Why Is This Women-Led Sci-Fi Film Being Pushed Aside?

For a few weeks in 2017, I became the most annoying person in my loved ones’ lives. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, a slim sci-fi novel with a lime-green cover, was blowing my mind sentence by sentence — and I had to let the world know.
Annihilation was unlike any novel I’d ever read. Over the course of most sci-fi books, the author expertly unravels pieces of information about the book's setting so the reader feels she understands the rules of the game by the last page. But in Annihilation, VanderMeer promises no easy keys to understanding the universe he’s created. Instead of waiting for VanderMeer's clues, you learn to rely on your own observations. In that way, you are an explorer — just like the book’s main characters, five women who venture into a dangerous and unknowable landscape.
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That brings me to another reason way Annihilation was so extraordinary: The vast majority of the main characters in this inventive, and undeniably gory, novel were women. The book centres on a five-person expedition into a mysterious landscape called Area X, which had been cordoned off years ago. Our protagonist, called only the Biologist in the book, was compelled to join this dangerous trek in order to discover what happened to her husband when he ventured into Area X years prior. The other women on the mission, also professionals in their fields, are chosen for their skills: a psychologist, a linguist, an anthropologist, and a surveyor set forth into Area X along with the Biologist
So, when I heard this ambitious novel was being turned into a film, I had two thoughts. The first was: “How?!” The second was: “This is going to be amazing.” Annihilation provided the opportunity for a studio to create a wholly original sci-fi film, one not tethered to a pre-existing franchise and fan expectations. Annihilation could potentially be a film as ground-breaking as Arrival and Ex Machina, but instead of dealing with space and robots, it would focus on a natural landscape with a mind of its own (literally), and an extraordinary monster called the Crawler.
The more I learned about the film, the more it seemed to meet my high expectations for the page-to-screen adaptation. Alex Garland, the visionary director behind Ex Machina and The Beach, wrote and directed the film, and made the changes necessary to translate the movie onto the big screen. Judging by what I’ve seen in the trailer, Vandermeer’s richly described world comes to life, thanks to CGI and a $55 million budget. And then, the crowning achievement: The cast. In the movie, the stunning ensemble of Tessa Thompson, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny will don khakis and head out into the Area X.
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But it seems that Paramount, Annihilation’s production studio, isn’t as amped for the film’s release as I am. According to an article in The Hollywood Reporter, Annihilation became the centrepiece in a fight between two of Paramount’s most powerful producers, David Ellison (known for Geostorm and Terminator: Genysis) and Scott Rudin (known for Lady Bird and Ex Machina). Apparently, after seeing the finished product in June of 2016, Ellison became concerned that Annihilation was “too intellectual.” Ellison wanted to alter the film’s ending and Portman’s character in an effort to make Annihilation more appealing. Rudin, who executive produced the film, refused the changes.
What came out of Ellison and Rudin’s in-fighting was a unique distribution deal with Netflix. Annihilation will be released in cinemas in the U.S., Canada, and China on 23rd February. Seventeen days later, the film will be released internationally – on Netflix. As part of the deal, Netflix is expected to cover some of the $55 million production budget.
In an interview with io9, director Garland didn’t hide his feelings with the choice. While Garland has nothing against streaming services, he says that Annihilation was made with the big screen in mind. “It’s disappointing,” Garland said. “A large group of people worked flat out on something that’s difficult and unusual and trying to sort of step outside the mainstream in some kind of way...Just as you’re about to reach the start of the race, somebody gives you a hard push and knocks you off balance.”
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This deal is a convenient way for Paramount to spare itself, should Annihilation prove to be “too complicated,” as Ellison feared, for audiences. But the deal also sends a clear message: Paramount has no faith in Annihilation — or audience’s capacities to appreciate projects that bypass the over-trodden moulds many sci-fi movies follow. Essentially, the studio preemptively thinks Annihilation, an inventive movie starring five women, will fail.
And that's a shame, because by all accounts, Annihilation seems good. VanderMeer, the book's author, saw the film, and had this to say in a comment to Collider: "It’s mind-blowing, surreal, extremely beautiful, extremely horrific, and it was so tense that our bodies felt sore and beat-up afterwards.”
Annihilation could potentially join the ranks of Alien and Gravity and Arrival: Acclaimed sci-fi films that showcase badass women being extremely capable in terrifying situations. I wish Paramount were prouder of that possibility.
Refinery29 has reached out to Paramount and Netflix for comment, and will update accordingly.
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