An autopsy of the widely snubbed sci-fi masterpiece.
I just want to say upfront that “Annihilation” is truly a great film. Its unique plot structure, attention to detail, score and mesmerizing production design create an incredible movie-going experience. Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Gina Rodriguez give standout performances, and director Alex Garland clearly has a strong aesthetic and is able to carry the themes of the film throughout very effectively.
Many great reviews have already been written about “Annihilation,” so instead of writing one myself, I will perform an autopsy on the film.
By definition, autopsy assumes death. This is not necessarily the case with “Annihilation,” which is still frequently discussed in online cinephile circles and is considered one of the biggest snubs at the Oscars this year.
From the studio’s perspective, however, the film was a total failure. At the box office, it made $43 million against its $40-55 million production budget, severely lower than its projected gross.
While some may blame “Annihilation”’s ambiguity, mostly female cast, mid-sized budget and unconventional narrative for the movie’s flop, some have suggested that the fault is not within the movie, but within the industry.
Indiewire’s Chris O’Falt compares “Annihilation” to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” on the basis that there were similar audience reactions to both films. While “2001” is now considered the indispensable American science-fiction film, it was not well-received by the culture at-large upon release.
Similarly, “Annihilation” was poorly received in test screenings and David Ellision, the head of Skydance Productions, called the film “too complicated” and “too intellectual.”
While Ellision, the man responsible for the critically panned “Geostorm” (grossed $33 million with a $120 million budget) and “Terminator: Genysis” ($90 million with a $155 million budget), may not seem like the arbiter of good taste, “Annihilation” was nevertheless gutted by the studio. It was sold to Netflix for foreign distribution and had a deeply underfunded marketing campaign.
From “Annihilation”’s failure from a financial standpoint, it is clear to see why it was completely locked out of any award nominations at this year’s Academy Awards.
The Academy shocked almost everybody in 2015 when it gave the Best Visual Effects award to Garland’s previous film “Ex Machina,” beating “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “The Revenant,” “The Martian,” and even the visually stunning “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
This year, however, after the troubled post-production of “Annihilation”, Garland’s film was left cold by the studio in regards to any sort of Oscar campaign and the film did not receive a single nomination in any category.
As a viewer, I believe the film clearly deserves Best Sound Mixing/Editing, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Score and even Best Director nominations. The fact that it was completely shut out of any of these is disappointing.
To assume that audiences refuse to see ambiguous films is a mistake. In the past half-decade, audiences have reacted very well to the artistic choices in films like “Skyfall,” “Inception,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” “Ex Machina” and “Prometheus,” with all of these films being either moderate successes or massive hits. The other assumption that female-led films are a risk has been disproven by virtually every Disney film or young-adult adaptation of the last five years.
Subverting expectations may have only netted Garland part of the audience in the initial run, but if the end result is a great film. It will be remembered. Studios are the ones who have to consider whether they want short-term success but end up forgettable, or if they want to make memorable films that may not do well initially, but go on to become classics.
I hope that more viewers take another look at this film now that Oscar season is upon us. I also hope viewers who missed it the first time around, when it was released in early 2018, will take the time to appreciate its uniqueness in the current sci-fi landscape.
Gaebe is an Opinion Writer.