‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ – Seriously Folks, The Thrill is Gone

Terminator Dark Fate theatrical poster

Hollywood is one the few places on this planet where you can look at $29 million dollars and say, that’s it? This was the reaction many had when the opening weekend numbers of “Terminator: Dark Fate” were revealed to the world, and to say they were below expectations is putting it mildly. Many will pontificate over why this sixth installment bombed at the box office, but I think it comes down to the inescapable fact that the “Terminator” franchise has long since lost its capacity to wow and thrill us in the same way the first two movies did, and even series creator James Cameron, who returned to executive produce this sequel, cannot put it back together again. While you can retcon the hell out of “Halloween” to keep it going, “Terminator” is now way past the point of self-termination.

I finally got to check out “Terminator: Dark Fate” after finding some time to tear myself away from work as I was not going to let anything deter me from seeing it on the big screen. The truth is, it is not a bad movie and it has a good story and a game cast of actors who bring their all to the material. But it does not take long to see this sequel tread familiar ground as the story remains the same even if the major players have changed, and the feeling of déjà vu is more prevalent than ever before.

“Dark Fate,” as you all know by now, is a direct sequel to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and it ignores all the other movies which followed it. The movie begins with Sarah Connor suffering a tragedy much like the one Ellen Ripley suffered at the beginning of “Alien 3.” While she and her son were able to stop Judgment Day, they could never stop fate. The movie then jumps ahead 22 years when an advanced Terminator called the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) appears in Mexico City with a mission to kill Daniella “Dani” Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young woman who works at an automobile industrial plant. But when Dani arrives at work, she finds her job is being taken over by (surprise, surprise) a machine.

Another person arrives from the future, and her name is Grace (Mackenzie Davis). At first she appears human, but then she is shown to have superhuman strength and fighting abilities much like the average Terminator, and seeing her kick human ass is quite the sight. We later learn she is indeed human but has been augmented to become more like a cyborg, and her mission is to protect Dani from Rev-9 as Dani is set to play an important role in the future.

Sound familiar? Of course it does because this was pretty much the plot of the first two “Terminator” movies. Part of me wants to forgive this as it sets up how Skynet was completely destroyed and has since morphed into another artificial superintelligence system called Legion, and this shows how history, more often than not, repeats itself. Heaven forbid we ever learn from our mistakes, you know? We are certainly reliving a past we have not learned from right now as certain impeachment hearings have a certain Nixon feel about them. Like Snake Plissken once said, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

But while the first few minutes tread very familiar ground, “Dark Fate” really comes to life when Linda Hamilton enters the picture as an older but still battle-ready Sarah Connor. It is the first time Hamilton has appeared in a “Terminator” movie in 28 years, and it is great to have her back as she makes this iconic character of hers as badass as ever, and she has some terrific dialogue to boot. With her face weathered from years of struggle and loss, Hamilton quickly reminds us how brilliantly she embodied this character all those years ago, and with the character evolving to another level here, she shows how one with such a hardened heart can rediscover their humanity even after suffering the worst life has to offer.

And yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back, and he gets to take his iconic character of the T-800 in yet another interesting direction. In “Terminator: Genisys,” he played the cyborg as one who has existed long enough to where he is no longer under warranty. In “Dark Fate,” this T-800 starts off as a cold-blooded assassin who, after a particularly shocking act, ends up developing a conscience and even becomes domesticated. Schwarzenegger gives another inspired portrayal here as he plays it straight and never for laughs, and this makes his performance all the more enjoyable. It is not the first time he has given a terminator this much heart, but his work here is particularly moving in a way it has not been for some time.

Mackenzie Davis, so luminous in “Tully,” is a powerful presence as Grace, and there is no doubt she gave her all in this role as watching her dominate the action scenes here is both physically and emotionally exhausting, just as it should be. Natalia Reyes does strong work in taking Dani from being an innocent person thrust into a situation no one could see coming to someone who accepts a role she is expected to fulfill. As for Gabriel Luna, he is good as Rev-9, but he is nowhere as menacing as Robert Patrick was as the T-1000.

