“Annihilation” is an eerie, ominous and challenging film that is also great. With a stellar cast, state-of-the-art visual effects and excellent direction, it burrows its way into your brain like a parasite and eats it from the inside.

This is a sophisticated science fiction film that takes us to unbearable heights of fear, tension and bleak paranoia. But novelist-turned-director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”) doesn’t merely echo such classics as “Alien” and “The Thing,” he considerably widens the focus. At times metaphorical, the movie generates cryptic, mysterious wonder alongside its shocks. The wonder is that a seamless blend of nonstop anxiety emerges.

There’s little if any futurism in this psychological survival thriller. The story could be happening right now, just out of view.

The setting is an abandoned stretch of coastline where residents were evacuated by the government for vague safety concerns. That’s the official explanation of why Lena (Natalie Portman) has seen her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), return seriously ill from a secret military operation.

In fact, the region, now labeled Area X, is concealing an evolutionary anomaly. Years before, a meteor strike left a cloud of color-changing fluorescence. That amorphous curtain is expanding, and the site’s plant and animal life is changing in very bad ways.

The few survivors who made it back were irreversibly affected. It’s the survival of the fittest raised to an existential crisis.

Lena, a biology professor who shared her husband’s military combat experience, is recruited to join four other brave women on a team to penetrate “the shimmer” and uncover what is happening. She hopes that what she learns there will help the comatose Kane leave the hospital. Be careful what you wish for.

With co-stars such as Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tessa Thompson carrying assault rifles into the forbidden zone, there is compelling psychodrama in the mission. As they push across the gorgeous, ravaged woodlands and wetlands, they seem to be pressing through a horticultural nightmare. The team goes from five competent individuals to a conflicted, struggling hive mind.

They’re trying to understand, and survive, the mysteries that surround them, just as we work to unpack the film’s rich buried truths. The team’s gradual breakdown pushes the hard-bitten professionals and empathetic caretakers to their emotional limits.

That’s merely where the fever dream begins. The lyrical beauty of the film’s landscape designs is breathtaking to behold and deeply unsettling. It looks pristine, isolated and completely without places to hide.

The narrative takes us repeatedly to the glass chamber where the tormented Lena is questioned by researchers in hazmat suits. Then it flashes back, creating perplexity, overlapping memories and visions coming from all directions. There’s not much precedent for a story where time bends radically, and animals and plants randomly intertwine and crossbreed at levels that seem beautiful and staggeringly wrong.

When her interrogator asks Lena what the ever expanding force behind Earth’s strangely mutating ecology wants, she answers, “It doesn’t want anything.” It’s we who want. To be. To exist. We, who feel like the culmination of evolution, whose cells change entirely every seven years, want all the transformation to stop immediately.

It is, deliberately, hard to follow the details of what goes on as the expedition encounters life-forms that are merging, shifting shapes and propagating their new species. Some of the film references myth. Some of it is symbolic.

Although you may feel the need to debate it all when the film reaches its cliffhanger ending, there is much method in this weird, frightening madness. The film, based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, is so disturbing because the virally spreading force is outside human explanation. You can’t defeat what you can’t comprehend, not even when it feels like you’re winning. Of course, you knew that. The film is called “Annihilation,” after all.


Twitter: @colincovert