There has been so much kerfuffle around Annihilation, the drama has, in recent months, threatened to spill over into, well, actual annihilation. In case you've missed the headlines, this whip-smart science-fiction film comes with a starry cast and writer-director Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, Dredd) attached. It's based on the Nebula Award winning novel by Jeff VanderMeer. It has received rave notices in the US on its limited theatrical release.
But here, as with the much-maligned Cloverfield Paradox, it was dumped by its distributor Paramount, and will go straight to Netflix.
The film's troubled pre-release history began when the studio saw an early cut of the film and panicked. A rift soon developed between Annihilation's producers. In the red corner, Scott Rudin, the producer of such fine films as The Social Network and Lady Bird, stood over Garland's right to a "final cut".
In the blue corner, David Ellison, the producer of not-so-fine films Geostorm and Terminator: Genysis, complained that Annihilation was "too intellectual" and wanted to soften Portman's character.
It would be sweet if Ellison had been proved wrong in this latest stand-off between art and commerce.
But in the current superhero-or-bust marketplace, even the modest box office successes scored by Arrival and Ex-Machina (Alex Garland's previous film) now look to be out of reach. Those asking where all the clever science-fiction has gone need only look at the empty seats around them.
For all the ecstatic reviews (and an Oscar for director of photography Roger Deakins), the producers of Blade Runner 2049 lost an estimated $80 million on the sci-fi sequel. With a similar damp fizzle, Annihilation opened to a paltry $11 million in the US on February 23rd.
This may be a great pity, but truth be told, the film’s slightly ropey CG aurora borealis effects and extra-terrestrial doodles could only have looked ropier on a larger screen.
That's a minor caveat. The rest of the film is pretty terrific, if a little derivative of Tarkovsky's Stalker.
Lena (Portman, in yet another interesting career move) is a cellular biologist and former soldier who is debriefed about a mysterious mission. Flashbacks reveal that her husband, Kane (Isaacs) returned from a military mission into a place known as “the shimmer” or “Area X”, a site that was hit by a meteor.
Determined to find out what happened to Kane – who has no recollection of coming home and who promptly falls into a coma – Lena teams up with Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist (Thompson), a geologist (Novotny) and a paramedic (Rodriguez), and ventures into Area X.
Almost immediately, the group begin to suffer from gaps in memory and lose all track of time. No one, bar Kane, has even returned from this trippy location, where nothing is certain, even at a basic cellular level.
The more familiar aspects of Annihilation are enlivened by the entirely female dynamic, who seldom conform to simplistic group archetypes. Lena, too, is a complicated heroine with complicated feelings about her husband. This is no ordinary gender-swapped rescue mission: her journey is motivated as much by guilt and obligation as it is by love. As with Portman's Jackie, her inner-turmoil is masked by permafrost.
Barring the occasional not-so-special effect, the tech specs – including Rob Hardy’s cinematography, Barney Pilling’s appositely discombobulating cuts, and Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s freaky score – are appealing.
The tragedy here is not that Annihilation has gone straight to Netflix. The tragedy is that this promising, intriguing film, which ought to have been the first instalment from VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy – is unlikely to spawn a sequel.
Unless, of course, some streaming juggernaut can come to the rescue.