Directing this installment is Tim Miller who helmed the first “Deadpool” movie, and he certainly has an interesting visual style which benefits this franchise to a point. At the same time, he is not able to bring the same visceral energy Cameron brought to the first two “Terminator” movies. Looking back, none of the other directors were able to either. Some came close, but Cameron is a rather unique filmmaker as he has given us some of the most exhilarating and adrenaline-pumping motion pictures we could ever hope to watch, and his vision of “The Terminator” is a personal one which no one can easily duplicate.

“Terminator: Dark Fate” simply feels like the same old thing with little in the way of anything new. It’s not a bad movie and it definitely has its strengths, but it serves as proof that this franchise has truly hit a dead end and really needs to be put to rest. The last few “Terminator” movies have come to us with the promise of a trilogy and of filmmakers more or less telling us that, this time, we are going to get it right. Well, this is the latest installment to see its hopes for a trilogy dashed yet again as Arnold’s dialogue of “I won’t be back” proves to be quite prophetic.

Still, we do learn of one advantage of being a terminator which the other movies never showed us: they can change diapers without complaining. If this does not impress you, what will?

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Terminator Genisys’ is, at the Very Least, an Interesting Reboot

Terminator Genisys movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written back in 2015.

I walked into this fifth “Terminator” movie with mixed emotions. The series started in 1984 and has shown an amazing amount of stamina considering we are getting this latest sequel 31 years later. Still, nothing has been quite the same since James Cameron departed the franchise following “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and I say this even though I liked “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” which he had nothing to do with. But then came “Terminator Salvation” which had me wondering where the salvation was among other things like an interesting story or a strong villain.

When it comes to action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger, he has always been about giving moviegoers what he believes they want, so it seems only natural that he would return to this long running franchise even after a 12-year absence with “Terminator Genisys.” On one hand this particular sequel had me missing a lot of the franchise’s original stars like Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, composer Brad Fiedel, Edward Furlong and the R rating these movies usually get (this one is PG-13). But once I got past my misgivings, I found “Terminator Genisys” to be an entertaining summer blockbuster even if it is nowhere as good as the first two movies in the franchise.

The movie begins with John Connor (Jason Clarke) leading his merry band of troops in a battle to destroy Skynet’s main defense grid and that pesky time machine they have hidden underground. But of course, one of the T-800 cyborgs has already been sent back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) volunteers to go back in time and stop the cyborg from eliminating Sarah, and we are put right back into the events of the first movie.

Once the T-800 and Kyle Reese arrive in 1984, we get a largely faithful reconstruction of the first few minutes of “The Terminator.” But things change very quickly as the T-800 is suddenly confronted by another T-800 which had been sent back even further in time to protect Sarah Connor and who takes out the original cyborg with extreme prejudice. As for Kyle, he arrives in 1984 like he did before but is met by a T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun) who differs greatly from the average LAPD officer. Once he is inside the convenience store getting clothes and shoes, he gets saved by Sarah Connor who comes crashing in. From there, everything we know about “The Terminator” franchise is turned upside down as our heroic characters find themselves on a different path than the one they traveled down previously.

“Terminator Genisys” is essentially a reboot along the lines of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” as it plays around with the timeline we grew up on and works around it to give us something which is, quite thankfully, not the usual prequel. Just when I thought I knew where this movie was going, it took a different turn which I did not see coming. Of course, this also results in the screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier having a few plot holes which will not survive logical scrutiny. Then again, the movie whisks by so quickly to where I didn’t care too much about logistics.

Now on one hand, Schwarzenegger has played the Terminator many times to the point where it seems like he should have retired from this role long ago. Regardless, it is still great to see him back in his most famous role as it has provided him with a long and interesting career. In the first movie Schwarzenegger’s Terminator was the bad guy, in the second he was the good guy, in the third he was both, and he was barely in “Terminator Salvation” so let’s not even go there. In “Terminator Genisys,” he becomes the one thing we never thought he could be for Sarah Connor, a father figure to look up to.

The other thing “Terminator Genisys” wisely acknowledges is the fact Schwarzenegger is not a young man anymore. For once we have a T-800 which actually ages, and this was interesting to witness. While the character may be a cyborg, the skin covering his body ages as it would on any human being. We see him struggle as his body goes through a few malfunctions like his hand shaking uncontrollably or his knee going out on him. But as he points out throughout the movie, he is old but not obsolete.

