Annihilation gained notoriety during its U.S. theatrical release earlier this year when it was revealed that Paramount had decided to skip theatrical release in many other major worldwide markets, instead sending the film directly to Netflix. While this was widely viewed as a vote of no confidence in the film, the finished project proves that it has nothing to do with the film’s quality and everything to do with market dynamics. Screenwriter/director Alex Garland’s cerebral take on horror sci fi simply doesn’t fit into the Hollywood blockbuster formula, so while Paramount’s bottom line may have been protected by their unusual release strategy, it shouldn’t be treated as a knock against the film. There is much to enjoy here for anyone who appreciated Garland’s directorial debut on Ex Machina or previous screenplay work such as Sunshine and 28 Days Later.
Working from an original novel by author Jeff VanderMeer, Garland weaves a tale about an alien virus that has infected a remote area of coastal Louisiana, generating a permeable dome labelled The Shimmer around the dead zone that is rapidly expanding in size. After numerous unsuccessful military missions into the area with no returning survivors, scientists are shocked when a soldier (Oscar Isaac) mysteriously returns to his home and his scientist wife Lena (Natalie Portman) after being missing in The Shimmer for months. With the husband suffering health and memory issues and being forced into shadowy government quarantine, Lena frantically volunteers to join the next mission into The Shimmer in a search for answers.
Rather than have his characters rush into The Shimmer with guns blazing, Garland sets a languid pace as they methodically examine the impact of the infection on the flora and fauna, slowly working their way closer to the epicenter. Infected animals take on new forms, such as a crocodile adding rows of shark teeth and a grotesque bear learning to mimic human speech, while flowers sprout blossoms entirely out of place for their type and plants grow into humanoid forms. Eventually, the team learns about the horrific impact on human biology as well, and while there are moments of gunfire, the film maintains its methodical quest to the source rather than dashing between visceral action scenes. While Garland’s thought-provoking slow reveal of the alien horror admittedly may not appeal to some adrenalin junkies, it’s an unsettling and deeply satisfying journey that pays off with a spine-tingling conclusion.
The film’s refreshing take on the mission team is that all of its members are highly capable women in no need of male rescue. Led by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, Dr. Ventress, all of the ladies carry serious scientific backgrounds, but also comfortably know their way around assault rifles. Making the casting even more interesting, two of the stars play against their most recent well-known type, with TV’s Jane the Virgin, Gina Rodriguez, playing by far the toughest, surliest member, while Thor: Ragnarok badass Valkyrie, Tessa Thompson, plays a meek, mousy botanist. All of the ladies put in great work, especially Portman in the well-deserved lead role.
Blu-ray technical details are above expectations thanks to the inclusion of a top-notch Dolby Atmos soundtrack for anyone with the proper gear to decode it. Older equipment will still play full 5.1 surround, expertly enveloping viewers in the otherworldly environmental sounds of the infected bayou and the excellent sparse, moody score by Geoff Barrow of Portishead and Ben Salisbury. The Blu-ray also contains 5.1 Dolby Digital audio tracks in both French and Spanish. 1080p image quality is as precise as expected, although some amazing color work in the closing minutes and credits might make some consider upgrading to 4K UHD.
The Blu-ray bonus features are extensive and superb, giving viewers an in-depth look at the production process rather than just presenting self-congratulatory interviews. While all of the principal cast members are interviewed, the features spend equal time centered on behind-the-scene crew such as the concept artist, set designers, and stunt coordinators, giving them all opportunity to speak intelligently about their work rather than just spout superficial marketing jargon. Garland has the most screen time in the bonus features, both in interviews and on-set footage such as his role operating a puppet bear head used to terrify the actresses during filming of an especially harrowing scene.
The features total well over an hour, and while they’re split into three separate segments with further chapter breaks in each, they flow seamlessly into each other so can be treated as a feature-length documentary about the making of the film. While I was thoroughly entertained throughout the features, I was especially appreciative of the look at much of concept artist Jock’s amazing artwork, as well as Oscar Isaac’s amusing revelation that he was concurrently filming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, so was bouncing back and forth between both sets at Pinewood Studios outside London, sometimes showing up to Annihilation in his Poe Dameron costume. Garland also delighted me by directly mentioning legendary comic book writer Alan Moore’s work on Swamp Thing as an inspiration for the film, as I had immediately sensed that correlation during my initial viewing. The biggest surprise was learning that the film was shot entirely in the UK, with the “backyard” of Windsor Castle convincingly standing in as Louisiana swampland thanks to impressive scouting and set dressing.
Annihilation is now available for digital purchase and arrives on Blu-ray combo pack on Tuesday, May 29th.