“Annihilation”

 

            This one is a strange combination of sci-fi, horror, adventure, and female buddy-bonding. 

Yes, the aliens have invaded, but they've taken a strange form:  a kind of shimmering rainbow-aura, that first takes over a lighthouse, then an abandoned Army base, and seems to be spreading at a prodigious enough rate to alarm the authorities, who've already sent in several military response teams, and none have returned.  (And they've been all male.)  So, the thinking goes, let's try a group of female volunteers.

            So, we have the anthropologist, the psychologist (and team leader), a surveyor, a linguist, and a biologist, Lena (Natalie Portman), who happens to specialize in studies of cell reproduction.

            Well, what we have here is some kind of alien species that replicates at an extraordinary rate.  And also re-directs the communication signals, and messes with the DNA.  So we have giant rampaging bears, and flesh-eating rampaging alligators.  And we have weird mutant plants, that inexplicably produce different kinds of flowers from the same stem.  We even see white antelope with flowers growing out of their horns.  So basically, everything we think we know about biology is out the window.  And we're only left with our wits and our spirit of cooperation, both of which are in short supply among our intrepid little expedition. 

            It turns out that all the women are, in the words of their leader, “damaged goods.”  Lena herself is grieving over her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who disappeared a year ago in one of the failed military missions in this environmental disaster area.  Lena keeps having these flashbacks to happier times with Kane, which also provides the viewer with some backstory, as well as breaking up the grim saga of the failed expedition.  (There's also the old plot device of telling the story in retrospect, with the regular switchback to the present.)

            Natalie Portman plays against type as the machine-gun toting warrior in battle fatigues.  She enjoys a lot of camera time, and gets to portray many different moods.  But despite how much the camera loves her, not that many people are eager to see carniverous monsters eating screaming women. (And current CGI technology makes it look retchingly real.) 

            It's not a new idea, of course, that an alien species would invade by inhabiting the bodies of the humans (zombie movies play from the same script).  But it is creepy-fascinating to watch the replication of Lena taking shape and form, as if practicing to be a perfect imitation of her.  This begs the larger question of what is it, exactly, that makes us uniquely human?  And how strong is our survival instinct?  Oh, and how do you know that the person sitting across the dinner table from you isn't really an alien in a perfect disguise?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association