Reports of the death of ambitious, original cinema have been greatly exaggerated. Alex Garland’s Annihilation is the latest to prove it, and it does so in breathtaking, brain-swirling style.
The sci-fi horror, which stars Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Oscar Isaac, began life at Paramount, with a script based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. An existing property, with big names and a smart filmmaker, fresh from Ex Machina‘s Oscar win for FX and nomination for Original Screenplay? The signs were all positive, and the trailers striking. But a few months before its release, Paramount got cold feet, signing a deal with Netflix to distribute the film online everywhere outside of the USA.
What went wrong? If anything, the problem was everything went right. Garland has produced a script that is uncompromisingly profound and crafted a world inside The Shimmer – an expanding supernatural zone from which no one ever returns – that is jaw-droppingly beautiful and impossibly creepy. A film about identity, grief, disease, change and more, all wrapped up in the body horror of cellular biology, it’s one of the best films of the year, and undoubtedly ranks alongside Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and Garland’s Sunshine (directed by Danny Boyle) as one of modern cinema’s great sci-fis.
Producer David Ellison, though, worried it was too intellectual for audiences, fearing a poor return at the box office. Fortunately, producer Scott Rudin had final cut and sided with Garland, blocking any changes to its final act. As a result, Paramount went ahead with a domestic theatrical release, but decided to hedge any financial losses by pre-selling the international rights – a compromise driven by Hollywood money and studio politics.
While Annihilation is a victim of that frustrating double blow, it’s far from the first to perform such a jump into streaming waters. The Cloverfield Paradox made a similar leap last month, given a surprise event release immediately after the Super Bowl. So does this online premiere in the UK spell the death nell for grown-up blockbusters that are too big for arthouse cinemas but not homogenous enough for multiplexes?
Far from it.
Annihilation is, in part, a film about transformation, capturing the visceral terror of what everything has the potential to become. It’s oddly fitting, then, that it should become the current face of the movie industry’s ongoing evolution, one that’s plagued by fear of the unknown and the new. There are producers in denial that a female-led blockbuster can draw a crowd (despite multiple successes to disprove that absurd myth), financiers unwilling to bet big on creative talent in the face of lazy remakes, and studios still stuck in old-fashioned habits of franchises that are white and male.
On the other side of the fence, there are those who are equally afraid of the web, who worry that the rise of streaming services means that cinema is going to fade to black. Arthouse distributors such as Curzon, though, have proven that films such as 45 Years and A Fantastic Woman can perform at the theatrical box office when released day-and-date online. (The Chilean Oscar contender debuted at number 18 in the UK box office chart, with the third best screen average that week, behind Black Panther and Red Sparrow.) Netflix and Amazon Studios, meanwhile, have emerged as supporters of some of cinema’s brightest talents, becoming cheerleaders for the endangered mid-budget projects that give indie talent a chance to flex their muscles.
In February, Netflix released Mute, years after it was first written by Duncan Jones. In 2017, Netflix produced Okja, the tale of a genetically engineered super-pig by Bong Joon-ho. In 2016, Amazon acquired Manchester by the Sea, helping Kenneth Lonergan’s drama to become an eventual Oscar winner. Mute was a film that had been sat in a corner waiting to be made by the Moon and Source Code director. Manchester by the Sea performed better than Lonergan’s Margaret, which shown quietly in essentially one UK cinema, when Fox released it in 2011. Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, meanwhile, is still yet to be released in the UK at all. When a film such as Snowpiercer – a superb dystopian sci-fi – can’t legally be seen on either the big or small screen, Annihilation’s speedy arrival in our living rooms is something to celebrate.
Sound of My Voice, the dazzling genre flick from Zal Batmanglij, was woefully underseen after it followed Margaret into Odeon Panton Street – the sole cinema in London that fights to programme things that otherwise wouldn’t be screened theatrically. It’s no surprise, then, that Zal and collaborator Brit Marling have since migrated to Netflix, where they produced the stunningly unique The OA. Their series boasts visuals and imagination that would blow you away on a big screen, but on the small screen, it’s available to watch on any device anywhere in the world – a sizeable improvement over Panton Street’s single screen, where anyone outside of the UK capital would struggle to find it, let alone hear about it.
There is real magic to experiencing a movie in a darkened room with other people. But the spellbinding power of storytelling has long entranced audiences at home as well as in cinemas, neither to the detriment of the other. In an ideal world, Hollywood would have faith in moviegoing audiences, bucking their self-created trend for male-centric mainstream tentpoles. Cinemas and streaming services, meanwhile, would get along more, resolving their ongoing debate about exclusive windows and profit sharing to find a way to release titles in both theatres and online – enabling streaming sites to help shoulder the risk of purportedly less commercial fare, and empowering audiences to enjoy the widest possible range of entertainment.
But art, above all, should be accessible: movies, after all, are made to be seen. Given a choice between watching Annihilation in a living room (lights off, speakers up) and not being able to because a distributor hasn’t made it available, the VOD route wins every time. At the time of writing, Garland’s modern classic has taken in around $26 million at the US box office. Does that prove Paramount, a studio that dared to back Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! but is also suffering financially, right? Who knows? It does, however, reiterate the importance of Netflix et al., whose business model is driven less by old-fashioned takings and more by building up a library diverse enough to keep individuals paying a monthly fee for content they like.
Annihilation’s release is a signifier not of death, or disaster, but of change. You only need to click a button to witness its spectacle for yourself, unaltered by a timid Hollywood suit. Bold genre movies with big budgets and even bigger ideas haven’t gone away – some of them have just moved to a new home. It’s easy to tarnish a “Netflix movie” with a sub-cinema brush (every Hollywood studio, of course, has its shares of hits and misses), but we’re a long way from the straight-to-video bargain bins of decades past, with 4K streaming to impress your eyeballs and social media to encourage debate and share recommendations. Best of all, Netflix’s films aren’t a marketing flash-in-the-pan with a time limit; they can be easily watched for decades and decades to come, at a price that is less exclusive than many cinema chains.
The idea that Annihilation has been dumped on Netflix to be forgotten about is a self-fulfilling argument that does nobody any favours. Things only languish into obscurity online if you let them – and here at VODzilla.co, we don’t let them. So while Annihilation bypasses cinemas in this country, do call out the movie industry for its lack of faith in filmmakers and film lovers; petition Netflix to team up with Curzon cinemas more to release its original movies theatrically in the UK; support smaller titles that do have cinema releases where possible; but don’t spend your time lamenting the decline of cinema when the art of the visual medium is alive and kicking through Annihilation, in US theatres and on UK computers, phones, tablets and TVs. There are many more interesting aspects of Alex Garland’s film that merit discussion instead. We’d recommend starting with our review here.
Annihilation is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.