Instead he teases us, almost immediately with hints of fissures in their relationship: Lena’s fraught exchange with a colleague (David Gyasi) speaks of a forbidden, shameful intimacy, and her fragmented final time with Kane before he leaves reveals that neither apparently gets to express all of the things they might wish to say to one another.

In these scenes, Garland operates with an economy and sense of emotional longing reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris. There, Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), a civilian psychologist, drifts through life in a bit of a fugue state until given the chance to head off to investigate strange happenings on a space station orbiting the mysterious planet Solaris. Upon arrival, Chris encounters his deceased wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) and must determine how to deal with her reappearance. For all the love and passion the two shared, Chris blames himself for her suicide and sees her return as either a sign or a second chance. But the other members of the team on the space station know better.

Annihilation posits Lena in a similar situation. There are clear signals along the way that past teams have either been killed by the amazing DNA-spliced creations that have sprung up in The Shimmer or the individuals have lost their grip on reality and turned on one another. What is The Shimmer doing to these obviously damaged people

Lena wants to save what she can of her relationship with Kane and seek a degree of absolution for her faithlessness in his absence. But the question emerges as to whether or not she (and Kane) will even be the same people they were before entering The Shimmer. Will their past moments of love or betrayal matter anymore?

Garland knows better than to bog us down in a romantic mire, however. He has skillfully crafted a science-based fantasy with speculative musings and otherworldly horrors.

There isn’t necessarily the intention to scare or shock us with the kind of physical mutations you might expect from David Cronenberg, or twist us in temporal knots like Denis Villeneuve did in Arrival. But Annihilation titillates the eyes of adrenaline junkies while also appealing to the flawed hearts of lovers. (Now showing) (R) Grade: A

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