A few months before it was released in the United States, Paramount sold the international distribution rights for its upcoming sci-fi film Annihilation to Netflix. This was an extremely unusual move for a major studio, because it signaled that they had no confidence in the film. Netflix has increasingly become the dumping ground for legitimately bad studio misfires, like The Cloverfield Paradox, but Annihilation did not really seem at first blush to belong to that level of rubbernecking trash - it was a high concept sci-fi film starring Natalie Portman and helmed by Ex Machina director Alex Garland. Was it really so bad that the studio needed to panic sell it to Netflix to try and recoup some of its costs?
Garland certainly didn't think so: "We made the film for cinema. Look… it is what it is. The film is getting a theatrical release in the States, which I'm really pleased about. But from my point of view and the collective of the people who made it, it was made to be seen on a big screen." And after watching the film (on Netflix) I think he is right. This is not schlock. It's not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad film (I will detail the merits of the film below). It's up there with some of the best high concept sci-fi of recent memory, including Arrival.
So what happened? Well, Hollywood financing happened. The film was co-financed by Skydance Media, the CEO of which is David Ellison, son of walking money bag and Oracle founder Larry Ellison. Just to sort of establish the stakes here, David Ellison has the kind of face that would instinctively make a steel worker from 1960s Pittsburgh want to punch him in it. Last year, Skydance lost a ton of money on the open sewer that was Geostorm. Now, Geostorm was a fucking awful movie. It had absolutely no redeeming qualities, and both the studio and the director and Skydance and all parties knew it was a turd long before it came out. But it was also what might be loosely termed a sci-fi movie, so when Annihilation tested poorly during screenings last summer, Ellison panicked. He demanded the film be re-shot because it was "too intellectual." The film's producer, Scott Rudin, refused - and Rudin had final cut. They ultimately split the difference, giving the film a theatrical release in the US and letting Netflix run with the international distribution.
The movie more or less made its budget back during its domestic release. Would it have been even more successful if the studio had backed it with confidence and given it a proper international release? We will never know. But it is disheartening that the money people financing the film tried to knee-cap it because they believed the public at large wouldn't be able to understand it. I will admit, the film will go over a lot of heads. It is hard sci-fi, doesn't hand-hold the audience, and has a very ambiguous resolution that asks more questions than it answers. That films like these are being punished before they even get out of the gate for the simple fact that they dare to be different and experimental makes me sad. That kind of attitude is killing good cinema and pushes studios to only produce boring and formulaic films with proven track records.
Science fiction is meant to push boundaries, to alienate, to ask probing questions and not necessarily answer them and this film has all of that. It opens with an asteroid smashing a light house, and quickly sets up the stakes - the Shimmer, some kind of unexplained phenomenon, is slowly expanding in the Florida swamps. Anyone who goes in doesn't come out. So naturally, a team of lady scientists decide to go in and investigate. It's a classic sci-fi premise: assemble a group of experts from various fields to investigate an unexplained phenomenon. Have them bond/fight. Some of them die. Secrets revealed. Culminate in a trippy experience. Boom. Just described the plot of 2001, Jurassic Park, Arrival and every other classic of the genre.
So what do they find inside the Shimmer [spoilers follow]? Well, basically that it is distorting and re-arranging reality. The scientific explanation for this is hand-waving nonsense, so don't think about the details too hard. Instead, look at the bigger picture that the movie is going for. First it's about how the deeper these ladies travel into the unknown, and experience increasingly strange things, the more they learn about themselves, even the dark and horrible parts of themselves that they are normally able to ignore. The question of who we are is then further turned into a question about what we are, what is this universe we all share together, what does it mean, what are we made of? The answers here get really trippy and you might need to take a bong hit to make any sense of it. And really, there are no neat answers to any of the questions. When the team finally arrives at the lighthouse, they make contact with some kind of alien but its true purpose remains unknowable - although apparently it's a fan of Russian literature because doppelgangers are a big part of whatever it's doing.
This idea that if life arrives from outside our world it will be so different that we won't be able to understand it is one of the most interesting in science fiction, and it comes straight from Stanisław Lem's classic Solaris. It even gets at the basic question of what is life and what is purpose and why do we understand reality in the way we do? We never do understand why these things are happening in the Shimmer. Is it being done with evil or benign intent? Could an alien life form even understand such concepts? We don't know. This is, of course, confusing because we like hard and fast explanations. But that's the genre. If they wrapped everything up in a neat little bow it would have diminished the film and undercut its central theme, which is about the unknowable mysteries of the universe and ourselves.
Meanwhile, even if you're not into all that mind-bending stuff, the movie is still full of arresting and strangely beautiful images, like a pair of deer with flowering tree branches for antlers, bushes that have grown into human form or the mutilated body of a solider that has been somehow changed into something both grotesque and mesmerizing. I think this was a great film. It was clever, intellectual, visually interesting and it poked around at ideas that require you to put your thinking cap on. In short, it's a good, hard sci-fi film and the fact that some entitled Hollywood financier wanted to put the kibosh on it simply for being what it was meant to be is pretty fucked up.