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Natalie Portman

“ANNIHILATION” My rating: B- (Opens wide on Feb. 23)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Given the runaway artistic and commercial success of his 2014 debut, “Ex Machina,” it’s hard not to see Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” as a case of sophomore slump.

“Ex Machina” was an almost flawless blend of performance, tension and social inquiry (Garland’s subject was artificial intelligence) that transcended the usual sci-fi parameters.

By comparison “Annihilation,” based on Jeff VanderMeer’s bestseller, feels less original and more conventional.

Plus, it has the built-in issue of being based on the first book of a trilogy — which no doubt is why at the end of nearly two hours the yarn seems unfinished.

And yet “Annihilation” has real strengths, including a mostly-woman cast dealing with a pressure cooker situation, a couple of fine action sequences and enough creeping tension to generate mucho spinal tingles.

Biologist  Lena (Natalie Portman) is in mourning. A year earlier her soldier husband Kane left for one of his black ops missions and hasn’t been heard from since. The authorities aren’t cooperative.

And then, miraculously, Kane appears in their home. He’s an emotional blank, with no memories of where he’s been.

Oscar Isaac

Before long the couple are snatched by commandos in black and taken to a top secret military base outside “the shimmer,” an area along the Carolina coast subject to bizarre anomalies.

As psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) explains, a few years earlier a meteor (or something) struck the area creating a “bubble” that is slowly expanding.  Numerous military teams, drones, even trained animals have been sent beyond the shimmer, but so far only Kane has returned.  And now he’s in a coma and on life support.

(How the authorities have kept the shimmer a secret for several years is one of those mysteries possible only in movieland.) (more…)

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