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Film Alex Garland’s Annihilation could change how sci-fi movies are bought and sold

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Alex Garland's Annihilation could completely change how sci-fi movies are bought and sold

The film is a head trip for the ages – and its unusual release strategy already appears to be setting a precedent

Alex Garland directs Natalie Portman on set. With Annihilation, Garland offers some of the weirdest and most audacious imagery ever seen in a big-budget film.

There are approximately five moments of normalcy in Alex Garland's new film, Annihilation.

One involves a young couple fooling around in bed, the lazy folk sounds of Crosby, Stills & Nash's Helplessly Hoping drifting in and out of the background. Another pivots on a casual meal shared by new colleagues. There's a scene early on where a young woman paints her house, half-full wine glass at the ready. And there are probably two or three other moments of sincere ordinariness peppered throughout – but to be honest, it is difficult to recall them right now.

That's because Annihilation, adapted from the first instalment of novelist Jeff VanderMeer's surreal Southern Reach trilogy, can warp the brain more than a little bit. Quite unlike any science-fiction movie ever made, Garland's film follows a group of five women – a biologist (Natalie Portman), a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny), a physicist (Tessa Thompson) and a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez) – as they venture into "Area X," a zone under quarantine after an unknown event sparked all manner of mutations and the erection of a mysterious border known as "the shimmer."

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Part environmental parable, part philosophical head trip and part what-the-hell cinematic experiment, the film is all wonderful manner of weird. As the wary expedition wades deeper into Area X, uncovering more questions than answers, writer-director Garland builds to a final 20 minutes that contain some of the most audacious and unconventional images to ever be produced in a big-budget film. It is as if someone gave a height-of-his-powers David Cronenberg $55-million and told him to really go for it this time.

The finale is so wild, it is difficult to articulate – even if, Garland says, it was the easiest part to conceive.

"The thing I was most clear about right from the beginning was that last half hour. The question for me was, how do you construct the rest? How do you justify the overtly strange, because if you start strange, strange has a diminishing return as you get acclimatized to it," the filmmaker said during an interview in Toronto. "By the end, the thing that started strange is now familiar."

Yet in addition to its structure and outré ending, Annihilation offers another strange thing that might, eventually, feel familiar: its release strategy, which has the potential to completely change, and perhaps undermine, how sci-fi films are produced and sold.

Natalie Portman stars in Annihilation, which will be released theatrically in the United States, Canada and China, then stream on Netflix in other overseas markets just 17 days later.

Late last year, it was reported that studio Paramount and production company Skydance entered into an unusual deal with Netflix.

Although Paramount will release Annihilation theatrically in the United States, Canada and China, the film will be available to stream digitally on Netflix in every other overseas market just 17 days after its North American debut. (Because of Netflix's insistence on making its films available to stream the same day they're released theatrically, few traditional exhibitors are willing to show them, believing that Netflix's policy cannibalizes their business.)

It's a similar deal to the groundbreaking one Netflix inked last October with New Line over its forthcoming reboot of Shaft but that film reportedly costs about US$20-million less than Garland's, lacks the marquee presence of Portman and her co-star Oscar Isaac and is situated in a genre (urban crime) that tends to underperform internationally compared with sci-fi spectacles.

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"It's funny because sci-fi movies can represent the most commercial movies and the least commercial movies," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for industry tracker comScore. "With, say, horror, you can make a genre film without breaking the bank. But with sci-fi, just because of their nature with the special-effects budget, the economies of scale are tougher to balance. You can have sure bets like Star Wars and the Alien movies on one end, but if you're doing something less commercial like Ex Machina or now Annihilation, decidedly more brainy films, studios can be skittish and want to hedge their bets."

Paramount certainly has a right to feel anxious. The studio recently endured a terrible run at the domestic box office compared with its Hollywood rivals, earning just US$534.3-million in 2017, partly thanks to such brainy but costly bets as Darren Aronofsky's Mother! and Martin Scorsese's Silence. (Paramount's nearest major competitor, Sony, made US$1.06-billion domestically in that same period, while leader of the pack Disney pulled in US$2.41-billion.) Netflix, meanwhile, is constantly looking to increase its subscriber base around the globe, and at the same time satisfy an audience seemingly insatiable for prestige content. By offloading potentially riskier films such as Annihilation, Paramount gets to mitigate financial exposure, while Netflix gets to boast high-quality, studio-polished product.

