• Gabe Powers

Annihilation Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)

Biologist and former soldier Lena (Natalie Portman) is shocked when her missing husband (Oscar Isaac) comes home, near death, from a top-secret mission into The Shimmer, a mysterious quarantine zone no one has ever returned from. Now, Lena and her elite team must enter a beautiful, deadly world of mutated landscapes and creatures to discover how to stop the growing phenomenon that threatens all life on Earth. (From Paramount’s official synopsis)



Special effects limitations (or over-dependence), the looming shadow of suspension of disbelief, lack of thematic substance, and tonal competence/coherence, all make the prospect of genuinely ‘good’ science fiction horror difficult. The simplest solution to these problems is often a sense ambiguity, though, like any other advantage, this can become a detriment when not properly balanced. Few modern filmmakers have trial-and-errored their way through this balancing process than British screenwriter-turned-director Alex Garland.


Following a successful career as a novelist, Garland’s star was tied to director Danny Boyle, who had adapted his 1996 novel The Beach in 2000. Together, the duo developed two movies that skirt the line between science fiction and horror – 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007). Both films start strong and taper off, in part due to unbalanced ambiguity. 28 Days Later puts too much emphasis on ambiguity at a point when it needed to establish finality. Sunshine, on the other hand, throws ambiguity out of the proverbial airlock during its climax, leaving things tonally incongruent. Despite neither movie entirely working on its own merits, they represent measurable growth for Garland in retrospect. After working on two other sci-fi-flavored features based on established properties, Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go (2010), and Pete Travis’ Dredd (which Garland is rumored to have co-directed, 2012), Garland wrote and directed a speculative thriller called Ex Machina (2015), which allowed him to explore robotic existentialism via established sci-fi and crime fiction tropes. Ex Machina was tightly wound, smartly realized, and damn-near airtight in structural terms. It’s not perfect and, sometimes, its reach exceeds its grasp, but its moral/tonal ambiguity was a strength that Garland managed to carry through all three acts. Having established his control over intelligent and esoteric subject matter, Garland has taken on a second, more definitively horror-based sci-fi movie called Annihilation.



Ex Machina was designed to be made on a limited budget with a limited cast and limited location space. Annihilation broadens that canvas considerably without going full Hollywood blockbuster in its on-screen scope. Its theoretical scope, however, matches that of stuff, like Transformers and Marvel end of the world scenarios, which it tends to subvert with its more surrealistic threats and subdued tone. The use of an entirely female strike team – something that is never mentioned in the context of the film itself – quietly defies the typical ‘men on a mission’ default modes of most sci-fi/horror/action hybrids (among the many parallels that can be drawn to John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing, the unisex expedition force seems the most pointed). Still, Garland isn’t dead-set against the more fun genre traditions. He’s definitely not afraid of tossing in some jump scares, (unbelievably potent) gross-out gags, and action beats between haunting moments and complex scientific explanations. The film doesn’t miraculously avoid the narrative pitfalls of most studio-financed genre entries, either (the entry team’s actual mission is pretty underdeveloped, for instance), but, again, the director’s keen sense of ambiguity (much of which is represented by editing choices) manages to keep the audience at an arm’s length from the plot’s secrets.


Despite being based on a popular novel by Jeff VanderMeer (the first in a trilogy), Annihilation often feels like a second attempt at Sunshine for Garland. Both feature an ensemble of scientists trying to solve a seemingly impossible problem to which they are emotionally tied. Both treat big, Earth-shattering concepts with intimacy and both are caked in a prevalent sense of dread. Annihilation matches Sunshine’s strengths, while also delivering a more consistent tone and theme; both of which I’d tie back again to that sense of ambiguity. Like Sunshine, Annihilation is bolstered by strong performances from capable actors that help ground the very real emotional aspects of the outlandish story. In this case, however, emotions tend to feed dread, rather than hope, to the point that some audiences will find themselves alienated and depressed. This is ultimately Garland’s goal (and I assume VanderMeer’s, though I haven’t read the book) – to analyze grief through both textual content and metaphors, leaving the viewer to parse what they’ve seen and how it makes them feel.


I’m not going to say you have to have struggled with mental illness, cancer, or bereavement to understand or enjoy Annihilation, but, speaking for myself, those experiences have certainly colored my appreciation of the film. Alternately, it might not be the completely original mind-bender that the ad campaign made it out to be (to the contrary, the actual plot is relatively predictable and small in scale), but it is a haunting, disturbing, and ultimately rewarding sci-fi horror story.



Video

Annihilation was shot using Red Weapon Dragon and Sony CineAlta 4K digital cameras and it is presented on this Blu-ray disc in 2.40:1, 1080p HD video. For the record, the film was, to the disappointment of its director, released internationally via Netflix and only released theatrically in North America and China. Back on point, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy’s moody, lush, and dynamic photography really pushes the technology of the cameras and, for the most part, the Blu-ray transfer holds the line. Edges are sharp when needed, yet the cleanly diffused lighting schemes and soft, misty backdrops are the most impressive aspects. Gradations are smooth and tight without a lot of noise, even during the dim and blurry interior shots. Black levels are deep, but not ‘pooly’ and are neatly incorporated into the hues that surround them. Really, the closest I can find to a problem here is the occasional presence of banding effects surrounding spotlight schemes; though, given the oily quality of many visual motifs, I wonder if this artifact was embraced on purpose.



Audio

Annihilation is presented in Dolby Atmos sound, though this review will pertain to the core Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track. The audio mix is perpetually busy, though usually not in an aggressive way. Viewers looking for a rollicking action track do have a handful of intense skirmishes and monster movie moments, but the key components are more abstract, from the crackle of The Shimmer to the amplified qualities of incidental sound effects. Dialogue is clean, loud, and well-centered in all cases.The music is by composer Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow of Portishead and it is both beautiful and disturbing on a primal, guttural level. The blending of crisp acoustic instruments and bright, throbbing synth perfectly sync with the film’s organic, yet mechanical flavor. The music also gives the soundtrack its biggest workout, specifically during the swirling, booming climax.



Extras

Part 1 – Southern Reach:

  • Refractions (11:20, HD) – Garland, VanderMeer, the producers, and various designers/technicians talk about adapting the book, creating a tone, and various visual inspirations.

  • For Those That Follow (15:04, HD) – A look at the characters, casting, and performances.

Part 2 – Area X:

  • Shimmer (12:12, HD) – The filmmakers discuss shooting in sequence and on location in real UK swamps, and building working sets on those locations.

  • Vanished into Havoc (15:03, HD) – Concerning physical and digital effects, creature concepts, and stunt performances.

Part 3 – To the Lighthouse:

  • Unfathomable Mind (11:46, HD) – A more in-depth exploration of post-production visual effects; again, from concept to completion.

  • The Light Phase (8:06, HD) – A celebration of Garland’s cooperative directing style and the important contributions of the crew.




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