People fight on the Internet. Who knew?
The latest bout of byte-slinging has been sparked by the release – or, perhaps, lack of release – of Alex Garland’s Annihilation.
For context, the movie was apparently deemed “too intellectual” and “boring” for a global release, so us British troglodytes were not afforded a potentially risky roll-out to our neighbourhood silver screens. Instead, Netflix picked up the distribution rights and plonked it on their streaming service, ready and waiting for us after work last Monday – and incurred rather a large amount of finger-wagging and fist-shaking in the process.
The criticism has been primarily fuelled by film fans airing their exasperation on social media about not being given the option to see this story play out on the Big Screen. This is undoubtedly a shame. Annihilation is a film which has been designed to be seen – and experienced – at the cinema, and it does chafe that we won’t be able to see it upon the format it was intended to be seen first in.
But: we are still able to see it. Right now, in fact; completely legally and in high definition. We do still have access to the movie, just not the way we perhaps wanted.
So what is the fuss about?
As with most tantrums, it’s all relative. You are currently reading this humble article on this humble website, so, and forgive me if I am being bold here, I am going to assume you have at least a fleeting interest in cinema (full disclosure: so do I).
However, that is not the case for everyone. Sure, everyone is ‘into’ film – the same way we’re all ‘into’ taking nutritious substances into our bodies in order to process them into energy – but not everyone sees the medium as a hobby or sub-culture. For some, it is just pleasantly breezing in the background of other things.
In this online bubble we have blown for ourselves, we have forgotten these types of audiences, quite different to us, who see film as a treat instead of an entitlement. The audiences who use movies as quick fix for escapism, some light emotional enjoyment, or simply to kill the time. Yes, they may indulge themselves in the big zeitgeist slices, but rarely anything more. Their diet is mainstream, proudly so, and that’s fine – but now they, too, have Annihilation in their To Watch lists – and for a price they have already paid.
Isn’t that kind of amazing? Isn’t that the silver lining in this stormy cloud?
Annihilation, while fuelled by a uniformly excellent (nearly) all-female cast and made by a rising star, is hardly conformist entertainment for the masses. It’s a complex sci-fi yarn that is mostly concerned with intellectual exploration that all out bang-for-buck cinematic economics, and would, in all honesty, have been likely buried by the likes of Black Panther and The Greatest Showman had it been traditionally released in theatres. Yet Netflix, through their home release, has given this curio piece room to breathe in a claustrophobic market (and finally bring some prestige to their current slate of glorified straight-to-stream exclusives).
Working as a secondary school teacher, I’ve become fascinated by ‘cultural capital’ and just how a person’s social assets can facilitate social mobility. Like any part of culture, film can play a big role in this, and I teach dozens of students who really want to explore the medium but don’t necessarily have the opportunity to do so – for whatever reason. Again, and due to the algorithms of the playground, they catch the tent poles but seldom anything fringe. On Tuesday, however, going into assembly, amongst the usual cacophony, Annihilation was audibly part of a particular group conversation – the participants were gleefully dissecting one particular scene’s aural-horror before being lectured on life skills.
Similarly, this time in form-time, one student was recommending the movie to the person sat next to her. She spoke of her pleasure at being able to stream the film the previous night via her family’s joint Netflix account, particularly as she had already spent her recent cinema-budget on seeing Black Panther, and did not have the funds to watch something as esoteric as Annihilation.
And this is what it’s all about.
The cinema may be a church for me (and maybe you, too), but it’s increasingly becoming a luxury many can no longer afford, particularly young people. Box office records are continuing to explode, but actual ticket sales are on the decline. Why? Naming no names (although Google can easily point the finger, if you’re interested), but there is a cinema in the centre of London currently charging £18 for a no-frills ticket. £18. How often do you have £18 to spare on a couple of hours of entertainment?
In fairness, it isn’t just that cinema. Outside of London, in a totally different chain in the fair Garden of England, I recently paid £15 to a multiplex in order to see Phantom Thread. My seat was one of the theatre’s bog-standard ones (no D-DL box for me) placed within a sparsely attended screening, and cost just a snip under a two-month subscription to Netflix. Popular culture demands we consume everything, but, at these prices (and outside Cineworld’s Unlimited and Odeon’s Limitless admittedly marvellous offer) our pockets can’t boast the same stamina.
There is a counter-argument, of course. Netflix scooping up titles like Annihilation, alongside its own roster of upcoming ‘original’ content, could suggest an upcoming flavourless monopoly, and that only the very largest films make it to the Big Screen. But cinema are already guilty of these politics. Take, for instance, the case of The Hateful Eight: Cineworld, Curzon, and Picturehouse could not agree a deal with the film’s distributor so simply didn’t screen it. Tarantino is of the world’s most popular directors, and fans were limited by semantics and geography. Even now, Cineworld is currently playing Lynne Ramsey’s scorching You Were Never Really Here in just 21 of its 100 screens across the UK – often just once or twice a day. Is film really just exclusive to those who can afford it, or happen to be luckily enough to be in the right time and place?
Elitism is engrained in all art; I suppose that’s part of the fun. But this off-the-peg snobbery and entitlement culture has got to stop. The fact is: Annihilation has most probably been watched more on Netflix over the last three days than it may have enjoyed in an entire run in the cinema, and people are talking about it – on social media (where it has been trending on-and-off since Monday) and in meatspace. That’s an achievement.
Alright, go on then. Take this moment to be frustrated you can’t watch Annihilation in the way you wanted to. Seriously, it’s yours. But take the next to reflect on this medium we love, and the one after that to enjoy the simple notion that stories, however broad or niche, are currently being embraced by everyone, everywhere, and all the time.
The future has always been scary. But it can be exciting, too.