And so the film opens up with former US Army soldier Lena (Natalie Portman) and now a biologist specialising 'in the genetically programmed life cycle of a cell', being interviewed in a quarantined room surrounded by numerous hazmat suited wearing onlookers. She has recently returned from an expedition in to a constantly moving rainbow like atmospheric anomaly known as 'The Shimmer' from which she and her husband are the only survivors.
In flashback, we see Lena's Army Special Forces husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) return home without notice having been reported missing, presumed dead, on a top secret mission for a year now. He has no memory of that time during or since, and suddenly becomes very ill coughing up blood. In an ambulance together en route to hospital, government security agents intercept the ambulance and take them forcibly to 'Area X'. When Lena comes round she starts asking questions of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a psychologist, who explains that they are in a facility bordering 'The Shimmer' an electromagnetic field that has encompassed a swamp area on the southern US coast that has been steadily growing since its emergence three years previously. The area in question has been evacuated completely.
Ventress recruits Lena onto the next expedition project into The Shimmer and explains that several military missions have ventured into it and all have been fraught with disappearances, suicides, aggressive cancers, and mental trauma, including her husbands mission. Together with Ventress and Lena, the next mission set off into The Shimmer. Accompanying the two are Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) a paramedic, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) a physicist, and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) a geologist and surveyor.
Later that night as Ventress stands guard with Lena who couldn't sleep, the perimeter fence is breached. The others wake with the commotion and venture outside to investigate. A mutated bear like creature grabs Cass in its jaws and drags her away screaming into the night. The next day the remaining four leave, and Lena breaks away to go in search of Cass. She returns later having found her dead body with her throat torn out.
The Team of four continue their journey toward the lighthouse, which was the location of where The Shimmer first manifested itself following a meteor hit. Josie and Anya want to turn back, but are reluctantly persuaded by Lena to keep going given how far they've come, the unexplained lapses in time they have experienced, and following the coastline back to Area X is their best and safest option. They come across an abandoned overgrown town filled with human shaped plants. Josie has a theory that The Shimmer is acting on all organisms like a prism refracts light. Each of the Team realise that they are changing both physically and mentally too, causing them to fear and mistrust one another.
Later that night, Anya attacks the other three and binds them all to chairs. She has discovered that Kane is Lena's husband and accuses them of conspiring to kill Cass. At that Anya hears Cass's screams for help outside the house and goes to investigate. The creature that killed Cass enters the house having mimicked Cass's final screams, attacks and kills Anya, before turning attention on Lena still bound to a chair. Josie breaks free and fires several shots at close range into the creatures head.
Ventress leaves for the lighthouse alone having revealed that she is dying of cancer and has nothing to lose, leaving Josie and Lena to ponder turning back. Out in the gardens Josie goes walkabout out of sight of Lena. As Lena rounds a corner there is no sign of Josie - seemingly mutated into a human shaped plant. Lena continues the onward journey to the coast and the lighthouse hoping to find some answers to The Shimmer there.
Lena finds the lighthouse and enters. Inside she finds an incinerated corpse, a camcorder, and hole in the side wall of the lighthouse going below ground. She switches on the camcorder pointing at the burned out husk of a human being, to reveal footage of Kane raving on about the effects that The Shimmer has had on him and urging the viewer to find his wife before he blows himself up in ball of white flame with a phosphorus grenade. At that point a duplicate of Kane walks into view on the small screen.
Lena goes down the rabbit hole which opens up into a dark cavernous space. Inside is Ventress who looks at her blankly and exclaims that extraterrestrial forces are at work that will eventually engulf the world. At that Ventress disintegrates into a glowing orb of cosmic light that absorbs a droplet of blood from a cut on Lena's face. The entity that was Ventress forms into a humanoid being that begins to mimic every movement by Lena. She quickly scrambles back up the narrow corridor and out into the lighthouse interior to be greeted by the humanoid. It will not let her leave reproducing exactly every movement, every motion. Lena however, has an ace up her sleeve, and retrieving a phosphorus grenade from Kane's satchel places the grenade in the humanoids hands before fleeing. The creature explodes in a ball of white flame which quickly ignites the lighthouse setting it and the other alien constructs in the vicinity ablaze. At this point The Shimmer fades away.
As Lena's questioning comes to an end, she is reunited with her husband who has made a miraculous recovery since The Shimmer disappeared. They embrace and Lena whispers in his ear if he is the real Kane, to which he responds with an 'I don't think so'. He in turn asks her is she is the real Lena, to which she does not respond.
'Annihilation' has received generally positive Reviews so far, but has also been described as too complex and too intellectual for your typical movie going audience to really grasp. Sure the film is well paced, looks good, is intelligent, thought provoking, and has all the elements of a modern horror film - body horror, monsters, unexplained phenomenon, mimicking aliens, technological disruption, societal breakdown, mistrust and of course death most foul. And the strong and convincing principle cast of five intelligent and accomplished female protagonists in this era of 'Time'sUp' and '#MeToo' should have Hollywood chomping at the bit for its stance on female equality in the mainstream movies. But, despite all of this I was a little underwhelmed by the film, and perhaps a second viewing would make me think differently. The plot is fairly predictable, the two monsters that get screen time are not that far removed from the giant croc as seen in 1999's 'Lake Placid' and the giant boar terrorising the Australian outback in 1984's 'Razorback', and the final big reveal (if you can call it that!) is open ended and ambiguous, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions and debate after the credits have rolled. And, I certainly didn't find this as graphic, scary and trippy as some Reviewers seem to have. Garland wrote the Screenplay for this film long before VanderMeer had completed his two follow up novels in the series known as 'The Southern Reach trilogy' where each instalment provides a varying account of a different person's journey into 'Area X' and 'The Shimmer'. Certainly worth a look and keep an open mind.
-Steve, at Odeon Online-