Film

‘Annihilation’ Has Been The Centre Of A Major Hollywood Feud. Is It Worth The Drama?

Not even Natalie Portman could get 'Annihilation' in Australian cinemas.

It’s a sad fact of life in Australia that movies often get delayed or disappear without a trace before they reach our shores.

Traditionally, distributors who had no idea what to do with a film would condemn it to DVD, but in 2018 there’s now a new way to dump movies: send them straight to streaming services. The biggest example of this to date is the highly-anticipated Annihilation, which was released in cinemas in America, Canada and China, but is destined for a March 12 release on Netflix Australia.

Annihilation is no slouch when you look at the sum of its parts. The cast is stellar: Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Oscar Isaac. The director, Alex Garland, is the guy responsible for Ex Machina as well as his screenwriting work on 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let me Go and Dredd.

It’s also based on the bestselling book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, which is part of The Southern Reach Trilogy. The story centres on a biologist (Portman) who volunteers for mission to explore a top secret area affected by an unexplained event.

Clearly, Annihilation has a lot going for it. So how did it end up on Netflix?

“Too Intellectual”

The woes began when Paramount saw a first cut of the film and began to panic. A test screening was held and the feedback was brutal.

A rift developed between the film’s producers, Scott Rudin (Lady Bird, The Social Network) and David Ellison (Geostorm, Terminator: Genysis). According to reports, Ellison began to worry the film was “too intellectual” and “too complicated”. Ellison submitted notes on how to soften the film, which included making Portman’s character more sympathetic and changing the ending.

Rudin ignored the push to change the film because Garland had an ace up his sleeve. Paramount had given Garland ‘final cut’ based on the goodwill of Ex Machina, a modestly budgeted film that became a huge hit, attracted Oscar nominations and introduced the world to Alicia Vikander. Final cut is a great privilege for a filmmaker because they get full creative control over a film; a studio can’t make changes without their permission.

Paramount began to freak out about the feud, and Garland wasn’t going to budge on the changes, so they put Annihilation up for sale with eyes on the major streaming services. Netflix offered to take the film in a deal that’s rumoured to cover a good chunk of Annihilation’s $55 million budget.

Paramount already had a relationship with Netflix because they offloaded another film, The Cloverfield Paradox, which dropped as a surprise release on Netflix during the 2018 Super Bowl. The deal allowed to Paramount to save money on promoting Annihilation worldwide because they’d only need to spend cash on advertising it as cinema release in three countries.

Another factor is that Paramount suffered one of their worst years at the box office in 2017, ending the year at a financial loss thanks to Baywatch, Ghost in the Shell and Transformers: The Last Knight.

America Says No

Sadly, Paramount’s worries were justified when Annihilation hit cinemas in America on 23 February and delivered an opening weekend of just $11 million.

Releasing in the shadow of the record-breaking Black Panther was not ideal, but Annihilation is a female-led science fiction film — not a comedy or drama — that pops at a time when the call for greater representation in the film industry is actually being heard. For all the chest beating going on at the moment, American audiences didn’t show up for Annihilation despite rave reviews and the promise of being one of the only places to see this film in a cinema.

The reaction to Annihilation in America is bringing into question the future of adult orientated films that’s aren’t part of franchises or cinematic universes. Annihilation’s fate mirrors the release of mother! — a movie that, despite a divisive reaction and lacklustre box office, still showed a studio was willing to back a risky film from Darren Aaronofsky.

Annihilation Is Worth All The Fuss

It doesn’t matter if you see this film in a cinema or on Netflix — just make sure you see it.

Annihilation is a spectacular work of science fiction that not only gets under your skin but it becomes part of it. A visceral journey into a mysterious landscape that’s lush with trippy visuals and an unnerving premise. Garland has created a film reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing but with a touch of David Lynch thrown for one of the best legal highs you’re going to get in 2018.

Like all great science fiction, Annihilation examines our self-destructive nature and looks at how depression, grief and sadness can empower us to face the shadows of the unknown. Yet it’s in our nature to destroy what we don’t understand, which is where Annihilation gets transcendental with its sci-fi premise.

Annihilation is going to stay with me for a long time in my own thoughts, dreams and nightmares. Seeing Garland’s interpretation of this story, which differs greatly from the book while being equally excellent, is the greatest victory despite the tumultuous path to getting on our screens.

Annihilation is out March 12 on Netflix Australia.

Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.