Science fiction and thriller flicks can sometimes fall into the trap of being heavy on visual and sound effects, but light on substance. Annihilation is admirable, among other reasons, for containing both.

‘Annihilation’ Blu-Ray Review

Writer-director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) presents a thought-provoking story that on the surface is about a group of women attempting to survive in a perilous world, but at its core raises questions about the nature of humanity. Academy Award Winner Natalie Portman leads an all-star cast that also includes Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson.

Portman plays Lena, a cellular biology professor and former U.S. Army veteran who along with four other female scientists ventures into a government-quarantined area known as “The Shimmer” that is characterized by dozens of transmogrifying creatures and shifting natural landscapes. The goal of the expedition? It is not entirely clear at first, although it has something to do with a lighthouse located at the edge of the zone, and what is contained there. At the start of the film — which jumps back and forth in time — we learn that only two people are known to have emerged from the Shimmer alive: Lena and her husband Kane (Isaac), who returns from the area approximately one year after first entering it and being presumed dead following his disappearance.

Though it appears like a slow, mundane film at first, the visuals of Annihilation are captivating, beginning with the colors of the landscapes of the shimmer and the darkness and vagueness of the creatures. The eerie sounds and score also help to create a genuinely suspenseful tone. The shapeshifting animals and equally transforming landscapes aren’t simply meant to scare or amaze viewers, they play a significant role in how the women relate to each other. Top it off with stellar performances — particularly from Portman and Rodriguez — and Garland delivers a memorable psychological story.

Annihilation is not simply a feminist film with a mostly-female cast. It also poses philosophical questions about what makes us human, both physically and emotionally, and about what parts of ourselves or the world around us we are instinctively more willing to keep or destroy. In the same way Ex Machina dealt with the issues of Artificial Intelligence, servitude, and humans’ relationships with and attempts to control technology, this movie is marked by themes of determination, risk, trust and loyalty, and selfishness.

Blu-ray special features include “Refractions,” which shows how Garland created the textures and color palettes for the many environments shown in the film, “Unfathomable Mind,” which shows how the visual effects are key to the film’s story, and “For Those That Follow,” a featurette in which the cast reveals what drew them to the movie.

The ending may leave audiences slightly confused, although sometimes the strange story endings that don’t answer every question prove to be the most effective precisely because they leave viewers with a sense of suspense and uncertainty. They show that humans, much like the decisions they make and the worlds they inhabit, are larger than life and multi-dimensional.