Director Alex Garland (“28 Days Later,” “Ex Machina”) delivers another scholarly and sophisticated head-scratcher with “Annihilation,” an edge-of-your-seat mystery / thriller and experimental avant garde exercise in high concept science fiction. This nightmarish mash-up of “Under the Skin” and “Mother!” won’t be for everyone, but fans of the director’s previous work are undoubtedly the core target audience.

The film is loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer‘s best-selling “Southern Reach Trilogy” and tells the story of a team of female scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) who enter into a mysterious area dubbed the Shimmer. The Shimmer has been studied for months by a government agency at Area X, and no previous team has escaped (once they go in the Shimmer, they never come out). Inexplicably, one solider (Oscar Isaac) manages to escape after being trapped inside for one year, but he returns in a dying state with massive organ failure. His biologist wife Lena (Natalie Portman) volunteers to join the expedition with a hope of saving her husband. But the deeper the women travel into the landscape, the worse things become for them both mentally and physically.

The team eventually learns that this invasive alien species is destroying through mutation by creating new hybrids of all life forms. As the women draw closer to the origin of the Shimmer, the mutations grow increasingly horrifying. Their journey starts with a harmless encounter with mutated flowers but ends with refracted DNA that causes an alien doppelganger that’s set to take over the world.

What follows is an incredibly tense horror / drama with dazzling visuals and fantastic performances from Portman and Leigh. The two leads create characters that balance credibility with a nagging feeling that they are slowly going insane. Is this a political message about the environment and religion, a condemnation of unchecked societal patriarchy, a simple alien invasion story, or a film that explores the darkest psychosis of the human desire for self destruction? The short answer is “yes.”

What’s so compelling is the whole question that becomes the center of the story: is Lena trustworthy? She’s the narrator of the film, her story introduced through an interrogation of sorts after she escapes from the Shimmer. Her answers feel purposely obtuse and frustrating, and she’s proven herself to be unreliable through a pattern of untruthfulness and a general lack of integrity when it comes to exposing the whole story.

This is a challenging, mind-bending film, one that screams Garland’s tone and style. It’s not mass-produced garbage for the average Friday night Cineplex attendee. It’s a thriller but of the intellectual kind, the type of brainy fantasy that encourages critics to pat themselves on the back because they “get it” and you don’t. That’s always the most annoying thing about ambitious projects like this.

This is not a bad film by any means, but it is a little too open-ended. There’s a big difference between leaving it up to the viewer to decide and presenting something so messy, so all over the place, that every little bit of subtext is thrown into the mix simply because the folks behind the camera aren’t even sure what it all means. There are allusions to the ritual of spirituality and the doctrine of science, from sinners to global warming to feminism to gender roles. The aspirations are grand, but what does it all mean?

In what will serve to be even more trying to viewers, the ending is left up to individual interpretation with no clear resolution. You can see this film with half a dozen people and you’ll get half a dozen theories. If this type of film generally agitates or exasperates you, I would highly advise that you skip this one. But if you’re a moviegoer who relishes in a scholarly challenge, this is a must-see.

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