There are two words guaranteed to send a shiver down the spine of any self-respecting cinephile: TV movie. Or at least, they used to. A few years ago, you knew where you were with these things. They were cheesier than a fondue set, cheaper than a Walmart sale and as memorable as the Luxembourg entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. The Lifetime channel became synonymous with them, which was apt as that’s how long most of them felt while you were watching.
Just try and think of three great TV movies you’ve seen, and then stop beating yourself up when you can only come up with two. If you asked me to name some great ones, I’d probably say “Game Change” (2012), Jay Roach’s comedy-drama about the 2008 presidential election; “Recount” (2008), again by Jay Roach, about the 2000 presidential election and a certain hanging chad and “Duel” (1971), Steven Spielberg’s road-rage classic starring Dennis Weaver. After that, though, I got bubkes.
But the new broadcasting model is radically changing the landscape, with the likes of Netflix and Amazon paying top dollar for films to skip the big screen and go straight to the small one, thus becoming the world’s most expensive made-for-TV movies. (To blur the lines still further, French film bible Cahiers du Cinema named the Showtime series “Twin Peaks: The Return” its favorite movie of 2017.)
The Cannes Film Festival introduced what was termed “the Netflix rule” last year, meaning the streaming giant’s films would need to receive a theatrical release if they wanted to play at the festival in the future. It also led festival director Thierry Fremaux to sniffily declare last week, “Eventually we will understand that the history of cinema and the history of the internet is not the same.” But a film festival trying to dictate terms to Netflix is akin to a dinosaur explaining “how things work around here” to a meteor.
Over the past year, Netflix began buying movies that will never recoup a penny at the box office — a bit like “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” but deliberate. These might be big-budget releases, but there’s also a subgenre of “prestigious” movies like Southern drama “Mudbound” and Russian doping doc “Icarus,” which brought Netflix its first Academy Award nominations and win last month.
Netflix spent a reported $150 million making just two movies last year: the satirical comedy “War Machine,” with Brad Pitt playing a thinly veiled version of Gen. Stanley McChrystal during the Afghanistan conflict; and the cop show-fantasy amalgam “Bright,” starring Will Smith — who must be wondering how many agents he has to fire before he ever gets a decent role again. (It was only 10 years ago that Time Magazine declared, prior to the release of “Hancock” on July 4: “Thomas Jefferson used to own this holiday, but now the former Fresh Prince does.” And with that, a career was doomed.)
Netflix’s latest attempt to screw with our minds about what a TV movie really is comes in form of the $55 million sci-fi drama “Annihilation” (now available to stream). North American audiences got to see writer-director Alex Garland’s film in theaters in February. Or, to be more accurate, the film was in American theaters, even if audiences weren’t.
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The reason Netflix managed to buy the film’s international rights reportedly lies in a disappointing U.S. test screening last summer. According to the Hollywood Reporter, one of the “Annihilation” producers, David Ellison (son of Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison), allegedly called the film “too intellectual” to attract wide audiences and demanded revisions. When fellow producer Scott Rudin told him that wasn’t going to happen (Rudin has a well-earned reputation as a particularly belligerent producer), Ellison decided to cut his losses and sell the international rights to Netflix — much to the disappointment of Garland himself, who, by all accounts, wanted his movie to be seen on big screens worldwide. Instead, Netflix was able to premiere the film outside of the U.S. and China just weeks after its American debut.
It’s clear “Annihilation” was made with a big screen in mind and that a small screen is absolutely not the most rewarding way to see it — which is particularly unfortunate because Netflix revealed last year that half of its subscribers watch video on their smartphones. But it’s also clear that the film’s main life will come on the small screen, with repeat showings as viewers try to decipher what it all means.
The film’s greatest trick is that it manages to be both derivative yet its own unique thing. It’s intriguing, atmospheric, full of wonderful images, not short of ideas. Its biggest weakness is that it lacks characters who really leap off the screen and grab you (unless you include creatures, of course).
The two films that kept coming to mind for me were “Apocalypse Now” and “Arrival.” No movie is going to be able to withstand the comparison to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece, but I think the brooding “Arrival” — with its own alien storyline — is also a superior movie, one with more heart and a more dramatic use of nonlinear storytelling.
“Annihilation” is split into “chapters,” according to the location where an alien landing has occurred in the southeastern United States. These include “Area X” and the wonderfully titled “The Shimmer,” which certainly lives up to its name. This area is slowly spreading, devouring all in its path (add your own Netflix metaphor here).
Enter soldier-turned-biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), who has a personal interest in visiting the Shimmer, since her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), is the only person to have come out of it alive. Kind of. She’s joined by four other female scientists — including Jennifer Jason Leigh’s group leader — each of whom has her own reasons for volunteering for this suicide mission. (One of my favorite moments is when Leigh’s character explains the difference between suicidal tendencies and self-destructive ones.)
The film’s generic poster tagline — “Fear What’s Inside,” as Portman and Co. are seen heading into the Shimmer — would suggest that “Annihilation” is a horror movie. But it’s not, despite a few mild scares. Instead, it’s a trippy sci-fi drama that refuses to spell out what audiences should be thinking. In that regard, it probably is “too intellectual” for anyone craving a denouement that ties everything up neatly.
Garland, who previously wrote the unsettling “28 Days Later” and directed the similarly cerebral “Ex Machina,” has not made a movie for the masses. “Predator” this is not. But he has made a film that lingers in the mind, despite its flaws. I’ll happily make a repeat visit to the Shimmer, looking for more answers.