The story around Annihilation (2018) is just as interesting as the film itself. It will probably go down in history as not only a cult classic for science fiction and horror fans, but it is also part of the ongoing story of big movie releases going to Netflix. Annihilation’s move to Netflix shows an almost inevitable move by production companies to choose a release on streaming services as another tool for their marketing strategies. A precedent is set that if a movie is doing badly in theatres, it might just disappear quickly from the theatres or never arrive in on the big screen at all in other countries. A development that fills me with sadness.
The whole world of film enthusiasts was surprised to hear that Annihilation, a warmly anticipated film, only opened theatrically in the US, Canada and China for a few weeks. Beforehand, all signs pointed towards a major theatrical event: the film features well-known actors such as Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac, and good hope existed for a high-quality film, since director Alex Garland helmed the thing, fresh off his great success with Ex Machina in 2015.
My disappointment turned into scorn as the producers justified their decision by saying that the film was “too cerebral” for theatres. Never mind all the odd movies that appear at the local art house theatre. But as Dan Murrell from ScreenJunkies explained, there is a history behind this decision. The financiers had booked heavy losses last year with the incredibly dumb movie Geostorm (2017) and were loath to take risk (but you could hardly call Geostorm too cerebral), and Paramount watched the lukewarm reaction to Blade Runner 2049 (2017) by general audiences and similarly got cold feet. Thanks, Gerard Butler.
Luckily, a friend of mine had a Netflix subscription so we watched the movie together. The story concerns a mysterious area in the swamps of the southern US that is hidden behind an expanding barrier, and every exploration team that enters it, end up killed or lost through strange circumstances. Lena (Natalie Portman) enters Area X because her husband once did too, but came back as something like a zombie. She, a biologist, is part of an all-female team including a psychiatrist and a physicist. You could see it as a modern-day version of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).
What’s very interesting about this film, and this is something that the guys from RedLetterMedia already mentioned, is that this is a film full of female scientists and soldiers, doing sciency things and soldiery things, and nobody talks about it the way people talked about, say, Wonder Woman (2017). Maybe because this is not such a blockbuster.
The movie succeeds magnificently as both a science fiction film and a horror film. There are some moments that froze my blood solid. It has a nightmarish feeling of not-understanding, and a creeping feeling of paranoia. At the same time, there are scientific concepts behind all the creepiness and the story engages with all these scientific hints in a way that is very satisfying. It shows nature mutating, growing over everything like fungi, and in those growths we see the hints of what happened to earlier expeditions.
The final half hour is a fantastically chilling confrontation with the unknown, the other. The book by Jeff Vandermeer is even better in this regard. It is very creepy but if we truly understand what is going on based on all the hints and explanations, there is no real evil present anywhere.
Not everything is perfect about this film. The first hour I thought was too slow, all the characters were too subdued and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character annoyed me. This is mostly deliberately done, but I found it hard to get into it. The story works like a slow burn, where at first I waited for things to start happening, and then I kept thinking about it for days afterwards. The more you think about it, the better it gets.
If you like your science fiction slow, smart and creepy, this is a must-see.