Women Take the Lead in ‘Annihilation’: Smart, Stylish (And Still Scary) Sci-Fi

It’s the end of the world, and they know it.

A meteor – or was it a spaceship? – crashed into a Florida beach three years ago. And immediately created something called The Shimmer – a shivering wall of oil-slick colors that’s been growing, mile by mile by mile.

The U.S. military quickly built a local headquarters, and started sending in teams to investigate. No one’s ever come back. And from their command post, the Army can see the Shimmer growing closer, closer, closer.

They know the end is near, and they still don’t even know why.

That’s the set up for “Annihilation,” a smart, stylish sci-fi movie (liberally adapted from an award-winning novel of the same name). It begins just as Army HQ is about to be overrun. Desperate, they dispatch one last team — made up of Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny.

“All women?” Portman’s Lena asks, a little surprised.

“All scientists,” comes the flat reply.

A year after “Wonder Woman,” “Annihilation” stands as yet another big genre movie that refuses to play to old gender stereotypes. Even more thrilling, though, it doesn’t refute those clichés so much as ignore them. It’s a movie where gender, race and ethnicity don’t matter, to anyone.

More proof? In a small, but significant touch, Rodriguez, a Hispanic, plays someone with a Scandinavian name. Thompson, an African-American, plays someone with a Slavic one. This is a movie that exists in a world without labels, and all the quick assumptions they bring.

In a way, the entire story is about doubt. And after Leigh leads her team into the steamy swamps of The Shimmer, the women learn to distrust everything.

Compasses spin wildly and communication devices don’t work. Time has no meaning. One minute the women are picking their way through overgrown brush and the next, they’re waking up in tents – with no memory of establishing base camp, or even any idea of how long ago they did.

And then they start seeing what’s within The Shimmer – wildly malformed vegetation, rapidly spreading fungi, ferociously mutated animals. And, too often, the grisly remains of all those previous explorers.

Director Alex Garland last made the wonderful “Ex Machina” and he’s got a great visual sense. Everything outside The Shimmer is shot in bland monotones – white and grey and beige. Everything within is a riot of painful color. What another filmmaker might have turned into a blasted, Chernobyl landscape, Garland makes into a surreal wonderland – trees made out of fine crystal, stags with antlers that bud flowers.

He’s also not afraid to push deep into difficult material. Among science-fiction fans, there’s always been a distinction between “soft” sci-fi – space operas full of ray guns and bug-eyed monsters – and the “hard” sci-fi of ideas. With its meditations on everything from cell growth to prisms, “Annihilation” definitely stands in the second camp, joining recent genre standouts like “Interstellar,” “The Arrival” and “Gravity” (all of them, interestingly, also featuring strong, intelligent female characters).

The members of the small cast are equally flawless, but while Portman is the film’s lead, Leigh deserves special attention as the mission’s leader. Her eyes squinting in perpetual concentration, her lips thin and firmly closed, she seems like someone who can’t think about anything but the job at hand. It’s only later that we realize, sadly, it’s because she doesn’t dare.

If all this sounds a little too intellectual for a sci-fi night at the movies, know that despite its fine acting and intellectual ambitions, “Annihilation” still delivers its genre thrills. There are a couple of fights with horrifying mutants, and some definitely eye-bending effects. And the growing sense of paranoia – as the women push deeper into The Shimmer, and instead of bonding more tightly begin to distrust each other more – definitely evokes John Carpenter’s “The Thing.”

None of that was quite enough for this film’s studio, unfortunately, which seems to have gotten cold feet; after pushing for a number of changes, and being rebuffed, the company decided to only release “Annihilation” domestically, and sell off the rest of the rights. Although we get to see it on the big screen it was designed for, European fans will have to catch it on Netflix, where its imagery will be downsized and downplayed.

That’s a shame. The moguls weren’t entirely wrong – the ending is a bit ambiguous, and its hero can be unsympathetic, neither of which usually help push a picture into blockbuster territory. But that’s also what makes “Annihilation” worth seeing. It absolutely knows what it needs to do to be safe, standard, popular sci-fi.

And it prefers not to.

Annihilation is rated R; it opens Friday, February 23.

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