By Gregg Shapiro

 

Alex Garland may have gotten his start as a novelist (1996’s best-selling “The Beach”) and later transitioned to writing screenplays (“28 Days Later” and “Never Let Me Go”), but as he demonstrated with his Oscar-winning 2014 directorial debut “Ex Machina” (starring Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac), he has found his place behind the camera. Garland’s latest movie, “Annihilation” (Paramount), which he also adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, confirms that fact.

 

A first-rate sci-fi horror flick, with astounding special effects and shocks and gore galore, “Annihilation” also features a chill-inducing score co-written by Geoff Barrow (of Portishead). Moving back and forth in time, often blurring the two, the main thing to know that after a mysterious meteor-like object crashed into a lighthouse, the region underwent a visible and potentially dangerous change. Most notably, it is now surrounded by a shimmering, penetrable and ever-expanding barrier, known as, you guessed it, The Shimmer.

 

First among the four female lead characters is Lena (Natalie Portman), an ex-soldier and biologist, now teaching at Johns Hopkins. She is also the wife of special ops soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac). After going missing for a year, Kane returns in a noticeably different psychic state, beginning with the serious memory loss. Suddenly hemorrhaging internally, Lena rushes him to the hospital, but the ambulance is intercepted by soldiers and government officials.

 

The next thing Lena knows, she’s in a secret government facility on the outskirts of the approaching Shimmer. Kane is there, too, in isolation and on life support, barely clinging to life.

 

While there, she meets Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is leading a small contingent into the Shimmer to try and discover its source and how to possibly contain it. The others on Ventress’ team are lesbian Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson) and Cassie (Tuva Novotny), all of whom bring special skills to the mission. Ventress and Lena agree that it is best that the others don’t know Lena’s specific connection to the mission.

 

Predictably, things begin to go awry soon after the five women enter The Shimmer. They lose track of time and their bearings. Communication with the outside world is cut off. Oh, and there are gigantic bloodthirsty beasts, including an alligator with an extra row of teeth like a shark’s and a hideous bear-like creature that steals the screams of its victims and makes it part of its own voice. It doesn’t help matters that a video camera memory card featuring terrifying footage is discovered by the women.

 

Additionally, “Annihilation” even has a subtle environmental message about the potential for the nature world to reclaim what was taken from it, even if takes alien intervention. By the end, with only one surviving member of the posse (can you guess which one?), there are many questions to be answered. Some are and some aren’t, but that’s part of the fun of the movie.

 

Like “Black Panther”, “Annihilation” features female characters that are as strong as they are sensitive. Unlike “Black Panther”, “Annihilation isn’t afraid to have visible queer characters, front and center. Rating: B+

Left to right: Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson in ANNIHILATION, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.