Annihilation (Photo: Paramount)

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Alex Garland
STARS Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh

In the same manner as high-school yearbooks that include such senior superlatives as Most Likely to Succeed, Annihilation should come branded with the designation Most Likely to Clear Theaters. It will likely remain the 2018 equivalent of what Darren Aronofsky’s mother! was to 2017 cinema: a metaphoric mind-bender that will find favor with select moviegoers while absolutely alienating everyone else.

To be sure, Annihilation isn’t quite as successful as mother! — neither is it in the same league as Ex Machina, the previous film (and 10 Best of 2015 entry) from writer-director Alex Garland. But for those who can climb aboard its wavelength, it will provide enough challenging sights and sounds to clutter the mind and possibly even prompt a second viewing.

Loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel — the first of a trilogy, although Garland didn’t read the other two books until after completing his standalone screenplay as they hadn’t yet been published — Annihilation is (to paraphrase Winston Churchill … or was it Gary Oldman?) a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. With a framing structure that lays out clues as carefully as Hansel and Gretel with their bread crumbs, the story opens on a quarantined Lena (Natalie Portman), a biology professor and former soldier, explaining to a hazmat suit-clad figure (Benedict Wong) and his colleagues the events that transpired after she entered Area X, a vast swatch of stateside territory that has been taken over by an alien presence.

Also known as The Shimmer, Area X has been repeatedly entered over the past three years by various military men, with none of them ever returning. Correction: One finally made it back — that would be Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who returned after a whole year and immediately lapsed into a coma. Stating that “I owe him,” Lena opts to join the latest team to enter the forbidden zone, this one comprised entirely of women with a medical rather than military bent. But immediately after penetrating The Shimmer, Lena and her colleagues — psychologist and team leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) and anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) — immediately encounter death and destruction.

Or should that be self-destruction? Although the film’s motives and meanings are in constant flux, an indisputable theme involves inward annihilation, whether of people, places, or the planet itself. To reveal specifics would be to traffic in spoilers, but suffice to say that Garland pulls no punches in either his metaphysical musings or in his visual extremities. Science fiction cinema often borrows from itself, and Annihilation seemingly draws from such various genre signposts as Ridley Scott’s Alien, John Carpenter’s The Thing and perhaps even Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Yet certain images — some grotesque, others gorgeous — prove to be uniquely the film’s own.

The aura of unease maintained by Garland dissipates during a busy climax that might prove to be problematic even for many of the film’s fans, and the nature of the final shot was pretty much telegraphed by the picture’s halfway mark. Yet even here, the existential implications outweigh the physical evidence — come to think of it, it’s really the only way a movie of this nature should end.

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