Natalie Portman stars in “Annihilation” as the biologist Lena.

The trippy and challenging “Annihilation” is a sci-fi Franken-film — a cellular fusion of “Stalker,” “The Thing” and the last 20 minutes of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The film is an almost alienatingly intellectual treatise on (takes deep breath) the innate compulsion of biological organisms to self-destruct. But it also stars a mutant monster bear whose growl sounds like the screams of a dying woman.

The film could fairly be described as the story of a small group of very smart women who walk through the wilderness while discussing high-level academic theory. But it also features a scene in which Natalie Portman unloads an assault rifle into a freakishly large albino alligator.

The big ideas and gorgeous visuals are always at odds in “Annihilation,” continually threatening to engulf one another while just managing to hold it all together until the mind-bending finale arrives and burns the movie to the ground.

It is very smart, it is very weird and I liked it very much. (I think.)

But it’s such an oddball synthesis, such a deliberately unconventional time at the movies, that I imagine it will have the majority of audiences chucking their sodas at the screen in anger. It’s just one of those movies that tanks in theaters only to shortly afterward become a cult classic on home video. (It makes sense that, except in North America and China, the film is forgoing theatrical distribution and being sent straight to Netflix.)

With the crowd-pleasing juggernaut “Black Panther” and the breezy R-rated comedy “Game Night” now in theaters, it’s doubtful “Annihilation” will find its audience this weekend. But it will find its audience sooner or later.

For now, I’d like to sing its praises with the caveat that you will more likely than not think I’m an idiot and a hack (maybe you already did) for recommending the film. That said, thank you for reading, nonetheless. Here’s what “Annihilation,” based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer, is about:

The biologist Lena (Portman) is grieving the loss of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), a soldier who went missing on a mysterious expedition a year prior. One day, Kane returns. But there’s something a bit off about him.

Kane and Lena are shortly afterward collected by a covert military organization and taken to the fringes of an environmental disaster zone. “The Shimmer,” as it’s called, is a growing mass of contamination encased in a curtain of gooey purple light. The Shimmer is growing, and despite years of study, the army of soldiers and scientists surrounding the area are no closer to knowing what it is or how to stop it. Several expeditions have gone in, but no one has ever returned. Not until Kane. Now he appears to be dying.

Once she’s all caught up, Lena, who has an army background, asks to join the next expedition into the Shimmer. Psychologist and team leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) agrees, and they’re off into the weird wilderness, along with three other scientists (played by Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny).

In the fashion of this kind of horror-tinged sci-fi movie, strange things happen. The difference is the characters are so much smarter than the dunderheaded archetypes this kind of movie usually offers. Their reactions to impossible phenomena are grounded in their expertise and good judgment.

“Annihilation” asks the question: What if the people running from the monster weren’t a bunch of dummies? And the answer ends up being a fairly fresh take on the tropes of the creature feature.

As the characters and the film head deeper into the Shimmer, the threats grow increasingly abstract. And as the team’s minds and bodies begin to morph, they too become a threat to themselves and each other.

“Annihilation” was written and directed by Alex Garland, a filmmaker who has quietly become one of our greatest practitioners of brainy sci-fi. He’s been behind several very good films over the past 15 years: “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go,” “Dredd” and “Ex Machina.”

“Annihilation” is Garland’s most ambitious (and polarizing) effort to date. Its visuals — equal parts grotesque and beautiful — are beyond reproach. The rest of the film is not.

Save Portman’s Lena, the film’s characters are a little vague, relying on the talented cast to sketch them in as best they can. Many viewers will struggle with the film’s deliberate pace, even as it’s continually rebooted with glimmers of gory horror. Most viewers will struggle with the film’s final confrontation, which offers as many questions as it does answers, ending on a note both hopeful and apocalyptic.

Suffice it to say, the finale is about as unsettling and bizarre as anything I’ve seen on a big screen in recent memory. I’m still not sure what to think about it, but I’m dead certain I won’t stop thinking about what I think about it anytime soon.

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