Natalie Portman’s trek into The Shimmer feels like a Conradian journey into the heart of darkness
Today's obsession with fractured timelines can inadvertently transform romantic comedies into mysteries and thrillers into surreal acid trips. But such confusion fits Annihilation.
A small meteor lands at the base of a lighthouse. Next: an interrogation. Lena (Natalie Portman) is surrounded by guys in hazmat suits. We learn she’s the only member of a five-person team to return from exploring The Shimmer, a mysterious patch of land that's slowly spreading out around that lighthouse. She's not sure how she got back. Some team members were killed, she thinks. Others, she's not sure. How long does she think she was there? Days? Weeks? She can't say.
The layers of the story peel away during the interrogation, with flashbacks and dreams within flashbacks revealing the details. Several military patrols have also disappeared into The Shimmer. Only one person has returned. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), after a year's absence, had suddenly shown back up at their home, literally dazed and confused.
Lena, a biologist and herself a former soldier, led the all-woman team expedition, consisting of a couple of scientists, a paramedic, and a Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist. Once inside The Shimmer, they lose their bearings, lose track of time, and slowly begin to lose their nerves as they encounter bizarrely mutated plants and animals. Their trek begins to resemble a Conradian journey into the heart of darkness, where the goal of reaching the lighthouse becomes an all-consuming obsession for Lena and Ventress.
I don't know how plausible The Shimmer's aggressive mutations in plant and animal DNA would strike a scientist. But I do know the restraint shown in the occasional encounter with ravenous and creepy mutant monsters prevents Annihilation from being just another cheesy monster fest.
The ever-engaging Portman is convincing in this go-round as the no-nonsense ex-soldier who tries her best to keep her crew safe and together. Jason Leigh as Ventress ... well, let's assume the director encouraged her detached and other-worldly demeanor, at complete odds with the other, more grounded performances. Let’s just say it was quirky, in an oddly appealing way.
Yarns like this can so easily go off the rails and veer into horror cliches and over-the-top gore. There are a few gruesome scenes that may have you peering through your fingers, but the journey and the not-terribly-unexpected ending will give you a satisfying chill.