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Film review: 'Annihilation'

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Director Alex Garland follows up "Ex Machina" -- his excellent, Oscar-winning examination of man and machine -- with another challenging sci-fi mind-bender. Based on a trilogy of novels by Jeff VanderMeer (though veering significantly from that source material), "Annihilation" follows the members of an expedition team sent to explore a mysterious, reality-warping zone known as "Area X."

A meteor crash-landing on Earth has left an ever-expanding field of energy -- dubbed "The Shimmer" by those who study it -- encompassing what was once a national park swampland. Several teams have previously been sent into The Shimmer, but none have ever re-emerged. But that changes when Kane (Oscar Isaac), the husband of biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), returns without explanation a year after he and the rest of his team went missing. He seems different, and around the time he starts spitting up blood, it's apparent he's also very sick.

Lena is taken to a military hospital, where she learns about her husband's mission to Area X. Swirling feelings of guilt and a determination to find out what happened to her husband lead Lena into volunteering to join a team of researchers (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny -- all excellent) that will venture into The Shimmer to find out exactly what it is and what lies inside.

A film that intends to challenge its viewers, "Annihilation" in many ways feels like a continuation of the metaphysical ideas of "2001: A Space Odyssey," "The Fountain," or Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker." It's also quieter and moodier than one might expect. And as Lena ventures into what more than one member of her team considers a suicide mission, it explores some of the more inexplicable aspects of human nature, delving into humanity's compulsive urge toward self-destruction, and the strange comfort of oblivion.

The success of "Ex Machina" has brought Garland a much larger budget to work with, and those expanded resources are always evident on screen. The world inside The Shimmer is wonderfully realized, filled with flora and fauna that have mutated in strange and unexplainable ways, providing a parade of beautifully nightmarish sights and sounds.

As the real world spirals further into chaos and uncertainty, audiences seem to increasingly demand definite explanations from their entertainment (just look at what happened when "Star Wars" fans found out the interconnected mythology they'd endlessly hypothesized and theorized over didn't matter a bit to the narrative of "The Last Jedi"). But as "Annihilation" gradually builds to its increasingly enigmatic, psychedelic climax, the film continues to raise more questions (as some of the best science-fiction often does) and becomes less clear-cut as it goes on. Garland isn't interesting in offering clarity any more than he is providing his characters with the comforting absolutes they seek. "Annihilation" delights in leaving its viewers dissecting what they've seen; like the women at the heart of its story, we're left searching for answers that never come.

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