A lot of people still see Schwarzenegger as a non-actor, but I still think he’s better than most people give him credit for. In “Terminator Genisys” he manages to imbue his character with a humanity a cyborg would not have by design, and he makes you feel for a character that is, in his own way, eager for Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor to get it on.

Emilia Clarke succeeds in making the role of Sarah Connor her own as she starts off the movie in furious ass-kicking mode and never lets up. Jai Courtney gives a good if not great performance as Kyle Reese, and Jason Clarke makes John Connor into the military leader I impatiently waited for him to become ever since “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” The movie also features a scene-stealing performance from Oscar winner J.K. Simmons as Detective O’Brien, a cop who has more history with these iconic characters than we realize at first. It is a shame, however, we do not see more of Simmons as the movie goes on.

Helming this “Terminator” sequel is Alan Taylor who previously directed “Thor: The Dark World” and also directed episodes of two of my favorite televisions shows, “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Oz.” I was surprised to see what a good job he did in making this sequel feel like a James Cameron movie in a way previous directors were unable to. Taylor is not able to wow us the way Cameron did and continues to do, but then again few filmmakers can. What he does do is keep the action moving at a steady pace and gives us the fun time we usually expect from a summer movie.

Regardless of how “Terminator Genisys” ends up doing at the box office, this is clearly not the last time we will see Schwarzenegger in his most iconic role. But a further sequel also means Skynet will find yet another way to strike back at the human resistance. It’s like Skynet is Wile E. Coyote and the Terminator is the Road Runner. Skynet keeps searching for new ways to achieve victory, but they are somehow effortlessly defeated by humans and a rogue T-800. Perhaps effortlessly is the wrong word to use in this case, but who wants Skynet to win? Well, I guess we will have to see what nefarious method they will use next because, like it or not, the Terminator will be back.

* * * out of * * * *

Tom Cruise Flys High Again in First Trailer for ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

The thought of a “Top Gun” sequel was laughable years ago as Tom Cruise had little reason to do a sequel to any of his films. Seriously, it seemed as likely as him doing a sequel to “Cocktail” which, while a big hit at the box office, was not exactly a critical darling. But in recent years, any movie he stars in which doesn’t have “Mission: Impossible” in its title has failed to make much of a dent at the box office, and perhaps this is why he has chosen to finally revisit his superstar-making role of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell 34 years after the original was released. Whatever the case, its first trailer honestly has me very excited for it.

From this trailer, we learn Maverick is still a Captain instead of a military general, meaning he is still unsafe and quite dangerous in the cockpit of an airplane. Whereas James Tolkan chewed him out in the original, another bald military general played by Ed Harris (give this man an Oscar already!) berates him for not allowing himself to get promoted. When we finally get our first look at Cruise here, it looks as though he hasn’t aged much since 1986, and he still has that shit-eating grin which drives everyone crazy in ways both good and bad.

What struck me most about this “Top Gun: Maverick” trailer was its flight scenes as director Joseph Kosinski, who previously directed Cruise in “Oblivion,” makes us feel like we are in the cockpit with Maverick as he takes off from an aircraft carrier in the middle of an ocean. This reminded me of how exhilarating the flight sequences from the first “Top Gun” were, and this sequel looks to have even more of them.

From there, we get glimpses of characters such as Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of the late Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), and he looks to be as buff and as musical as Cruise, Edwards, Val Kilmer and Rick Rossovich were in the original. Yes, there looks to be another volleyball game in store for us in which we discover how the men look without their t-shirts on.

We also see glimpses of Jennifer Connelly as Maverick’s love interest who is said to be a single mother and the owner of a bar. My guess is Kelly McGillis does not appear in this sequel as she seems determined to remain retired from acting.

Val Kilmer is also set to return as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, but we do not see him in this trailer. I read somewhere that his Iceman is now a Vice Admiral, and I’m guessing he will still be teasing Maverick about who is going to be whose wingman.

I am also gratified to know Harold Faltermeyer is back to score this sequel, and he will be doing so along with the great Hans Zimmer. You can hear Faltermeyer’s score throughout this trailer, and it is an immediate reminder of how much it drove the action and emotion of “Top Gun” back in 1986. I can already see myself buying the soundtrack to this sequel when it arrives in theaters in the summer of 2020. Heck, I might buy the soundtrack before this sequel is released.

