Hollywood has a big problem.
26 days ago, Black Panther came out and has proven to be a monumental success. It has already passed the 1-billion-dollar mark in total gross, and has a realistic chance of ending its theatrical run as one of the top five domestic grossing films of all time. It has been heralded as a groundbreaking action film that is more thought provoking, and deals with issues that amount to far more than just punching the bad guy in the face. It has the highest Rotten Tomato score of any of the Marvel films at 97%, with only the original Iron Man being within five percentage points of it. In the three plus weeks since its release, it has been a dominant force not only at the box office, but also culturally- after all, it is one of the most thought provoking action films in recent memory.
But that is the thing with Black Panther; while it may dabble in larger socio-political issues (which, granted, is its greatest strength), it is still an action film. It contains all of the necessary attributes of a modern action film, and it does not deviate far from the formula that has made the MCU so successful. Structurally, it does nothing that a hundred other action films before have done, as it continues to up the ante and feel the need to make the spectacles bigger and bigger in order to compete with its peers. It may deal with more significant issues than most other action films, but it is still an action film- an action film that is devouring all of the attention that could otherwise be paid to a film that is first and foremost thought provoking: Annihilation.
What appears to be a 21st century version of The Thing early on, changes and evolves into one of the mos original and creative sci-fi films in the past few decades.
Annihilation is the best film of the year so far, is on the short list of best sci-fi films of this century, and may very well be the best sci-fi film of the past 25 years. Yet it has one significant problem- no one has ever heard of it. Being in only its second week of release, no films could knock off Black Panther, as it followed up its massive 4202 million o9pening weekend with a paltry $111 million. Annihilation came in fourth its opening week with a very modest $11 million- which was not even double what the Jumanji sequel made, a film in its 10th week in theaters. Part of the problem is that it had a fairly limited release, with only 2012 screens showing the film which is nearly half of Black Panther.
Most of these numbers are to be expected of a film that is far more niche than the first big action film of the year. Of course a serious sci-fi film is going to pale in comparison to a much anticipated Marvel film. The most puzzling aspect of this is its advertising, or should I say the seemingly complete absence of advertising. Even mega-flop, Samson had some television commercials, so where was all of the advertising for this film? No tv spots, no banner ads on the internet, and little to no buzz or word-of-mouth leading up to its release. It is a wonder that anyone who has gone to see this film considering its utter lack of promotion.
A sci-fi thriller featuring an Academy Award winning actress (Natalie Portman), an Academy Award nominated actress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an actress fresh off a major role in another Marvel film, Thor: Ragnarok (Tessa Thompson), one of the best male actors in the business right now (Oscar Issac), and made by an Academy Award nominated writer/director Alex Garland should be easy to promote. Even mother! had some trailers, and it is far less palatable than Annihilation– and not nearly as good either. Poor advertising is one thing, not even having the confidence to put it in theaters is another. While folks here in the U.S. have the chance to see this film as it is intended- on the big screen- viewers from every other corner of the globe can only view the film via Netflix. Paramount had so little confidence in this film that it did the modern equivalent of a straight-to-home-video release.
This should’ve been easy to advertise for, after all, who wouldn’t want to see Natalie Portman dissect a mutated alligator?
We’ve arrived at the main question surrounding the release of this film, “Why?” Why would Paramount abandon this film, and stick it onto Netflix-giving it the Alan Smithee treatment? The first issue is budget. Ex Machina, Garland’s directorial debut, made a very modest $36 million at the box office, but that was on an even more modest $15 million budget. The reported budget for Annihilation is in the $40-$55 million range, with advertising costs potentially making it even higher, though it is hard to imagine that number being very high. In its 17 days in theaters, it has pulled together $26 million, and has a shot at covering its budget- especially with Netflix taking on part of that cost in order to land the international screening rights. Though nowhere near budget size of films such as Transformers: The Last Knight, or Ghost in the Shell, it was still apparently too risky for Paramount to put the full weight of the studio behind.
