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"The Shim­mer" is the name given to the mys­te­ri­ous phe­nom­e­non that, after a me­teor strike, set­tles along a swampy coast­line in Alex Gar­land's "An­ni­hi­la­tion." It's an area en­closed by a fluid, translu­cent wall bathed in an eerie rain­bow glim­mer. The Shim­mer's steady ex­pan­sion threat­ens to swal­low sur­round­ing towns, cities and, even­tu­ally, ev­ery­thing.

Nat­u­rally, this is Florida. Ef­forts to de­ter­mine what's in­side the Shim­mer have proven fu­tile. Ex­cept for one sur­vivor, none to en­ter have ever re­turned. To step in­side is to step into the un­known.

The same could be said for those who come to see "An­ni­hi­la­tion," a trippy, mind­bend­ing cin­e­matic ex­pe­ri­ence that plunges you into a dis­ori­ent­ing and dream-like sci­ence fiction that con­torts and dis­in­te­grates much of the genre's con­ven­tions.

This is the big­ger-bud­get fol­low-up to Gar­land' di­rect­ing de­but, "Ex Machina." The novelist turned screen­writer ("28 Days Later...," ''Sun­shine," ''Never Let Me Go") has here made good on the prom­ise of "Ex Machina," a heady if some­times flat cham­ber piece about the in­ven­tion of a very hu­man­like ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence.

"An­ni­hi­la­tion," which is partly based on Jeff Van­derMeer's novel, has plenty of fore­run­ners ( namely An­drei Tarkovsky's "Stalker") and it's cer­tainly not flaw­less. There's an of­ten awk­ward dis­tance here be­tween Gar­land's grand am­bi­tions and his mid- sized- bud­get vis­ual ef­fects, be­tween Van­derMeer's im­mer­sive

imag­i­na­tion and the ne­ces­si­ties of phys­i­cal­iz­ing fan­tasy in a movie.

But rarely has a film con­jured such a thick at­mos­phere of dread and won­der as "An­ni­hi­la­tion," a movie that un­folds, grip­pingly, as an ex­is­ten­tial mys­tery.

Lena (Natalie Port­man) is an ex-Army bi­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Johns Hop­kins whose soldier hus­band (Os­car Isaacs), after be­ing gone for a year, re­turns from a se­cret mis­sion un­able to ex­plain where he's been. Dumb­founded, he promptly be­gins to split up blood and, in the am­bu­lance ride to the hos­pi­tal, is over­taken by a swarm of po­lice ve­hi­cles.

Lena is in­tro­duced to the Shim­mer by a la­conic psy­chol­o­gist (a mis­cast Jen­nifer Ja­son Leigh) in charge of field­ing mis­sions. She, her­self, is go­ing in, pulled by in­escapable cu­rios­ity. Lena joins their group, an allfe­male squad in­clud­ing a para­medic (a scene-steal­ing Gina Ro­driguez), a physi­cist (Tessa Thomp­son) and an an­thro­pol­o­gist (Tuva Novotny).

With "Ghost­busters"-like back­packs, they en­ter the Shim­mer where be­wil­der­ments and hor­rors await. They im­me­di­ately wake up in their tents, un­sure how they spent the last three days. In the lush, trop­i­cal for­est, they marvel at the team­ing mu­tated species while evad­ing fan­tas­ti­cal beasts. It's equal parts dream and night­mare. One bear-like crea­ture — very much not your av­er­age bear — growls with the screams of its re­cent prey.

It's an in­tox­i­cat­ingly weird fan­ta­sia, beau­ti­fully pho­tographed by Rob Hardy, that's gen­uinely head spin­ning. While early on the mu­sic fails to match the vi­su­als, Ge­off Bar­row and Ben Sal­is­bury's score grows steadily more hyp­notic un­til a son­i­cally shat­ter­ing cli­max.

As fright­ful as their sur­round­ings are, self­de­struc­tion is the theme of "An­ni­hi­la­tion." Each of the five come into the Shim­mer marked by their own in­te­rior af­flic­tions — a sui­cide at­tempt, cancer, ad­dic­tion, or, Lena's case, the guilt of be­trayal. "An­ni­hi­la­tion" is filled with the sci­ence of mu­tat­ing cells — "the rhythm of the di­vid­ing pair" — and the sug­ges­tion that self-de­struc­tion is nat­u­ral, in mol­e­cules and in re­la­tion­ships.

If this is all sound­ing rather soupy, well, it is. "An­ni­hi­la­tion" strug­gles to con­nect that in­sight into its en­tranc­ing psychedelia. Lena's back­story is only glimpsed in brief flash­backs, and her com­pan­ions' emo­tions are un­ex­plored. Some­thing doesn't quite sync, even as "An­ni­hi­la­tion" ren­ders those in­ner con­flicts with cos­mic grandeur.

Like vir­tu­ally ev­ery sci­ence fiction be­fore it, once "An­ni­hi­la­tion" — which de­vi­ates greatly from the book in its third act — starts solv­ing its enig­mas, the spell be­gins to break. But Gar­land's film is sel­dom not some­thing to be­hold. In the un­ex­plained, un­know­able world of the Shim­mer, there are mo­ments elec­tric with pos­si­bil­ity that any­thing can hap­pen. That's a rare feel­ing in big-screen sci­ence fiction, and Gar­land's film — dar­ing, messy, ex­plod­ing with ideas — can be pul­ver­iz­ing. "An­ni­hi­la­tion" nearly lives up to the prom­ise of its ti­tle.

A scene from "An­ni­hi­la­tion."

From left: Jen­nifer Ja­son Leigh, Natalie Port­man, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thomp­son and Gina Ro­driguez in a scene from "An­ni­hi­la­tion."

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