That’s the other thing; “Top Gun: Maverick” is being released in 2020, exactly one year from now. I know Hollywood is always serious about securing release dates for movies way ahead of time, but showing us trailers for movies which will not be released for another 12 months seems unnecessarily torturous. Remember when we got the first trailer for “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions?” It got audiences excited as hell and yelling out with joy as soon as those green digits started descending from the top of the silver screen. This was back in 2002 when the trailer was shown before “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” and it ended with “2003” on the screen. As thrilled as we were with the continuation of “The Matrix” franchise, seeing the date of when the first sequel was to be released had us groaning in frustration all too loudly.

At least here, Paramount Pictures tells us “Top Gun: Maverick” will be coming out in 2020 in the middle of the trailer instead of at the end of it. After all these years, Hollywood has remembered they can tease audiences only so much before foolishly risking our wrath.

“Top Gun” may have received mixed reviews upon its release as the aerial footage proved to be more exciting than when the characters were on the ground, but damn it was an entertaining flick. A nice wave of nostalgia passed over me as I watched this first trailer for “Top Gun: Maverick,” and I patiently await its release next summer. And who knows, maybe Quentin Tarantino will come up with another memorable examination of how this sequel depicts a man’s continuing struggle with his homosexuality just as he did previously in “Sleep with Me.”

Please check out the trailer above.

Top Gun Maverick teaser poster

Sarah Connor Returns in First Trailer for ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’

I know it has been a week since this first trailer for “Terminator: Dark Fate” was unleashed upon us, but it is still on my mind. Despite the tepid critical and commercial reception for both “Terminator Salvation” and “Terminator Genisys,” there is still a vested interest for some in continuing this franchise even if the thrill of it seems to have long since disappeared. But with this movie, which is meant to be a direct sequel to “Terminator 2: Judgement Day,” we get the return of James Cameron to the franchise, and this leaves me with hope we will get “The Terminator” cinematic experience we have been expecting for far too long.

Watching this trailer is a bit disorienting as it introduces us to characters who were not in the previous movies. There’s Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) who starts off by saying how she had an easy-going life until a few days ago, and now everything for her has gone to hell. Then we have Grace (“Tully’s” Mackenzie Davis), a tough warrior who eventually proves to be more than human. And of course, there is an especially advanced Terminator pursuing them called Rev- 9 (Gabriel Luna), and he can get from one place to another even when he’s behind the wheel of a big truck.

At this point, we can tell this is a “Terminator” movie, but then a familiar face pops up. But instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is Linda Hamilton who returns as Sarah Connor, and it is great to see here playing this iconic character once again. What really surprised me about this trailer is how it makes Hamilton its biggest star instead of Schwarzenegger. In fact, we only see Schwarzenegger once, and it leaves me wondering if he is playing a terminator in this one or the man the T-800 was modeled after. Besides, he has facial hair this time around.

But having Hamilton here front and center was an inspired move, and she leads the cast of an action movie which looks to be dominated by female characters in the same way the “Halloween” reboot was. Is Hamilton too old to be playing Sarah Connor? Oh please, don’t even ask me such a silly question. All that matters is she’s back!

We do not, however, see John Connor in this trailer, but he is said to be in the movie and will be played by Jude Collie. Will John be in the background this time around? Will he be taken out early on? I cannot help but wonder.

I can’t say this trailer for “Terminator: Dark Fate” blew me away, but it does leave me hopeful that Cameron and “Deadpool” director Tim Miller can give us something on a par with the first two films in this series. Also, you have David Goyer as one of the screenwriters, and Junkie XL doing the film score. These are good omens, right?

Check out the trailer above. “Terminator: Dark Fate” will arrive in theaters on November 1, 2019.

Terminator Dark Fate teaser poster

‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ is a Thrilling Spectacle From Start to Finish

Mission Impossible Fallout poster

This is never supposed to be the case. Movie franchises are not supposed to improve with each sequel. We all expect them to get worse and worse to where you wonder why the filmmakers even bother making them anymore. But with the “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise, actor and producer Tom Cruise continues to work closely with gifted filmmakers to create motion pictures which defy expectations as he is intent on topping what came before. “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is the sixth film in a series which began back in 1996, and it proves to be the most thrilling installment yet. I cannot wait to see it again, and I am determined to see it in a IMAX theater as this sequel demands to be seen on the biggest screen in town.

