Annihilation had it all. Big-name stars like Oscar winner Natalie Portman, Star Wars’ Oscar Isaac, The Hateful Eight’s Jennifer Jason Leigh, Thor: Ragnarok’s Tessa Thompson and Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez.
An impressive writer/director in The Beach author Alex Garland, who wowed audiences with his debut film, the provocatively smart sci-fi Ex Machina.
Based on The New York Times-bestselling Southern Reach Trilogy by author Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation bore a strong resemblance to the similarly cerebral Arrival, which scored eight Oscar nominations and one win.
And yet the smart, spooky, visually stunning movie will never see cinema screens outside of America. Paramount yanked the international release at the last minute, with trailers already in cinemas, amid rumours of “creative differences” with Garland and poor reactions at test screenings.
It will instead head straight to Netflix in Australia on March 12.
An undoubtedly challenging film posing more big questions than it answers, Portman plays ex-military biologist Lena, heading into a bizarre alien touchdown site in Florida surrounded by a mysterious shimmering force field, from which almost no one returns.
Except her missing, presumed-dead soldier husband Kane (Isaac) who’s back, but not quite right. Determined to find out what happened to him, she heads into ‘the shimmer’ with an all-female team of combat-ready scientists. Pretty soon they’re hunted down by animal/plant hybrid mutations.
Yes, it’s weird, but in a soul-searchingly haunting way that shares DNA with Arrival, particularly its non-linear structure revealing Lena’s love life, spliced with alien first contact.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy hailed Annihilation as “a ferocious, feral, female-centric update of fearsome monster classics like The Thing and Alien”, that was “one classy serving of cinematic red meat”.
Entertainment Weekly’s Leah Greenblatt called it “a lavish, magnificently unnerving visual feast … the kind of film that leaves you dazzled, shell-shocked”.
One obvious reason for Paramount’s decision to limit the film’s release is its bad box office run. Baywatch, Transformers: The Last Knight, Ben-Hur, Ghost in the Shell and Downsizing all tanked.
Cinemagoers are flocking to franchises like Disney’s Star Wars and Marvel, but with ticket prices north of $20, they’re more likely to stream at home with so much on offer than try out alternative fare like Annihilation, even with big names involved. Look at the poor numbers on Paramount’s Mother! with Jennifer Lawrence.
The studio will be counting on Mission: Impossible – Fallout doing the business, possibly focusing all its energies on that at the expense of the trickier Annihilation.
Financially it needs a win, and while the MI series has performed well in the past, Tom Cruise has been on a long losing streak with American Made, The Mummy, Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow. There will be several Paramount suits worrying about their own annihilation.