“Annihilation” evolves into psychological thriller

4K ULTRA HD REVIEW

Former soldier/biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) examines a mutated creature. (Courtesy Paramount Pictures)

“ANNIHILATION”


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD copy; 2018; R for violence, bloody images, profanity and some sexuality; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play, iTunes (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)


Best extra: Three-part making-of


IT’S NOT easy to come up with fresh movie ideas (even if libraries are filled with them). Science fiction should have a head start since it can cover realms of possibility, but non-stop action and mayhem usually overtake stories and we end up with more of the same.


“Annhilation” is based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer, the first in his Southern Reach trilogy. VanderMeer is part of the New Weird literary genre. His work, described as “profound and disturbing,” won the Nebula and Shirley Jackson awards.


I’ll buy that. Luckily, so did Alex Garland of “Ex Machina” and “28 Days Later.” He adapted VanderMeer’s book and directed the film. Like Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” “Annihilation” maintains a disquieting, deadly tension throughout. It also has a female lead, Natalie Portman as former soldier/biologist Lena, and one of the scariest monsters on screen this side of – well, the Alien.


A team of scientists led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), anthropologist Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) enter the Shimmer.
Facing the ever-expanding Shimmer.

Lena volunteers to become part of a scientific team to investigate the Shimmer, caused when an asteroid hit a lighthouse near the Southern Reach research facility. Since landfall, the area has been bathed in an ever-expanding, rainbow shrouded haze. Other teams have gone into the quarantined zone. None have returned except Lena’s dead-eyed husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who now appears to be in the final stages of radiation poisoning. There have been no communications in or out of the Shimmer, and Dr. Ventress, a psychologist played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, says there’s no stopping its growth unless more is learned. It could eventually cover the planet.


Lena, Ventress and three more women – paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and anthropologist Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) – enter the Shimmer, and right away, events become skewed. Time no longer functions as it did; plants and animals are mutating all around them. Much of the area looks fantastically beautiful, yet, like VanderMeer’s stories, some of it is profoundly disturbing and dangerous. Life is radically changing everywhere. The more they discover, the more confused and fearful they become.


What sets “Annhilation” apart from other sci-fi odysseys is its introspection. As seen in his other films, Garland is not afraid to explore the psyche or ask uncomfortable questions. Yes, there are jump scares and monsters, light shows and explosions, but the film gives us plenty to think about, too.

The team discover the remains of an earlier explorer.
Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) find something in the water.


VIDEO

This is one of those times when the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray blows every other format off the planet. The presentation is sourced from cameras capable of 4K and 6K resolutions. Effects are dazzling, yet life-like. Interiors such as Lena’s home, the university and bunker all appear authentic. The outer boundaries of the Shimmer show the beginning of alien transformation, which becomes more intense the further Lena and her team go in. Light sources ranging from sunlit shafts in dark forests to sun drenched fields are consistent throughout, and look remarkable on 4K.  Dark rooms and enclaves are creepy, with well defined detail lurking in the shadows.


HDR color brings every shade and tone into full bloom, while details and textures remain razor sharp. Blu-ray visuals appear faded and dark in comparison.


AUDIO

Both the Blu-ray and 4K Ultra Blu-ray have a perfect, immersive Dolby Atmos soundtrack. It might seem soft at first, but adjust the volume. Paramount has geared this so the home audience can catch the most subtle sound from whispers and breezes to the rush of water during an attack, gunshots, and nightmare echoes of the damned. It is easy to become absorbed into this world.

An ongoing collection of environmental sound – insects, birds, wind and water – compliments the visual beauty and drama. An eerie, contemporary orchestral score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, who also worked with Garland on “Ex Machina,” heightens the experience. Ceiling speakers float and punch effects and music into the room, while a strong, vibrant bassline grounds the track.


The default eight-channel Dolby True HD is also very good.


MOVIE TRAILER



EXTRAS

There are over 70 minutes of bonus features divided into three parts. “Southern Research” is broken into “Refractions” and “For Those that Follow,” covering book-to-screen material, actors and characters, and style/production development. “Area X” is separated into “Shimmer” and “Vanished Into Havoc” covering Garland’s plan to shoot the story in sequence, and meeting the artistic challenges of the Shimmer. “To the Lighthouse” is composed of “Unfathomable Mind” and “The Last Phase,” about the science behind the Shimmer, and the film’s philosophical challenges.


Critics and viewers are divided into two camps; they either love or hate “Annihilation.” So far, the “loves” prevail and, like the Shimmer, are growing stronger. It kept us talking for days afterward. And then we wanted to share it to involve others in the discussion. Isn’t that what great film is all about?


The 4K disc is only available at Best Buy in the U.S.


- Kay Reynolds

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