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Paramount Pictures
Natalie Portman plays Lena in “Annihilation.”

“ANNIHILATION” — 3 stars — Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Oscar Isaac; R (violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality); in general release

Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” is a strange, tense and sometimes horrifying journey that explores the relationship between genetics and identity.

Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation” is the story of a team of scientists sent to investigate a mysterious phenomenon called the Shimmer, a zone of strange biological activity that is steadily growing out from a lighthouse on the coast of Maryland.

Led by a psychologist named Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a John’s Hopkins biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman), the all-female team is the latest in a series of groups that has been sent into the Shimmer over the course of three years. But of all the people who have ventured inside, only one person has returned alive: Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who is suffering from memory problems and is on the verge of death.

Determined to help her husband and buoyed by her own past military experience, Lena joins Ventress’s team and crosses over into the Shimmer. The experience is told in flashback from a detox chamber, so we know from the beginning that apparently Lena gets back alive, but most everything else gets unpacked along the way.

The strangeness starts early, as one morning after entering, the team wakes up in camp, unable to remember how long they have been there, though their rations suggest days have gone by. They are unable to contact the outside world, so they struggle to press forward to the lighthouse, noticing strange genetic variations in the plant and animal life, such as vast plant systems that seem to flower into a variety of different species. The closer they get to the center of the Shimmer, the more extreme the variations become.

The dangers follow a similar pattern, coming in both psychological forms as well as the mutated monster animal varieties. When the group starts to find the remains of their predecessors (skeletal and a horrifying video left behind by an earlier expedition), violent disputes arise, and only Ventress and Lena seem determined to see the mission through.

Garland's visual direction reflects this progression, keeping things on the subtle and restrained side after the team first enters the Shimmer, then letting CGI enhance a more and more exotic environment the closer the team comes to the lighthouse.

Over its 115-minute journey, “Annihilation” steers a course from a brooding “Arrival” science fiction vibe into a kind of tense sci-fi/horror hybrid like Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” then finally to a kind of heady, hardcore science fiction of the “2001: A Space Odyssey” Stanley Kubrick variety.

Comment on this story

It seems reductive to call “Annihilation” derivative, but the fact that Garland’s film tends to remind the viewer of other films does feel like a weakness. (Garland previously wrote and directed 2014's "Ex Machina.") “Annihilation” maintains a persistent sense of tension that keeps things compelling and will leave you wondering if you need to see it again (or just go read the source material) to make sure you understood what you just saw.

But regardless of their interpretation, viewers should know that “Annihilation” contains some terrifying visuals — gory and violent enough to justify the film’s R rating, alongside scattered profanity and sexual content.

“Annihilation” is rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality; running time: 115 minutes.