Within The Shimmer, things behave differently. Time. DNA. Identity and self. Whatever it was that plummeted to Earth and created the glowing, growing mystery area in writer-director Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” opening Friday, Feb. 23, it brought with it not monsters, not conquerors, not Christ-analogy peacemakers nor any other such science-fiction tropes. There are monsters of a sort, but the real horror lies in an idea: that with all life made up of DNA-filled cells, from plants to bacteria to Homo sapiens, all of it essentially the same, what is consciousness? Does a plant know it’s a plant? Does a dog know it’s a dog? Do we know what we are — or is human consciousness an illusion?
“I would say it is concerned with identity,” novelist-turned-filmmaker Garland, 47, says of the film, which follows his similarly identity-themed “Ex Machina” (2014), “because its primary focus, from my point of view, is self-destruction — that is, the destruction of identity.”
Jericho-raised Syosset High School graduate Natalie Portman, 36, who stars as a microbiologist and former soldier on a team sent in to explore The Shimmer, calls her director’s assessment “a very valid interpretation.” But there are others, she suggests, calling the film “one of those very rare movies that present an opportunity [for audiences] to have very different perceptions and very different experiences because of what you bring to it.”
The movie has generated some controversy, with the groups Media Action Network for Asian-Americans and American Indians in Film and Television complaining about casting. Portman’s character is identified as half-Asian and Leigh’s character as half-American Indian in the book’s first sequel, “Authority.”
Garland told Nerdist.com in December he had already written the script before either of the two sequel novels were released, and never read them. “It would not be in my nature to whitewash anything,” he told the podcast. “That just wouldn’t be like me. I read a book and I adapted it because I thought the book was amazing.”
The movie is not a Rorschach test, per se; it has a straightforward plot. An adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel of the same name, it begins with something alien striking a lighthouse. An iridescent field that a government response team at Area X calls The Shimmer then begins spreading outward, and will eventually engulf Earth. Nothing sent in has returned, except for one soldier (Oscar Isaac).
He has no memory of what went on inside, however, and then suddenly suffers multiple organ failure. His wife Lena (Portman), recruited for her expertise and desperate to learn what happened, volunteers to join fellow scientists Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), plus paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), to enter The Shimmer and progress to the lighthouse, to try to discover what’s causing this phenomenon.
There is a Stanley Kubrick quality to the film, echoing the influence of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), a movie Garland said last year “just shows you the scale of the ideas you can get into in sci-fi if you want to.”
“There is a kind of flatness to it — not a dead flatness, but more like a measured flatness,” the London-born Garland says now of that influential masterpiece. “And also a strong sense that everything has been thought through. So stuff in there isn’t fireworks or flashiness: Everything has a specific relevance to theme or plot or character. And I think a lot of the story is told by inference rather than by statement” — all things that could be said of “Annihilation.”
Shot in the United Kingdom (but taking place in the southern United States), the film weaves suspense as the quintet explores swampland, an evacuated town and a deserted Army camp, in all of which nature is getting a makeover. Different species impossibly hybridize. The team members’ DNA begins to change. Video left by a previous doomed team shows the creeping terror — perhaps none of it malicious, but devastating regardless.
Fortunately for the group, Lena, who had spent seven years in the U.S. Army before changing careers, handles a mean machine gun when called on. Portman, in those moments, looks astonishingly the part of seasoned shooter. “It was fun to get to play an ex-soldier who had a real ease around these automatic weapons,” says the actress, who notes she has handled guns “only in movies.” In addition to the weapons team that worked with the cast, “I was also lucky enough to have an Israeli security person working with me, and the guard I had helped me a lot, too.”
Portman, who says she visits Long Island frequently to spend time with her parents — “Most of my friends have moved away” — famously got her start in a gun-wielding role, as a preteen apprentice to a simple-minded but soulful hit man in “Léon: The Professional” (1994).
Garland says Portman, in “Annihilation” and other movies, “has a lot of poise and she’s able to create characters who have an enormous sense of self-control. But also, concurrent to that, a sense of damage and something broken, and she can put those things together — which in a way,” he adds, perhaps going back to the film’s theme of self-destruction, “represents those people who seem supernaturally self-possessed but who have something damaged that you increasingly start to glimpse.”
Despite all his success in various fields, Garland himself isn’t immune from self-sabotage, he says. “I do so much, I wouldn’t know how to begin to start cataloging it.” Perhaps. You wouldn’t know it from “Annihilation.”
UP NEXT FOR PORTMAN
Following “Annihilation,” Long Island-raised Natalie Portman next appears in “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” scheduled to play film festivals this fall, in which she plays the mother of a TV star’s obsessive young fan. In mid-February, Portman is set to star shooting “Vox Lux,” tracing 15 years of a pop star struck by tragedy. She is in talks to play an astronaut whose sense of reality begins to unravel after returning home from a space mission — replacing her friend Reese Witherspoon, who left the project in November — in “Pale Blue Dot.” But she cautions, “It’s not finalized yet.” And despite a 2016 report that she would star in and be an executive producer of an HBO miniseries based on the novel “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler, Portman says, “That’s not real.” — FRANK LOVECE
Five intrepid women brave a mysterious, deadly area in “Annihilation.” And they’re far from the first all-woman team to headline a film without a starring male lead.
THE DOLL SQUAD (1973) Low-rent filmmaker Ted V. Mikels’ cult classic finds a counterterrorism operative (Francine York) assembling a sextet including Tura Satana (“Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”) to foil a plot to unleash a global pandemic.
BAD GIRLS (1994) Madeleine Stowe, Mary Stuart Masterson, Andie MacDowell and Drew Barrymore are four former prostitutes in the Old West, who band together to escape an unjust lynch mob and Pinkertons and get revenge on their abusers. Jonathan Kaplan (“The Accused,” “Heart Like a Wheel”) directed.
CHARLIE’S ANGELS (2000) Drew Barrymore again, joining Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu in an action-comedy based on the 1976-81 TV show about a trio of private investigators. A sequel, “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” followed in 2003.
GHOSTBUSTERS (2016) The remake of the classic 1984 supernatural comedy found Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones in good spirits and fighting bad ones.
OCEAN’S 8 (2018) Set for release June 8, this caper comedy from Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “The Hunger Games”) finds Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) gathering a gang to pull a $100 million heist. Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina and Rihanna also star. — FRANK LOVECE