“Annihilation” is a trippy metaphysical science fiction movie that summons up a slew of other movies – among them “Stalker,” “The Thing,” “Alien,” “Apocalypse Now,” and, most often, “2001: A Space Odyssey” – and yet it doesn’t quite resemble any other film. Writer-director Alex Garland’s last movie was the extraordinarily atmospheric AI horror film “Ex Machina,” and he double doses on atmospherics here. Based on the first novel in the “Southern Reach” trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, it’s about Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and former Army soldier whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year on a top-secret military operation. When he mysteriously returns, he is practically catatonic and, as soon becomes apparent, gravely injured.
It turns out that he is the sole survivor of a series of military missions into a coastal disaster zone that is code-named “The Shimmer” because of the iridescent haze encircling it. Lena, in the company of four other women scientists – played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, and, best, Gina Rodriguez – volunteers for the next mission into the rainbow-tinged wilderness. She wants to root out the mystery in order to save her husband.
Garland is great at setting a tone of creepy ominousness, and the women’s foray into the swampy terrain is an unnerving blend of lustrous loveliness and split-second horror. But the visual effects throughout the film are often disconcertingly cheesy, and the pulp elements pile up with an extra serving of gore. The flashback/flashback structure employed by Garland keeps splintering the mood, and there are times when the film, with its humanoid lichens and mutated bears and crocodiles, skirts silliness. But Garland has a gift for locating the horror inside that silliness, and this is what gives the film such a kicky, off-center quality. You laugh at it and gasp at it simultaneously. Grade: B- (Rated R for violence, bloody images, language, and some sexuality.)