‘Annihilation’ is First-Rate Studio Filmmaking – and a Troubling Precedent

This sci-fi/horror hybrid is brainy, challenging, and experimental. Those shouldn't be dirty words.

Come Friday, audiences in the United States and Canada will have the opportunity to take in Annihilation, a thrilling and scary new sci-fi movie that sounds, on paper, like a sure thing. It’s based on the first in a series of popular novels. It’s written and directed by Alex Garland, whose previous film was Ex Machina, a critical success and minor financial hit; this marks his ascendance into big, studio pictures. And its cast includes such marquee names as Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Gina Rodriguez. Sounds like a hit, right?

Well, Paramount – which financed it – doesn’t seem to think so. Last December, they sold the distribution rights for all overseas markets (save China) to Netflix, where the film will begin streaming on March 12, just 17 days after its theatrical bow. The move is, essentially, a case of a studio cutting its loses; it no longer has to spend money to advertise or distribute the film internationally, and it will recoup a nice chunk of the film’s $55 million budget from the deep-pocketed streaming giant, which in turn gets a high-profile, star-driven piece of subscriber bait. Everybody wins!

Everybody, that is, except those audiences, who will miss the opportunity to experience, in theaters, a hypnotic and visceral piece of cinema. Annihilation is a film of stunning visuals and rumbling audio, complementing a brainy and psychologically unsettling story; it deserves to be seen on a big screen in Dolby surround sound with the full attention of the viewer, rather than as Bright-level background noise while folding laundry and checking Instagram.

Not that it’s hard to guess why Paramount is playing it safe. They’re reportedly reeling from a poor test screening last summer, after which co-financier David Ellison expressed concerns that the film was “too intellectual” and “too complicated,” and y’know, his company made Geostorm and Terminator: Genysis, so he knows when things are too intellectual and complicated. (Also apparently too intellectual and complicated: the correct spelling of the word “genesis.”)

And to be fair, Annihilation is a challenging movie. First and foremost it begins – as Garland’s work often does (he also penned the scripts to 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, and Sunshine) – with a sense of joining the story in progress. There is a debriefing, after a failed mission, that asks more questions than it answers; there are relationships to be puzzled out and mysteries to be solved. He sets the viewer adrift in his storytelling, unafraid of fostering a sense of uncertainty, secure that what he is showing us is compelling enough to keep our attention until proper explanations and introductions are offered.

Slowly, the pieces come together: a war widow (Portman), now a biologist and professor, is shocked by the unexpected return of her presumably dead husband (Isaac). And he doesn’t seem like himself, and then the bleeding begins, and soon they’ve both been transported to “Area X,” where a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) explains the secret mission that he was on: to investigate “the shimmer,” a rapidly expanding bubble from from which nothing, and one, returns. “Something kills them,” the explanation goes, “or they go crazy and kill each other.”

She eventually volunteers for the next mission to investigate what lies at the heart of the “shimmer,” along with a handful of other women of science (Thompson, Rodriguez, Leigh, and Tuva Novotny). Once inside, things get tricky; they’re disoriented, the days disappearing without notice or memory. (Garland’s script plays tantalizingly with the limitations of cinematic perspective – the idea that, contrary to the customary suppressions of time and action, sometimes what we’re shown can be all that’s known.) They discover plants and animals that are mutations, corruptions, and duplicates. And then the terror begins.

When the violence comes, it is fast and it is terrifying. Your mileage may vary, but this viewer’s freakiest image was the bear-like creature whose roars are a previous victim’s cry for help – which is somehow, somehow even scarier than it sounds. Yet Garland doesn’t stoop to cheap tricks or jump scares; his stark, sleek aesthetic, paired with Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s tense, frightening score, puts us off-balance even before the scary shit begins.

There are some minor issues. As with any horror-tinged flick, the cover of darkness is a key component of the scares, but there are a couple of scenes (one of them key) where it’s just plain hard to tell what’s going on. Portman gets a rich character to play, her grief, uncertainty, and fear all manifested in her hard, haunted face, but her co-stars don’t have nearly enough to do, emotionally speaking. And a little of the big climax goes a long way; there’s a feel, by its conclusion, that if they paid for all of those effects, damnit they were going to use them all.

But you’ve got to give it this: that climax doesn’t half-step – it’s a go-for-broke, big-risk situation, even when it doesn’t entirely pay off. And the same goes for the movie; it’s strange, and brainy, and some audiences aren’t going to get it, and/or like it. And that shouldn’t be a big deal. There should be room for movies like this, in between the sequels and remakes and bullshit, because they don’t cost nearly as much as those movies, and occasionally, one of them hits.

You can see why Paramount leaned towards off-loading much of this challenging movie (and by ridding themselves entirely of their other troubled sci-fi production, God Particle aka The Cloverfield Paradox). They had a very, very rough 2017, with their three big fall releases – mother!, Downsizing, and Suburbicon – all failing to land with audiences and (most) critics, leaving them the only major studio without a single Academy Award nomination, which is part of the reason why you do prestige pictures in the fall to begin with. It’s not hard to imagine the studio’s new chairman, Jim Gianopulos (who reportedly “sat down and looked at what is theatrical, what is not in this day and age” before making the Netflix deals) seeing this movie in the same light as that slate.

But that’s the movie business, and nothing is a sure thing. Hell, even Paramount’s sure things – another Transformers and a Rock-and-Efron-fronted Baywatch flick – underperformed last year, but you don’t seem them offloading Bumblebee or the new Mission: Impossible movie to Netflix. They had a bad year! It happens! It shouldn’t mean that they simply stop taking risks on idiosyncratic filmmakers – or that when the results are a movie as unique as Annihilation, they decide it’s not worth their trouble. Sometimes it is. This one is.

“Annihilation” is out Friday.