The plot of “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is a bit convoluted, but I will give you the gist of it. The terrorist group from “Rogue Nation” known as The Syndicate has since reformed into The Apostles, and Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is tasked with intercepting the sale of three plutonium cores to them. But despite the presence of team members Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benjamin “Benji” Dunn (Simon Pegg), the mission is thwarted and the plutonium is stolen right out from under them. From there, they are determined to get the cores back, and their latest impossible mission has them meeting up with characters old and new to where alliances and methods are questioned endlessly. It all reminded me of what Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio told Willem Dafoe in “White Sands:”

“You’re honest, even when you’re lying.”

Does everything we see here make perfect sense? No, but I really didn’t care. Even at 147 minutes, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” never drags, and it is a movie I am happy to describe as exhaustively thrilling as it kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. Just when you think it’s over, we are pulled back into another astonishing action set piece which leaves us out of breath.

Let’s talk about the stunts, shall we? Among the first is the HALO (high altitude, low opening) jump which is a skydive from a seriously insane height. We all know how Cruise is a stickler for doing his own stunts, and while the average skydive is done from 7,000 to 9,000 feet, a HALO jump is often done from 15,000 feet and with the aid of oxygen. Taking this all into account makes this particular sequence all the more thrilling as it is done in what seems like an unbroken shot which would make even Alejandro Inarritu stare at the screen in awe.

There’s also a motorcycle chase through the streets of Paris, and I kept waiting for the characters to get seriously injured or killed as no one can navigate traffic like that in real life. And yes, it is indeed Cruise jumping from one building to another. Everything culminates in a thrilling helicopter chase which outdoes the ones I loved watching in “Blue Thunder,” and it is in this sequence where Cruise and company attempt to complete the most impossible mission of all as what they are tasked with doing has a higher probability of failure than success.

Cruise is now 56 years old, and he shows no signs of slowing down. While many be telling him to act his age, a term which has now lost all its meaning to me, he continues to defy the odds and show just how far he is willing to go to make an action movie which is anything but average. The scenes of him “grinning like an idiot every 15 minutes” are few and far between this time around as we instead see him playing mind games with actors who are playing characters not entirely trustworhty. And yes, there is the obligatory scene of him sprinting at warp speed, and I hope I am able to run like he does when I reach his age.

“Fallout” almost marks the return of writer and director Christopher McQuarrie, making him the first filmmaker to direct more than one “Mission: Impossible” movie. “Rogue Nation” was terrific entertainment, but he really outdoes himself this time out. His screenplay is full of endless plot twists and enigmatic characters to where I was quickly reminded of he was the same man who wrote the screenplay for “The Usual Suspects.” Seeing him balance various plot threads makes me admire him as a director even more as he brings everything together for a furious climax which is just staggering.

Simon Pegg has been great fun in the “Mission: Impossible” movies, but in “Fallout” we see his character of Benji Dunn evolve a bit. Granted, Benji has always served as the comic relief, but we see him become a better field agent to where, even when he whines about the things he doesn’t want to do, he can hold his own with Ethan to where he doesn’t have to perform a HALO jump to make this clear. Pegg has always been a great comedic talent, but he’s also a better actor than people give him credit for.

Ving Rhames continues to make Luther Stickell the uber cool IMF agent, and Luther has evolved to where he is not as concerned about his expensive taste in clothes anymore. Rebecca Ferguson, who all but stole “Rogue Nation” as Ilsa Faust, once again makes her character wonderfully enigmatic to where I was desperate to get at the secrets inside Ilsa’s brain. Alec Baldwin has more fun this time around as Alan Hunley, Sean Harris makes “Rogue Nation” baddie Solomon Lake even more sadistic than ever before, and Michelle Monaghan once again provides this franchise with a warm human presence as Ethan’s ex-wife, Julia.

We also get introduced to some new characters including Erica Sloane, the new CIA director played by Angela Bassett. Although we don’t get to see much of Bassett here, she reminds us of how badass she remains after all these years. It has been 25 years since she broke through as Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” and she hasn’t let us down since.

