Annihilation, the latest trippy sci-fi from Ex Machina's Alex Garland, is now streaming on Netflix in the U.K.
On the one hand, that's a good thing: the movie is readily available to a potentially wide audience, at no extra cost to subscribers. But on the other hand, it's a damn shame.
For starts, Annihilation is GORGEOUS. Garland creates an incredible, psychedelic dreamscape setting, which serves to both captivate and terrify audiences. It not only deserves to be seen on the big screen, but outright demands it. It's what the film was made for and yet, for viewers outside of the U.S. and China, they'll have to make do with a TV which, despite the advances in technology, can't fully do it justice.
The box-office numbers from North America do go some way to justifying Paramount's decision, as the movie has only made back around half of its budget so far. It's easy to see why, in a Hollywood increasingly driven by franchises, some studio beancounters would've baulked at such a weird, ambitious genre movie.
That in itself, though, perhaps doesn't give audiences enough credit. On a similar budget (around the $50m mark), 2016's Arrival made $200m. With more faith and some better marketing, and of course more territories to play in, there's a chance that Annihilation could've done better than its current $26.5m. It'd be nice to at least see it given the chance, because while it is smart sci-fi with big ideas, and does get VERY weird in its final act, it shouldn't be too out-there for many cinemagoers, and the sheer spectacle would be impressive enough in the cinema. Although big-budget and carrying the name of Christopher Nolan, both Inception and Interstellar made bank at the box-office despite being 'too clever' to overly 'philosophical' for viewers, so there's at least potential for Annihilation to find an audience.
This, however, is part of a recent trend of sci-fi movies going to Netflix, with Annihilation following on the heels of The Cloverfield Paradox (which Paramount also sold to Netflix) and Mute (which was in various states of development for years before going to the streaming service). The difference with those two is that they're not actually very good, but they all high-concept movies with grandiose ideas and mid-range budgets.
If this trend is to continue, then it looks as though the future of mid-budget sci-fi is on the small screen rather than the big one. You can see an argument for that, because at least those movies will be getting made, but it'd also be something of a travesty given a couple of the best sci-fi movies in recent years are Ex Machina and Arrival, both of which benefit (like Annihilation would've) from the big screen experience.
It does make for an easier win for studios, though, which is why they've leant towards it: they get guaranteed dollar from Netflix, and after Blade Runner 2049 made just over $250m, that idea becomes even more appealing (although that flies counter to the argument about budgets). Fewer risks, but the same rewards.
Netflix, in turn, can promote the movie to gain more new subscribers, and it doesn't matter too much if it's a critical flop (especially because Netflix are quite secretive about ratings and their metrics for what does/doesn't work). But that itself presents its own problem, since Netflix has a tendency to bury films: they put out so much content that nothing lasts in the conversation more than its first week of release, which is in part because of how we consume media on Netflix, but that comes from the way the streaming service is structured. So sure, right now people are talking about Annihilation, but it's less likely to remain in the public eye and, further down the line, less likely to be in any sort of awards contention.
The studios can put out their big franchise movies, sequels, and those that have the huge budgets - which in turn can afford more marketing and are more likely to be known about/appeal to moviegoers - and perhaps even take the occasional risk on a small, low-budget movie, while the mid-range bracket - where so many of the interesting ideas are - get shunted to streaming, which is like the modern, destigmatised equivalent of straight-to-DVD.
The last ten years or so have given us some great sci-fi movies within a similar budget range to Annihilation: the aforementioned Arrival ($47m) and Ex Machina ($15m), along with Sunshine $40m), District 9 ($30m), Looper ($30m), and, at a slightly higher end of that scale, Children of Men ($76m). Not all of them made their budgets back, but each had a theatrical release and delighted many of those who did see them, as well as finding bigger audiences later on. It's a tad depressing to think that, in 2018, some of those movies wouldn't make it into cinemas worldwide. The idea that they can find an extended life on streaming is fine, but it really should start on the big screen.
How do you feel about movies like Annihilation going straight-to-Netflix? Share your thoughts down in the comments.