Published On: Mon, Mar 12th, 2018

Is Netflix the new straight-to-video?

DEPENDING on your point of view, Netflix has established itself either as a haven for intelligent, challenging science-fiction drama, or as a dumping ground for follies which were too obviously flawed to merit a theatrical release. First, the streaming giant surprised subscribers by adding “The Cloverfield Paradox” to its catalogue with almost no advance warning. Then came “Mute”, a future-noir thriller directed by Duncan Jones (“Moon”, “Source Code”). Both films offer sci-fi devotees a welcome change from superhero blockbusters and “Star Wars” episodes. Unfortunately, both films are also dreadful: they have 17% and 12% critical ratings on Rotten Tomatoes respectively.

Now Netflix is releasing “Annihilation”, which is written and directed by Alex Garland, the novelist-turned-screenwriter who scripted “28 Days Later” (2002) and “Sunshine” (2007) before making his directorial debut with “Ex Machina” in 2014. It was set to be distributed by Paramount, but when test audiences were nonplussed, and Mr Garland refused to compromise his vision, the studio offloaded “Annihilation” onto Netflix. The film has now been released in American and Chinese cinemas, but elsewhere in the world you will have to watch it at home on your laptop. Some British journalists have lamented that original science-fiction is being pushed out of cinemas by mainstream mega-franchises. But it is hard to watch “Annihilation” without having some sympathy for those Paramount executives who wanted rid of it.

Adapting the award-winning novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Mr Garland has taken a 1980s soldiers-vs-aliens premise and presented as if it were a profound philosophical treatise: he has remade “Predator”, but he imagines it to be Tarkovksy’s “Stalker”. The scenario is pure pulp fiction. Three years after a meteorite crashed into the base of a Florida lighthouse, the surrounding few miles of landscape are enveloped in a beautiful iridescent force field which looks as if it is made out of carwash bubbles. The area has been designated “The Shimmer”, as if were a lip-gloss brand, and yet everyone manages to use this nickname without laughing. 

No one knows what is hiding inside The Shimmer. Nobody who has ventured through the force field’s soapy membrane has come out alive, the sole exception being a soldier (Oscar Isaac) who has been mentally and physically shattered by his experiences. This, you might assume, would be enough to keep his wife, Lina (Natalie Portman), as far away from it as possible, but she immediately volunteers to join the next reconnaissance team (luckily, she is a biology professor and an army veteran). The other members of her all-female task force, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny, are similarly well-qualified. But despite their expertise and experience, it doesn’t occur to any of them that it might be wise to wear a hazmat suit, a helmet, or any other form of protective clothing.

Inside The Shimmer, the team treks through a verdant fairy-tale forest where the flora and fauna are mutating in weird and wonderful ways: deer’s antlers have sprouted flowers, trees are shaped like human beings. There are also some gigantic animals with gigantic appetites, but Mr Garland stages their attacks with no music and with laidback camerawork and editing, as if he were perversely determined that the scenes shouldn’t be exciting. In general, “Annihilation” is paced as if everyone behind and in front of the camera were dazed and confused. The actors intone their pseudo-scientific dialogue slowly, gazing into the distance, with long pauses and minimal expression, as if they were students putting on an experimental production of a Samuel Beckett play. Ms Leigh is particularly sleepy: she sounds less like a doctor on a mission than a stoner at a party at 3am.

Presumably, this enervated air is meant to imply that the film is more serious than the average monster movie, but the clunky writing provides plenty of evidence to the contrary. As glum and obscure as it is, “Annihilation” has some silly “let’s split up” decision-making, it has various implausibly cryptic clues left by previous explorers, and it has someone who conveniently inventories her comrades’ defining traumas—“She’s an addict, she has cancer”—so that Mr Garland doesn’t have to go to the bother of developing three-dimensional characters. The film is by no means as shambolic as “The Cloverfield Paradox” or as aimless as “Mute”, but it is tightrope-walking the fine line between open-ended, mind-expanding mystery and lethargic, pretentious twaddle.

Still, if ever a film were saved by its concluding half hour, it is “Annihilation”. When Lina reaches the far side of the psychedelic wonderland, her encounters become properly eerie, thanks to some memorably surreal production design by Mark Digby and a blood-curdling score co-written by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. At this late point, the film comes close to matching the slithery body horror of “Alien” and the cosmic trippiness of “2001: A Space Odyssey”. You may even wish that you were watching it on a big screen. Before that…not so much.

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Is Netflix the new straight-to-video?