Acclaimed stage actress Vanessa Kirby makes her American film debut as White Widow, a black-market arms dealer. Kirby makes this character such an alluring presence as she keeps her cool even as her life is constantly being threatened and as she dangles a plutonium core right in front of Ethan’s eyes, knowing full well just how much he wants it.

And, of course, we have Henry Cavill who gets to take some time off from his day job playing Superman to portray CIA assassin August Walker. Cavill is a bit stiff in some early scenes to where he threatens to get upstaged by his mustache, the same one he was unable to shave off for “Justice League” reshoots. For a time, I kept waiting for him to say, “It’s just you, me, and my mustache” as such a big deal was made about it having to be digitally removed. But as “Fallout” goes on, Cavill makes August into an especially dangerous character who is never to be trifled with. And while he may not be playing the Man of Steel here, he throws punches which had me thinking his arms were made of steel.

Seriously, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is the best movie yet in this franchise, and it may very well be the best action movie of summer 2018. Just when I thought nothing could top the sight of Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa tower in “Ghost Protocol,” we are given some of the most amazing stunts, and they are coupled with characters busy playing mental chess games with one another as what the eyes reveal can be even more threatening than a bullet to the head. “Fallout” is a thrilling spectacle, and it makes me wonder if Cruise and company can possibly top what they have accomplished here.

Cruise had a tough time in 2017 as “The Mummy” reboot proved to be a critical and commercial bomb, and the biographical crime film “American Made” underperformed at the box office. It’s a good thing he still has “Mission: Impossible” to fall back on as he always pushes himself to outdo what he did previously as an actor and producer. Just when I thought his career would self-destruct in 5 seconds, he manages to come back with a vengeance.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Annihilation’ is a Unique Sci-Fi Cinematic Experience

Annihilation movie poster

I have to give Paramount Pictures credit for taking risks in the past year or so on movies which defy what is considered these days to be mainstream entertainment. Last year, they released Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” a film which could in no way be mistaken for a comic book movie. Despite it earning a rare Cinemascore grade of an F, Paramount stood behind Aronofsky and his film defiantly, saying they were proud of the work he did. Keep in mind, the studio made this clear even after “mother!” suffered a weak opening at the box office, especially when compared to other movies starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Now in 2018, Paramount has released “Annihilation,” a science-fiction horror film which not only defies what many expect from Hollywood at the moment, but also proves impossibly hard to fit into any specific genre. This has led many to accuse Paramount of not giving the movie the proper promotion it deserved, but we will address this issue at another time. Whatever expectations you have for this cinematic experience, it would be best to leave them at the door as “Annihilation” deals with themes and situations other filmmakers have explored in the past, but this time they are handled in a way which feels truly fresh and not the least bit routine.

Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist and former U.S. Army soldier who, as the movie starts, is in a depressed state as her husband, Army soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been missing for a year, and many presume he has been killed in action. But suddenly, Kane reappears to Lena’s delight, but he resembles one of the pod people from Phillip Kaufman’s remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as he seems devoid of any emotion and cannot remember where he was. Before Lena can get a satisfactory answer regarding his whereabouts, Kane becomes very sick and is transported via ambulance to the hospital. As you can expect, military officials stop the ambulance, and it becomes clear Lena and Kane have stumbled across something those in power would prefer to keep under a heavy veil of secrecy.

“Annihilation” puts us right into Lena’s shoes as she desperately tries to understand the situation she has been thrust into. Finding herself at the United States’ government facility known as Area X, a name which implies a location always closed off to the general public, Lena is greeted by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who finally gives her some answers and introduces her to an area known as “the shimmer.” We see a meteor hit a lighthouse, and from there an electromagnetic field has developed and continues to spread at a rate to where it will eventually absorb everything in its path. Soldiers have been sent into “the shimmer” to better understand this phenomenon, but Kane is the only one who has come back from it alive.

Dr. Ventress ends up recruiting Lena and two other women to join her on the latest mission to enter “the shimmer,” a mission they have every reason to believe is a suicidal one. This is where “Annihilation” becomes particularly unique as these characters are not trying to be heroic but are instead dealing with their own self-destructive tendencies. Indeed, self-destruction is a big theme as these four women are revealed to be individuals deeply wounded by life in one way or another to where they feel as though there’s nothing much left to care about or live for. But as they get deeper into “the shimmer,” their survival instincts become awakened almost immediately.

