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Alex Garland knocked me out with his 2014 mind bender "Ex Machina", one of my top 3 films that year. For my money, he's topped that film with his new film, ANNIHILATION.

Engaging from its opening moments, we meet Lena (a terrific Natalie Portman) as she tries to find her footing after the death of her husband, Kane. A military man often dispatched on secret missions, he never returned nearly a year before, leaving Lena devastated and immersed in her role as a botany professor at John Hopkins.

But suddenly, Kane walks into their home.

Quiet, disoriented and not himself, he falls very ill and Lena is immediately whisked away into a massive military operation.

A "shimmer" has appeared. A massive, slowly growing wall of prismatic light to which many soldiers, drones and machines have gone into, yet none have returned.

With seven years in the military before her teaching career and her husband lying near death in a secured hospital bed, Lena joins a mission to enter the shimmer to divulge its secrets.

What happens from there, wont be divulged by me, as the brilliance of the world that Garland creates is that it's wholly new, dreamlike, trippy....hard to describe.

Garland merges elements that feel like "The Andromeda Strain", "Predator" and "2001: A Space Odyssey", wrapped in a "Contact" sheen with some serious "Aliens" gore & tension, then polished into something more cerebral.

The hardest part of setting up a film this smart is that the ending is bound to disappoint, but for me, it never wavers, offering a thrilling last half hour that visually blows your mind without falling into CGI madness.

Portman is at her best here, creating an intelligent action hero on par with "Aliens" Ripley and equally adept with a machine gun.

Oscar Issac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Star Wars:The Last Jedi) is one of my favorite actors and he matches Portman scene for scene as her husband Kane. Half of his role is in clever flashbacks or snippets of his mission and he's equally as good portraying the very different man that returns.

The all-female team around Lena on her mission to the shimmer is excellent. Jennifer Jason Leigh (just as good here as she was in "The Hateful Eight") is Dr Ventress, a psychiatrist and team leader of the expedition.

Gina Rodriguez (Jane The Virgin, Deepwater Horizon) is the volatile Anya, US newcomer Tuva Novatny is a thoughtful Swedish scientist recovering from a loss and committing all to the mission and Tessa Thompson (so great as Valkyrie in "Thor: Ragnarock") is a grad student who begins to unravel the mysteries of the world inside the shimmer.

The sound design and photography is excellent, with otherworldly sounds and voices throwing you off balance inside "the event". The offbeat music score by Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow is equally good, working in tandem with the sound design to mess up your bearings and build tension.

Garland's screenplay pulls you in, building suspense and tension from the first scene and unwrapping an intelligent mystery.

I'm sure that every time I watch it, I'll learn more and SEE more. Garland never dumbs down the mystery to make it easy for you. The final half hour can be interpreted many ways. The final scenes will create plenty of dialogue for viewers.

A day later, I'm still trying to connect some of the pieces and its got me thinking.

ANNIHILATION is a thriller, but a damned smart one. There's plenty going on inside the shimmer. The fascinating journey there gets an A+.

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