This sci fi film had controversy brewing well before its release. Reportedly a money man at Paramount decided Annihilation was too intellectual and complicated for a broad cinema audience, a position the film makers strongly disagreed with. The end result was that while audiences in the USA and China got to see it at the cinema, the rest of us were restricted to a smaller screen, on Netflix.
I guess it costs more to screen a film at the cinema than to have it available on a home subscription service, and yes, Annihilation is a serious sci fi drama. While it has its share of thrills and action, it more firmly sits alongside 2016’s Denis Villeneuve helmed Arrival (with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner) than anything in the Star Wars camp. The cynic in me wonders if there are other reasons than the suggested “intellectual and complicated “ argument, but I’ll get to that later. Let’s get on to the movie itself.
Annihilation involves a threat to the planet posed from an alien entity which crashes into Earth near a lighthouse, and sets up a type of bubble, or “shimmer” around it. Scientists aren’t sure what’s going on inside the shimmer, other than whatever is sent in there doesn’t come back. That is, until one man does. He’s Kane (Oscar Isaac), a soldier and the husband of biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). Everyone thought Kane was dead, and now he’s back, the sole survivor of a team sent in to investigate the shimmer. But Kane is different somehow, and so the need to get inside the shimmer to find out what it does is heightened. So another team goes in, including Lena, and four other women scientists- Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Radek (Tessa Thompson).
They’re scientists but they’re dressed like soldiers, and they carry guns, which indeed they use. So Annihilation offers some sci fi thrills and suspense, but its biggest driver lies in mystery. What does the shimmer do, to all manner of life, plant and animal? To say anything more would spoil the story, but suffice to say that while the title of the film suggests an end to all things, the answer to the shimmer’s mystery may involve other results.
Is the film too complicated and intellectual? It is told in several timelines, and that does keep you guessing as to where the story is headed. The motivations of some characters are also left deliberately unclear. And the ending is definitely open to interpretation. Things are not left nicely wrapped up in a bow.
I’d have thought all this is a good thing, especially in a science fiction film. I found the blend of action and thought provoking drama held my attention to the end. The acting is of a high standard, and Natalie Portman skilfully plays the lead, in a role which calls on her both to engage in heavy emotional drama, and to fire a gun with the best of them.
But what was that bloke from Paramount really concerned about? There’ve been all manner of complicated and intellectual science fiction movies given wide release, from 2001: A Space Odyssey right through to the aforementioned Arrival in 2016. This might be unfair, but I couldn’t help but wonder if that money man thought a female dominated cast might not draw enough men to the cinema. It’s true that so far Annihilation has not done big business at the U.S. box office, but then few films have in recent weeks, as Black Panther has continued to dominate.
For what it’s worth I think Annihilation would have been an even better watch on the big screen. It’s visuals would have translated well. It has the star power in its cast. But I don’t think it’s going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps not enough action for some, and too much for others. I enjoyed it, and if you have access to Netflix, you can form your own view. I’d like to hear what your thoughts are on this one.