The second issue may be the intelligence level of the film, and that fact that it may be too high, if that is even possible. According to the Hollywood Reporter, test screenings following the film’s completion were poor enough to rattle Paramount’s confidence in the film, which prompted the Netflix deal. One of the producers of the film that was behind this decision was David Ellison. He wanted to reshoot aspects of the film to make it more appealing to mainstream audiences. The director with the backing of the other executive producer stood his ground and we got the tepid release we have now. What I really want to know is why a guy who produced films such as Geostorm, Baywatch, and Terminator Genisys thinks he knows what mainstream audiences want. Those three films have a combined domestic gross of just over $220 million dollars, so who gave this guy enough power to make him the arbiter of mainstream taste?
For just a moment, let’s pretend that that Ellison is correct, and Annihilation was indeed too smart for mainstream audiences. A film dealing with complex allegorical symbols, fairly heavy science that is not easy to parse into a few buzzwords or simple sentences may be too much for the average movie goer to wrap their head around. If this is indeed the case, then we have a problem on our hands. The folks who make films, or fund them, seem to think that we are all a bunch of simpletons who only like to watch explosions and good guys punching bad guys. If a film is not part of a franchise or known brand, and if it requires even an ounce of thought, then producers are going to be hesitant to put a lot of resources behind it. Further, if a film entices any brain activity from the audience than it seems to automatically become a risky venture for many producers, such as David Ellis.
But what if that condescending mindset is accurate? What if we, as a collective film-going audience are not interested in though provoking films that challenge us? Is the maximum amount of introspection we allow a film the level used in Black Panther? If so, then American cinema is serious trouble. If mainstream audiences have been conditioned to only accept the lowest common denominator films that do little more than wow us with explosions and gun fights in the same way that a cat is wowed by a bright object, then the future of American films may be more bleak than anyone wants to acknowledge.
Surely this isn’t the case. After all, television is at an all-time high thanks to the amount volume of extremely high series’ it has to offer. Shows such as Fargo, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and The Wire are just a tiny portion of the thought provoking shows that television has to offer- and that doesn’t even include shows from internet produces such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. Clearly there is an appetite for more critical entertainment that challenges us, challenges our preconceived notions and worldviews and forces us to ask questions, but that doesn’t seem to extend out of the home and into the theater anymore. At least that is how many producers in Hollywood think.
Annihilation is nothing if not thought provoking. It is intellectually challenging, forces any viewer to ask questions that have no easy answers (or may not even have any answers at all) and it asks a lot of the audience. But no film would do that if they didn’t think the audience could handle it. Yes, the film is challenging, but only because the people behind it think that we are up to the task. It respects the audience’s intelligence in a way that action films never can. It never panders to the audience, nor does it condescend to it; it only ever treats the audience with the utmost respect. The film features a nearly all female cast, yet it never makes a big deal of it. That aspect does not define the film in a way that it did the Ghostbusters remake. It doesn’t make unnecessary detours to Asia in an attempt to give that foreign market something to cheer for in the same way a concert audience does when a musician talks about how great their city is. It provides one of the most awe inspiring film sequences in recent memory with kaleidoscopic visuals and a score ripped straight from Trent Reznor’s brain, and it does so without compromising its vision for the sake of better appeal to mainstream audiences.
Annihilation quietly features five very good female protagonists and feels no need to define itself by it, as, ideally, that is not something that would be newsworthy anymore.
If this film fails, it will be due to a variety of reasons: lack of advertising, a terrible release window early in the year after one of the biggest financial successes this decade, lack of availability in theaters depending on where you live, and potentially because film audiences are no longer interested in substantive films like this anymore. If that final reason is the primary one behind any shortcomings for Annihilation, the American film industry may not be far from only putting out action-franchise films and leaving the more intellectually engaging stuff to television and other countries. Nothing would make me happier than to see that fear proven to be unsubstantiated, and for future films such as Annihilation thrive, as it may be too late for this sci-fi masterpiece.