Already, the Annihilation deal appears to be setting a precedent, at least when it comes to sci-fi. Earlier this month, Netflix made the "surprise" announcement that it had acquired The Cloverfield Paradox, also once set for theatrical release from Paramount, for global streaming (excluding China). And two weeks ago, the company secured the global rights to the sci-fi thriller Extinction, starring Michael Pena and Lizzy Caplan, after Universal pulled the film from its schedule late last year. (Representatives from Paramount did not respond to requests for comment from The Globe and Mail; Universal referred The Globe to Netflix, which declined to comment on its acquisition strategy.)

"We're seeing a lot of disruption right now in the way movies are being paid for and presented," Dergarabedian said. "It's all about getting the biggest bite of the apple when you release, particularly for films that are not the most accessible. But that's the other thing: Ex Machina did very well in that realm, and it's clearly auteur-driven cinema. People see Alex Garland's name attached to this, and they get it. The director in this genre is the star most of the time."

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Natalie Portman are seen in Annihilation, which appears to be setting a precedent for release and distribution – particularly for more challenging and auteur-driven genre fare.

Yet the director is also, sometimes, the one left out of this new business equation.

"It's their business," Garland said of Annihilation's distribution deal. "I don't have any problem with the small screen, but it's good to know you're making it for the small screen before you're doing it. I've got no issues with the different mediums – in fact, the next thing I'm trying to do is for what we loosely call the small screen, and some of the best dramas I've seen in the past few years [are] on television and streaming services.

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"It's just so clearly a business decision, a late-in-the-day business decision," he added. "I don't make those decisions. I try to make the thing."

But that "thing" is a work that just doesn't exist anywhere else right now. With its refusal to play dumb and its gall to challenge blockbuster expectations, Annihilation reassures the strength of the lately wan sci-fi genre, and cements the high-brow bona fides of Garland himself.

The 47-year-old Londoner started off as a novelist (his debut was 1996's The Beach, later adapted into Danny Boyle's Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle), but has spent the past two decades steadily expanding into the world of genre film, first as a screenwriter (28 Days Later and Sunshine, both also directed by Boyle) and then as a director (2015's Oscar-winning Ex Machina). And although Annihilation – which further digs into Ex Machina's theme of who, exactly, gets to call themselves human – arrives as anathema to the current sci-fi landscape of easy-to-digest, franchise-heavy offerings, it is exactly the type of unconventional work that has become conventional for Garland.

"I had seen Ex Machina and was blown away, so I knew that I could stand back and just let Alex do his thing here," said VanderMeer, who talked with Garland about the adaptation but always felt too close to the material to write his own screenplay. "By the ending, you feel it in your body. He has done something unusual and dislocating that fits with my novel very well. These moments beyond human comprehension, he's truly captured that."

Alex Garland poses for a portrait in Toronto in 2015.

Owing to the cautious industry landscape, though, only a certain segment of global audiences will get to experience those moments in the environment Garland intended.

"This is what worries me," the filmmaker said when asked about the importance of seeing Annihilation in a theatre. "Particularly, some sequences in the film where the visuals and the audio are absolutely designed to be immersive in a particular kind of way, specifically designed for a theatre."

While Garland doesn't think that prestige sci-fi films – his type of films – are in danger of disappearing entirely, he does note that the advent and growth of the streaming sector poses its own genre challenges.

"The people behind the streaming services have incredibly precise data – not just who's watching and how often, but when they stop watching Film X at Minute 12. That will end up being dangerous," said Garland, who calls himself an "irregular participant" of streaming services. "You'll get too much data. I'm actually slightly concerned about that. But there will be people always pushing back, and something will come along and break all the demographic models and smash them to bits."

A bit, then, like Ex Machina. Originally positioned as a release for Universal's specialty division, Focus Features, the film was nabbed for U.S. markets by upstart distributor A24, going on to gross US$25.4-million domestically against a US$15-million budget. "They thought it was unreleasable and we were lucky A24 picked it up," Garland said. "That gives you a bit of freedom that you can trade in as currency later."

So Garland will continue to work within the system and use what freedom he has to his own advantage – until the next disruption comes along, that is, and the common industry wisdom is annihilated all over again.

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