It sucks, doesn’t it, that online streaming services are fast becoming the last bastion of off-beat film? It seems that there is no place for the left-field in multiplex cinemas, home of the cinematic universe, goggle-eyed kids flicks and the Zac Efron vom-com.
When Marvel debuted 2008’s Iron Man they cannot have known that in pushing the boundaries of scale and long-term vision they had in fact spawned the virus that was to be the death of cinema as we knew it. What was explored in decades previous as mere franchise was stretched to breaking point. Cue present day and the concept of franchise has been morphed into mere commodity. It’s fair to say that – outside of children or genre fans – no one really cares anymore, but most feel compelled to make the pilgrimage anyway.
Annihilation, the latest film by buzz-worthy Britsh director Alex Garland, is the perfect example of how present-day habits of cinemagoers have damaged the potential of truly original work. Only the second feature by Garland – who burst onto the scene with his acclaimed 2015 sci-fi Ex Machina – Annihilation is adapted from the Jeff VanderMeer novel of the same name and follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and former soldier who is enlisted to investigate the “Shimmer” following the suspicious reappearance of her husband (Oscar Isaac), who has been missing for a year.
With an all-star cast including Portman, Isaac, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriquez, Tuva Novotny, Benedict Wong and Jennifer Jason Leigh, it had major potential to be an alternative success – so much so that Paramount Pictures stumped up $55 million for it. But following poor test screenings and worries that the film was “too intelligent” and “too complicated” Paramount financier David Ellison demanded changes – including an alternate ending and making Lena more sympathetic – to appease audiences. Producer Scott Rudin and Garland refused, and just like that its international release (China aside) was pushed onto Netflix, the movie apparently too risky following the underperformance of similar outings Mother! and Suburbicon.
Garland later said of the debacle:
“We made the film for cinema. I’ve got no problem with the small screen at all. The best genre piece I’ve seen in a long time was The Handmaid’s Tale, so I think there’s incredible potential within that context, but if you’re doing that – you make it for that and you think of it in those terms. Look… it is what it is. The film is getting a theatrical release in the States, which I’m really pleased about.
One of the big pluses of Netflix is that it goes out to a lot of people and you don’t have that strange opening weekend thing where you’re wondering if anyone is going to turn up and then if they don’t, it vanishes from cinema screens in two weeks. So it’s got pluses and minuses, 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.”
But why did Ellison, of Skydance Media, and Paramount ultimately decide that Annihilation wasn’t worth the risk? It had bankable actors, critically acclaimed source material and a director whose previous release received a plethora of nominations including Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. Surely there was an eager audience? Judging on the $11 million it made on its U.S opening weekend – modest by any film’s standards – perhaps Ellison made the right call. But the press generated by the shift to Netflix has only garnered more attention to a film that may have otherwise slipped under the box office radar.
There are positives to the Netflix shift, ones that only benefit the viewer and not the studio. Viewing the film is essentially “free” if we’re not counting the general subscription price. There is no dishing out for overpriced popcorn. Then there is the convenience factor, but despite such flexibility Netflix recently stated that 70% of its users persist in viewing its content on TV as opposed to tablets or mobile phones.  No doubt this will be some music to Garland’s ears, given the grotesquely beautiful and colourful visuals best viewed on a large screen.
Currently certified 87% fresh (thanks Rotten Tomatoes) with an audience rating of 67%, Annihilation has clearly resonated with someone. It’s parallels with 2016’s Arrival in being multilayered, understated yet grandiose, continues a subtler wave of science fiction film most notably ushered in by Ex Machina itself. When there is action, it is justified. When there are jumps, death and confrontation, the plot pays off. Annihilation deals in intelligent conversation. Perhaps studios would benefit from respecting their audience a little bit more.