Release Date(s)2018 (May 29, 2018)
Studio(s)Skydance/DNA Films/Scott Rudin Productions (Paramount Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
[Editor’s Note: This disc is initially a Best Buy exclusive title, but will be available in wide release later this year.]
Lena (Natalie Portman) is an ex-Army solider turned scientist, who teaches cellular biology at a southern American college. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), was an active duty Special Forces soldier who’s been missing in action for over a year. Lena is still mourning Kane’s loss, when he suddenly returns home with no memory of where he’s been and clearly unwell. But as they’re racing to the hospital, their ambulance is intercepted by government forces, who take both Lena and Kane into custody. There, Lena learns that some kind of alien force or anomaly has infected a nearby coastal area called the Southern Reaches and it’s slowly growing in size. Her husband was part of a military team sent inside to investigate, but he’s the only one who’s returned. Lena soon realizes that the only way to help her husband is to join a new team of scientists that’s being sent into the anomaly in the hope of learning what the so-called “Shimmer” really is, what it’s doing… and how it can be stopped.
Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer (the first of a trilogy), Alex Garland’s Annihilation is something of an odd duck in the modern Hollywood landscape, though it certainly fits the director’s body work (think Ex Machina and his scripts for Never Let Me Go, Sunshine, and Dredd). The film is equal parts high-concept science fiction, Gothic horror, and psychological thriller. The ideas here are fascinating and the production design feels fresh and unique. There is a real threat at play, with a genuinely creepy atmosphere, that is just alien enough – and yet just familiar enough – to be deeply unsettling. This film is a journey of unraveling… biologically, genetically, and psychologically. Garland makes different choices than you’d expect in several ways (including the film’s depiction of gender roles), which are interesting, but they still have to be believable and not all of them are.
The first problem lies in the film’s setup. If a real threat like this appeared, there would be a whole set of government and military responses and a certain urgency to them. Instead, what we see early on is a strange detachment on the part of those studying the phenomenon. Why, for example, would intelligent scientists just walk into this anomaly without masks, biosuits, or any kind of protection from the contamination they must surely know they’re facing? That detachment actually permeates the entire film and is tied to its second problem: Lena’s character arc is so slight that it doesn’t feel like quite enough to hang the film on. She goes from being emotionally isolated to marginally less emotionally isolated. She’s lost a part of herself at the start of the film, but what she ultimately finds is something else entirely. Still, the cast is good, including both Portman and Isaac. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives an interesting performance too, though she doesn’t quite feel like the right fit for her role.
Annihilation was photographed digitally in the Sony X-OCN, Sony F65 RAW, and Redcode RAW codecs (at 4K and 6K resolutions) using Sony CineAtla and Red Weapon Dragon cameras with Panavision anamorphic lenses. It was finished as a native 4K digital intermediate, graded for high dynamic range in both Dolby Vision and HDR10, and is presented here in its original 2.39:1 theatrical aspect ratio. In principle, there’s a tremendous amount of fine detail here. In practice, however, the image is often so dimly lit, filled with atmospherics (think practical smoke and fog), and digitally-enhanced that it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate that detail. The image has an almost pastoral quality, with soft and delicate texturing. The HDR grade is actually quite subtle and naturalistic, which is interesting because the imagery shifts from dark and monochromatic (in early scenes) to quite lush and otherworldly. The shadows are nicely dark, but the use of smoke on set does add a touch of gray. The brightest areas of the frame, on the other hand, are nicely eye-reactive. In between, the color palette offers exquisite nuance and variety, though you might be expecting a bit more boldness. The colors too have a soft appearance, like a pastel painting in motion. Ultimately, it would be hard to argue against the sheer beauty of this image, but it may not have quite the pop you’re expecting.
Primary audio on the 4K disc (and the Blu-ray as well) is included in English Dolby Atmos. The mix is actually a perfect match to the visuals, offering a wonderfully rich and nuanced soundstage, with clear dialogue, full-sounding music (including a couple of classic Crosby, Stills and Nash tracks that have never sounded better), and surprisingly light and smooth panning. There are a few moments in this mix that will send a cold chill down your spine when you realize what it is you’re hearing (and from what). Most of this is an exercise in subtlety, but in the film’s few genuine action scenes, the overhead channels come alive and the whole mix gets effortlessly more aggressive. It’s not a bombastic mix by any means, but it’s still quite impressive. Additional audio options on the 4K disc include English Descriptive Audio and French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish.
There are no extras whatsoever on the 4K disc itself, though the package also includes the film in 1080p HD on standard Blu-ray, a disc that adds the following documentary content (all in HD):
- Part 1 – Southern Reach: Refractions (11:20)
- Part 1 – Southern Reach: For Those That Follow (15:04)
- Part 2 – Area X: Shimmer (12:12)
- Part 2 – Area X: Vanished Into Havoc (15:03)
- Part 3 – To the Lighthouse: Unfathomable Mind (11:46)
- Part 3 – To the Lighthouse: The Last Phase (8:06)
It’s not a lot of material, to be sure, but it feels like more than the sum of its parts. All of it is quite interesting, providing a thoughtful and introspective look behind-the-scenes at the making of the film. Hats off to documentary producer Jonathan Mefford and his team for creating it. Note that you also get the usual Digital Copy code on a paper insert.
Annihilation is a thoughtful, worthy, and genuinely unsettling science fiction/horror experience, even if it’s also an imperfect one. Still, one can only wonder at how much (or little, judging by the lack of box office) interest today’s moviegoers actually have in such an experience. Here’s hoping this film picks up at least a cult level of appreciation on disc, because it deserves a better look from audiences than it’s been given thus far. If you are willing to check Annihilation out, Paramount’s 4K Ultra HD release is certainly the best way to do so. Recommended.
- Bill Hunt