TV seems to be the only place for smart sci-fi these days.
Alex Garland‘s second film, Annihilation, doesn’t open in theaters until February 23rd, but the prolific writer/director is already looking ahead to his next project. In an interview with Fandango’s Erik Davis, he confirmed that he’ll be moving directly from his current press tour into production on an eight-episode FX science fiction series. He likens the show to his directorial debut rather than the more fantastical depiction of the future seen in Annihilation, noting that “This is slightly more in common with projects I’ve worked on like Ex Machina or Never Let Me Go, which are taking something about our world now — not our world in the future, but our world as it is right now — and then drawing sort of inferences and conclusions from it.”
Garland signed a deal with FX in 2017 to develop multiple projects. He’s yet another casualty of the modern Hollywood era, which has seen a record number of auteurs abandon the silver screen for the freer creative landscape that television offers. Danny Boyle’s Trust debuts in March; he directed every episode. David Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks stands as one of the greatest examples of a deranged mind given complete and total freedom. And who can blame Garland for taking a hiatus from film? His latest effort has garnered nothing but positive reactions from press, but Paramount is still casually dumping it on Netflix in every territory except the United States. The trailers for the film have been exceedingly misleading, selling a Jurassic Park-style thrill ride rather than the sober mind-bender that’s been described elsewhere. This is the same situation Paramount went through with mother!, patting themselves on the back for giving a filmmaker creative freedom but giving it no chance whatsoever with audiences.
Annihilation isn’t the only casualty of the industry’s apparent science fiction cull. Paramount’s abandonment of The Cloverfield Paradox has been the most interesting aspect of an otherwise utterly unremarkable film’s release. Netflix will also release Duncan Jones’s Mute on February 23rd. Just this week, Variety reported that Netflix has also purchased Universal’s Extinction for a release later this year. Netflix has become a haven of sorts for directors seeking total freedom, but that comes with a cost. There’s no way of knowing if the fledgling studio will go all out with subway ads and billboards, or if a smaller movie will end up buried under three seasons of Fuller House and billions of comedy specials. There are very good chances that Annihilation will wind up with that exact fate, especially if it’s as brainy and difficult as reactions seem to imply. Netflix may want to be the studio of Mudbound and The Meyerowitz Stories, but it is far more defined by something like Bright.
Science fiction in Hollywood has always been high-risk, high-reward. A film like Gravity can spend years in production on a massive budget and become an instant box office phenomenon. Between smaller cult hits like Ex Machina and Oscar success stories like Arrival, the industry has seen how high the genre can fly. Now they just need to find a way to allow talented directors like Garland to take a leap of faith, without resorting to this new brand of Netflix panic. All that does is drive filmmakers away altogether. That’s certainly good for FX, but a bad sign for the film industry.