“Annihilation” was written for the screen and directed by Alex Garland who started out as a novelist with his book “The Beach” which was made into a movie by Danny Boyle and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Since then, he has graduated to writing screenplays for “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd.” In 2015, he made his directorial debut with “Ex Machina,” a brilliant science fiction thriller which dealt with the subject of artificial intelligence in a way which felt familiar and yet very fresh. Even if the story reminded me of “Frankenstein” in a way, the approach Garland took with the material and the characters felt invigorating and wonderfully unique.

Garland has brought this same kind of energy and enthusiasm to “Annihilation” as it follows a group of people caught in a situation much like the one in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” to where they are dealing with an antagonist who is not quite visible, and this leads them to become increasingly paranoid about one another. Garland does an excellent job of keeping the audience off-balance as he takes us through the story in a non-linear fashion. When Lena awakes in a tent inside “the shimmer,” she admits she has no idea how she got there or of what she experienced in the past few hours. Indeed, we end up feeling as lost as her as we are desperate to better understand the situation everyone has been sucked into, and Garland holds our attention throughout as a result.

Throughout, Garland gives us much to think about such as the differences between suicide and self-destruction as well as the importance and inherent danger of discovery. While watching “Annihilation,” I was reminded of a scene in “Jurassic Park” between John Hammond and Ian Malcolm. Hammond doesn’t understand why anyone would stand in the way of discovery, but Malcolm leaves him with this to chew on:

“What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.”

But while Garland has crafted “Annihilation” as the thinking person’s sci-fi movie, it is not at all lacking in the thrill department. Certain scenes have a visceral feel to where I jumped out of my seat for the first time in ages. On a visual level, it has a look which is as beautiful as it is haunting, and I am having a hard time comparing it to other movies I have seen recently. On top of this, “Annihilation” features a very unique sonic landscape courtesy of composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, both of whom combine an earthly sound with an electronic one as they work to separate the real world these characters have left behind and the alien realm they have dared themselves to enter.

Natalie Portman has a tricky role to play here. As Lena, she has to be vulnerable but also exhibit a reserve of strength deeply embedded in a character who has served her time in the military. That Portman manages to pull this off is not the least bit surprising, and she gives us a fully formed character whose experience and pain aid her in the movie’s spellbinding climax. Many still can’t shake the squeaky-clean image they have of Portman, but she has been around long enough to remind audiences of the amazing depth and range she has as an actress.

It’s great to see Jennifer Jason Leigh here as well, let alone in any movie she appears in. As Dr. Ventress, she creates a truly enigmatic character who keeps her emotion in check to where you constantly wonder what is going on in her head. Clearly, this doctor has more interests than in just exploring “the shimmer,” and Leigh keeps you guessing what they are all the way to the end.

I also have to give credit to Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny for creating such memorable characters out of those which, in any other movie, could have been of the easily disposable variety. Some characters exist solely to further the actions of the lead protagonist or serve as mere fodder for an ever so lethal antagonist, but these actresses make theirs stand out in a way they would not have otherwise, and their final onscreen moments are hard to shake once you have witnessed them.

And when it comes to Oscar Isaac, you can always count on him to give an infinitely charismatic performance even in a role where the character looks to have been drained of all emotion. Telling you more about his character of Kane would be detrimental to your viewing experience, but once you watch him here, you will agree he has created a fascinating portrait of a man who once knew his place in the world, but who now is forever lost in it.

It has now been a few days since I have watched “Annihilation,” and I still find myself thinking about the movie quite intensely. Even if its pace lags a little more than it should, the questions it left me with remain endlessly fascinating. When we see Lena reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” is that a hint of some kind? What led Garland to include the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Hopelessly Hoping” here? And more importantly, is the movie’s ending a hopeful one, or is it meant to be relentlessly bleak? Garland is not out to give us easy answers, but my hope is you will be open to the unusual experience this movie has to offer. Cinemascore may have given it an average grade of a C, but please remember this is the same research group which gave “America: Imagine the World Without Her” an A+.

Trust me, check this one out, and be sure to come into it with an open mind.

* * * ½ out of * * * *