There's one scene in "Annihilation" that is so hair-raisingly horrific, it's still creeping me out days after I saw the movie. I'd like to tell you about it, but, of course, I can't.
Writer-director Alex Garland, whose first feature, the 2014 "Ex Machina," was already fairly disturbing — although not in the throat-grabbing way that this picture is — has adapted a novel by Jeff VanderMeer in an unusual manner. Garland has chucked quite a bit of VanderMeer's narrative, and has chosen instead to preserve the book's atmosphere of cellular chaos and hovering dread within a new structure, and to top it off with blazing psychedelic imagery. If you can deal with the picture's crepuscular ambiguity, there's a lot to look at here, and quite a bit to think about (or at least puzzle over).
The story is set in Florida many years after a meteor (or other outer-space thingy) came plummeting down out of the sky and landed on or in a coastal lighthouse. This turned the surrounding swamplands into Area X — a no-go zone surrounded by a swirling, gelatinous substance now known as The Shimmer. The government has sent 11 investigative teams into Area X to find out what's up, but none of their members has returned.
Until now. One night, an army sergeant named Kane (Oscar Isaac), a long-missing member of the most recent infiltration group, surprises his wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), by suddenly turning up in their home, unannounced and acting very oddly. Almost immediately, he and Lena are snatched by government operatives and transported to a secret lab facility, where team number 12 is being readied to take another crack at penetrating The Shimmer — and this time maybe living to tell about it.
Being a biologist (who also spent seven years in the army and knows her way around weapons), Lena is able to insinuate herself into this latest team, joining a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny) and a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez). When they step through The Shimmer into Area X, they find that it's a dark playground of unbridled mutation, filled with interspecies hybrids and malignant vegetation. We see a pair of deer with flowering branches where their antlers ought to be, and, at an abandoned army base, a cluster of dead bodies, eerily upright and half-transformed into trees themselves. There's an attack by a mutant alligator the size of a midrange Mazda, some startling internal body horror and, as noted up at the top, much worse.
Garland has a poetic touch with these alarming images — which makes them all the more alarming, naturally — and he's abetted by the movie's brilliant soundtrack, which combines a weird, smeary score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (both "Ex Machina" veterans) with the rumbling inventions of sound designer Glenn Freemantle. I hope there was a little something extra in all of their pay packets after this production wrapped.
Not all of the women on the team make it out of Area X alive, of course. One of them has her face ripped off — another ghastly highlight — and one gets to narrate her own demise ("My flesh moves like liquid ... my mind is cut loose"). The movie's conclusion is a conceptual blowout of such a spectacular nature that one is tempted to defy cliche and compare it to the celebrated ending of "2001: A Space Odyssey." I see no choice but to succumb to that temptation.
"Annihilation" is a beautiful film, gracefully paced and filled with original imagery. But it's also fairly inscrutable. What's really going on in Area X? There are no solid answers, only possibilities. Which could be a problem. Following a poorly received test screening last summer, two of the movie's producers reportedly started butting heads. One of them, David Ellison, wanted the picture overhauled to make it more commercial. The other, Scott Rudin, who had final say in the matter, refused to make any changes. And so here we are. And here it is. Place your bets, fantasy fans.