The film is based on a series of books that I had never read, and from what I understand the film takes many liberties with the storyline and characters. As his sophomore effort behind the camera, there were high expectations for what Garland would do, and the result I believe is one of the most divisive films I’ve seen in a while. This is the kind of film that gets me excited for the future of cinema, not just because I loved the film, but I love the conversation it can provoke with other filmgoers.
The film has a non-linear narrative; really, this is my only complaint, since it opens virtually where our story is nearing its end. While I usually don’t have a problem with this kind of storytelling, I’m annoyed by it this time around, because all the suspense around the survival of our lead is stripped away. The film still manages to squeeze in some head-spinning surprises at the end, so I can easily put my one measly complaint aside.
When we meet Lana (Natalie Portman), she is being observed and interrogated about her experience inside The Shimmer. Prior to her venturing into The Shimmer, no one else has made it out alive, with the exception of her husband (played by Oscar Isaac), though when he returned there was something wrong with him, and we later find out this is what motivates Lana to venture into The Shimmer in the first place.
So what is The Shimmer?
A meteor crashes along the coastal side of America. Because of the swamps we see later in the film, I’m going to guess the crash was in Florida. Following the crash, a barrier is formed that is constantly expanding. The military and its top scientists are trying to understand what it is, but they are turning up nothing.
Cue the all-woman team that Lana joins to investigate The Shimmer. Jennifer Jason Leigh comes into the film, playing a psychiatrist who is tasked with interviewing candidates for the team to venture into The Shimmer. This time around Dr.Ventress (Leigh) elects herself to be on the team. Also joining in on the adventure is Anya (Gina Rodriguez) as the muscle for the team, Josie (Tessa Thompson), the shy brains of the group, and Cass (Tuva Novotny). The group works well together, and when we see them venture into The Shimmer, as much as we like them, we know not all of them will be making it out.
As for the inside of The Shimmer, it is a beautiful and dangerous world that is meant to be appreciated on the big screen. What came to mind is when we first saw the world of Avatar how beautiful it was and how it sparked the nearly endless possibilities that could occur in this world. Garland doesn’t waste time by showing us just how dangerous this world can be, and it’s one heck of an intense scene, but that is nothing compared to what is to come.
While the interactions with the women and their adventure into The Shimmer are great, the heart of the story is the marriage between Lana and her husband. We are given fragments of their story; it’s filled with moments of sadness and joy, but it is enough to have us rooting for Lana to somehow manage the impossible. Lana is a beautifully crafted and flawed character; she’s an ex-soldier turned biologist and soldier’s wife. The range of emotion we get to see Portman perform is a reminder to how talented she really is.
The film is like a tropical hybrid of Aliens and The Thing, and there is a moment in this film where the team is in peril with one of the creatures in The Shimmer that simply ranks as one of my favorite horror moments in the past decade. But as easily as I can go on about how I loved this film, I can understand why people will hate this film.
Annihilation is a breath of fresh air to the sci-fi genre. When it comes to its end and going into the final credits, there are going to be those who just don’t like it, but that’s OK. This is a film that does leave you questioning things, whether it’s simply an opinion about the ending or deeper whether about evolution or possibly otherworldly life. If you’re worried I may have spoiled things, believe me, I barely scratched the surface of this film. I plan on re-watching the film soon to see what things I missed and to enjoy the trip to this otherworld.
Annihilation is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The ultra-high-definition 2160p image is arrived at by an HEVC codec with an average bitrate of 65 mbps. You would expect the colors from The Shimmer to be outstanding here, but they aren’t. It’s obvious some de-saturation was intentional, and the upgrade here is more in the level of detail and texture that you see a difference. On the Blu-ray there actually is a higher splatter of color, but it’s not an accurate presentation. There’s an almost haze of color on the Blu-ray that is much more stable and constant here. Here you’re looking at exactly what you are supposed to see. The original film was reported to have been filmed in 6K. I’m not sure any of that is evident here, but it is evident that the source material is not the typical 2K used for most digital films today. That’s refreshing in itself and certainly obvious in the amount of detail that is offered. Black levels and contrast play a huge role here. The film is often quite dark, and that detail is only there because of fine shadow definition and the kind of contrast only found with HDR or Dolby Vision. It’s that subtle color shift between “reality” and “shimmer” that pops here but is a mess in other versions. It’s almost as if the transfers did not know quite what to make of it all. None of that is present in the UHD. You get a stable and accurate image presentation… for whatever that’s worth.
The Dolby Atmos presentation defaults to a comfortable 7.1 track. This film is dialog-heavy, and you’ll get all of that without issue. The film has a rather unique sound design, and it’s accurately presented, to be sure. The subs are important to add depth to many of the exotic sounds. Many are piercing and somewhat unsettling, but that’s exactly what was intended. Some of those sounds can be exaggerated in volume, and I did have to toggle down just a hair during the end when the “alien” was making some abrupt tones. It’s caustic, but again intentional all the way. The action allows the surrounds to dominate with growls or gunfire, and often both. The surrounds also do an effective job of delivering the subtle environmental sounds inside The Shimmer. The sound design takes somewhat normal sounds and adds some effects that give them a somewhat otherworldly quality. All of that comes through the mix with ease. It’s as if things sound almost familiar, but not quite.
The extras are all on the Blu-ray copy of the film:
There is a three-part bonus feature, Southern Reach, Area X, and The Lighthouse. Though we don’t have a selection to simply play all three, and simply watching as a whole feature, this was clearly meant to be seen as a whole considering it covers the production from the start of the film to the finish. If played together, it would be about a 74 minute documentary.
Southern Reach (26:15) Part one introduces us to the director and producer and how they came to find the book and their motivations in adapting the novel. The author is also interviewed, giving us insight into where his ideas for the book came from as well as the characters. In this part we also get input from the director about his cast as the actors discuss their characters and what interested them about the project. We even get a bit of insight about Oscar Isaacs’ experience working on this and Star Wars at the same time.
Area X (27:07) Part two covers a good portion of what went into shooting the film and how they got an area of London to look like a Florida swamp with the help of set design. This is really one of my favorite bonus features I’ve seen in a while also, because I loved how we get to see what went into creating “The Alligator attack” as well as “The Bear” sequences. I don’t want to get into spoilers here, but it’s really great to see how much of this was done with practical effects as well as seeing that the women did a good portion of their own stunt work.
To the Lighthouse (19:43) Part three gives us a look at what went into actually creating the look of “The Shimmer” as well as the alien we see at the end of the film. What is also added here is the director giving his explanation for what this all means. This will be especially helpful for those that came out of this film scratching their noggin about what they had just seen…though I’m pretty sure some will still have their own thoughts about their experience.
After watching the film again and going over all the bonus material, I still feel this is the best film I’ve seen so far this year, and it is definitely one of my favorite sci-fi films that I’ve seen. I originally gave this film a 4, but watching it a second time I can’t help but love this film more, as I caught more information with my second go around. It’s a shame how this film simply didn’t get a proper push for its theatrical release, because this is a film that works so well on the big screen. This will continue to have a cult status, but I’m sure in time this will be hailed as one of the great science fiction films of the past decade. It’s smart; it’s thrilling and as beautiful as it is horrifying. This is simply one of the must-see films of the year.
Parts of this review were written by Gino Sassani