Fair warning: considerable spoilers follow – read after watching.
There are two things that stick in my craw about this film, and both detract from how good it is.
Okay, so Annihilation is a pretty great science-fiction/horror movie; the latest film written and directed by Alex Garland – who was behind the incredible Ex Machina – and based on a book series by Jeff VanderMeer, the film stars Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist who is recruited to a rescue mission into a mysterious (and otherworldly) area called The Shimmer, the same area where her recently-returned husband also went missing a year earlier.
Accompanied by a team of scientists – played by a stellar cast of women: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny – Lena ventures further into The Shimmer to discover its origins and find out what happened to her husband (who, as mentioned earlier, returned) and the rest of his team (who did not).
The mission leads Lena to a lighthouse, where The Shimmer was first observed, and she discovers that the phenomenon is being caused by an extraterrestrial being – but not before losing the rest of her team, encountering an alligator with shark teeth, fending off a bear-crocodile-human hybrid, and watching one of her teammates turn into a plant.
Honestly, you need to watch this film to get the full effect – Annihilation is one of the most inventive science fiction stories I’ve seen in a while, and boasts a fantastic cast and a truly visionary director with an eye for dramatic, unique visuals (as well as a vibrant and engrossing score, courtesy of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury). And the good news is that if you have Netflix, you can watch it right now because they released the film on Netflix.
Well, except for in the USA. For some reason – and this is the first thing that sticks in my craw – Paramount Pictures commissioned the film with a not-small-but-also-not-big budget of around $50 million (USD), then held test screenings that showed it may be “too intellectual”, then a Paramount financier, David Ellison, demanded changes from the production team (including changing the ending), at which point they were met with a “hell no” since producer Scott Rudin held final cut approval and backed director Garland.
In response, Paramount Pictures announced in early December that they had sold the international distribution rights to Netflix, who released the film everywhere (except for in the USA) on March 12. If you think this sounds like the movie-making equivalent of throwing your toys out of the cot, you’re not wrong.
“But, Chris,” you may be saying, “this is all business, why do you care where it’s released? You got to see it!”
Well, for two reasons. First, and least importantly, I would’ve loved to see this on the big screen. It seems like a great number of the years biggest upcoming films have a science-fiction bent – just in the next three months, Avengers: Infinity War will surely traverse the galaxy, Solo: A Star Wars Story will delve into the Star Wars universe, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom promises more genetically-enhanced dinosaurs than you can shake a lysine supplement at.
But very few films released into cinemas could be described as thought-provoking, smart science-fiction. Annihilation is that rare film which offers visual spectacle on the level of any of those films and a storyline that actually dares to be profound.
And secondly – and this is the second thing that sticks in my craw – the cast is insane. Natalie Portman is great in the lead role, Jennifer Jason Leigh is in the middle of a renaissance following her supporting turn in The Hateful Eight, Gina Rodriguez is an award-winner for her role on Jane The Virgin, and Tessa Thompson is having a moment thanks to roles in Creed, Thor: Ragnarok and TV’s Westworld.
And in the era of #metoo, why wouldn’t Paramount Pictures wide-release a smart, thoughtful movie with a cast led by incredible women, that totally bucks the trend of everything Hollywood is accused of being?
It astounds me that Paramount cut their losses and allowed a bad test screening or two to determine how they handled this film. And in doing so, they missed the chance to be ahead of the curve, to be talked about as a a dynamic and diverse studio that is one of the first to embrace the direction of New Hollywood.
Annihilation is an astounding film. It just bugs me that nobody releasing it seemed to see that.
Annihilation is written and directed by Alex Garland, based on the first novel in the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, and stars Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong. It is available to view on Netflix now.