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Filmed at Holkham but does Netflix sci-fi thriller Annihilation point to future of cinema?

PUBLISHED: 09:47 08 March 2018 | UPDATED: 09:52 08 March 2018

Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny in Holkham filmed Annihilation. Photo: Paramount/Netflix

Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny in Holkham filmed Annihilation. Photo: Paramount/Netflix

© 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Holkham beach in Norfolk was the location for filming Annihilation, one of the most anticipated sci-fi films of 2018. But in the highest profile example yet in a revolution in the way films are being released, you won’t get to see it in the cinema.

First assistant director Matthew Penry Davey, director Alex Garland and Natalie Portman on the set of Annihilation on Holkham beach. Photo: Paramount/Netflix First assistant director Matthew Penry Davey, director Alex Garland and Natalie Portman on the set of Annihilation on Holkham beach. Photo: Paramount/Netflix

Two summers ago locals and holidaymakers were left wondering what was happening as production crews arrived on Norfolk’s Holkham beach to begin filming a sci-fi thriller about an environmental disaster zone where the laws of nature no longer apply.

Holkham, with its wide expanse of beach and distinctive pine woods, has proved a popular filming location over the years, featuring in everything from the closing scenes of Shakespeare in Love to nearby Holkham Hall featuring The Duchess, starring Kiera Knightly and Ralph Fiennes. But this is probably the first time it has been the scene of an otherworldly battle for mankind’s survival.

Fresh from the success of his sleekly engineered Oscar-winning artifical intelligence thriller Ex-Machina, writer and director Alex Garland was filming his follow up, loosely on the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s best-selling Southern Reach sci-fi trilogy.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Natalie Portman in Annihilation filmed on Holkham beach. Photo: Paramount/Netflix Jennifer Jason Leigh and Natalie Portman in Annihilation filmed on Holkham beach. Photo: Paramount/Netflix

Now the film, Annihilation, which stars Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac and Jennifer Jason Leigh, has become one of the most talked new releases of 2018 — but not due to the generally positive reviews, rather because of the way it is being released. You won’t find it in cinemas. Instead next week it is being released in the UK on streaming site Netflix.

It is the highest profil example yet of a trend for films to arrive on out TV screens rather than the big screen. But it is a decision that has horrified and infrurated many filmgoers. Many have taken to social media to launch a campaign for the film to also be shown on the big screen.

Its absence from cinemas everywhere apart from in the US, Canada and China, is apparently due to a dispute between the film’s producers and the film studio Paramount, who instead sold the rights to Netflix, who paid a reported $50 million.

Annihilation is not being released in cinemas in favour of a release on Netflix. Photo: Netflix Annihilation is not being released in cinemas in favour of a release on Netflix. Photo: Netflix

It’s seen as a win-win: Netflix get exclusive rights to one of the most hotly anticipated sci-fi films of the year, while Paramount pocket a cheque without the risk of releasing a film that is more about big ideas rather than big action scenes.

The losers are people who had been looking forward to seeing the film in cinemas, including in this case the filmmaker himself.

When asked about the Netflix deal, Garland, who first found fame as the author of The Beach, and also wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later and the partially Norfolk filmed Never Let Me Go, expressed his disappointment that it would not be heading to cinemas.

Director Alex Garland and Natalie Portman on the set of Annihilation on Holkham beach. Photo: Paramount/Netflix Director Alex Garland and Natalie Portman on the set of Annihilation on Holkham beach. Photo: Paramount/Netflix

“We made the film for cinema,” he is reported to have said. “I’ve got no problem with the small screen at all. The best genre piece I’ve seen in a long time was The Handmaid’s Tale, so I think there’s incredible potential within that context, but if you’re doing that – you make it for that [format] and you think of it in those terms.”

He added: “One of the big pluses of Netflix is that it goes out to a lot of people and you don’t have that strange opening weekend thing where you’re wondering if anyone is going to turn up and then if they don’t, it vanishes from cinema screens in two weeks.”

In the film Natalie Portman plays a cellular biology professor who investigates a phenomenon known as The Shimmer, inside which she encounters genetic mutations that flout the laws of nature and pose a threat to humanity’s lofty position on the food chain.

Scenes from Annihilation were filmed on Holkham beach in Norfolk. Photo: Paramount/Netflix Scenes from Annihilation were filmed on Holkham beach in Norfolk. Photo: Paramount/Netflix

Those who have seen the film in cinemas in the US have praised its eye-popping trippy special effects and Garland’s script, which poses questions that resonate long after the blood-curdling screams subside and the end credits roll.

The decision to release Annihilation online was reportedly made after studio bosses became worried the film was “too intellectual” and “too complicated” for a wider audience. The result is only Netflix subscribers get to make up their own minds.

Natalie Portman in Annihilation. Photo: Paramount/Netflix Natalie Portman in Annihilation. Photo: Paramount/Netflix

REVIEW

Annihilation (15)

Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Annihilation. Photo: Paramount/Netflix Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Annihilation. Photo: Paramount/Netflix

***

The most annoying movie fad of 2018 is potentially interesting films popping up on the release schedule, only to then disappear a few weeks before they are due out, bundled away into the protecttive custody of the heavies at Netflix.

Previously I was robbed of the chance to review The Cloverfield Paradox (probably a mercy robbing as it turned out, but i’d have liked to learn for myself ) and was damned if I was gonna let that happen with Alex Garland’s follow up to Ex-Machina.

Garland seems now to have devoted himself to sci-fi, and the kind of sci-fi film that asks big questions. His adaption of a novel by Jeff VanderMeer is nothing less than an attempt to rework Tarkovsky’s Stalker in a way that will engage mainstream audiences, while remaining a film of ideas.

Natalie Portman is a biologist joining an all-female team heading into The Shimmer, where the laws of nature are corrupted and nobody ever returns from. Or almost nobody. It is tense and gruesome in places but also thoughtful and contemplative. It has a complicated narrative structure: a mission debrief that includes flashbacks to Portman’s life before the mission.

The film’s strongest visual asset is all the mutated fauna and plant life. In other places, the CGI isn’t quite up to the task, though it might have worked better shown on the big screen which it was designed for.

Michael Joyce

• Annihilation is released on Netflix on March 12.

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