In just two films director Alex Garland has emerged as the sci-fi director du jour. With all due respect to Denis Villeneuve (who’s created two instant sci-fi classics in 2016’s Arrival and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049), Garland has created dystopian worlds full of moral conundrums, and has done it using smaller budgets. His directorial debut, 2015’s Ex Machina, established Garland as a filmmaker to watch. With his latest, the mind-bending schlockfest Annihilation, he’s made good on that assertion. Annihilation takes more risks than Ex Machina, and as a result it’s weirder, scarier and possibly more engrossing than his previous effort. Garland’s risks pay off, though, as his follow-up is already one of 2018’s best and the most thoughtful feature since Arrival.

Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Oscar Isaac, Annihilation is a sci-fi horror in the same vein as 1979’s Alien. Portman plays Lena, a cellular biology professor whose need to discover the truth about her husband (Isaac) and his year-long disappearance results in her joining a research party to study a mysterious phenomenon known simply as “the Shimmer.” This area, located in and around a lighthouse and its surrounding swamp, is home to strange mutated species and is the source of great mystery, concern and consternation. The team she joins consists of their cold and emotionless leader, psychologist Dr. Ventress (Leigh); Anya (Rodriguez), an outspoken and emotional paramedic; Josie (Thompson), a quiet but thoughtful physicist; and Cass (Novotny), a steady and pragmatic geologist. As they travel by foot deeper into the Shimmer, their mission becomes more difficult as they discover just what the anomaly’s effects have on them and the environment. Of course, tension rises and some truths slowly leak out by the third act.

In all honesty, Annihilation’s strengths lie in its mystery and ambiguity. On a budget of $55 million, Garland created a world that is visually stunning and very confusing. From the trailers alone, viewers can observe how species are cross-breeding – merging together to form new, undocumented life. That notion expands to the rest of the film as the first two acts set up plotlines one fears may yield an underwhelming payoff. That’s where Garland leaves his mark – he’s able to lay down the rules of this world he created and then deliver a “satisfying," yet still ambiguous conclusion.

Garland fills his world with recognizable visuals and then sprinkles upon it items and concepts which are altogether mysterious and intriguing. There is a scene in which the research party discovers a memory card with footage of an earlier expedition, one that includes Lena’s husband, Kane. The footage is unsettling but surprisingly leaves viewers with enough to want to continue. It’s that kind of filmmaking which allows Garland’s latest to succeed both on cinematic and intellectual levels.

Please keep in mind Annihilation moves at a deliberate pace. With many concepts swirling around a feature that boasts beautiful imagery, it may be difficult to stay on this ride. At the same time, Garland explores his world by presenting it as a dream (and sometimes a nightmare). That makes Annihilation almost impossible to look away from and the exploration of this foreign dream world allows for questions of the Freudian variety.

Speaking of intelligence, Annihilation, before its release, was deemed too smart for audiences. Paramount thought exactly this and thus altered the film’s distribution - Annihilation was released in theaters only in North America and China. The rest of the world will have to catch this on Netflix. I don’t agree with the move because I don’t believe distributors like Paramount should tell audiences what they can and can’t watch, regardless of their reasons and concerns.

But I digress - Annihilation is worth a look because it challenges its audience to think and devise their own theories (mind you, there are viewers who don’t want to think while watching anything that is considered entertainment, which is fine, too). And with Garland’s daring presentation (he is also this project’s sole screenwriter), Annihilation is a high end sci-fi puzzle that will keep you guessing until the final scene.

4.5 stars out of 5

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