Annihilation

Spoilers Follow. Spoilers for the movie “Annihilation”.

(The following review might also go down easier if you’ve read the book.)

The novel was a bit less literal about the whole "Annihilation" part.

The novel was a bit less literal about the whole “Annihilation” part.

I’ve always been amazed that Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy became a massive best-seller. Truth is, I’m kind of amazed it even made it past the small presses.

Don’t take this as a criticism of the novels. Take it, rather, as an indictment of the North American reading public. Vandermeer is, after all, one of the pioneers of New Weird:[1] literary, cryptic, unapologetically off-kilter. Have you read Southern Reach? Would you have expected it to climb to the top of a pile that holds up Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Dan Fucking Brown as role models?

The fact that it did fills me with wonder (Awesome! The genre made it without having to dumb down!), and hope (hey, if Southern Reach can own the bestseller lists, maybe I can too), and resentment (WTF? Annihilation is a household word and people say my stuff is too inaccessible for the mainstream market?). Then again, sneer as I might at readers of The da Vinci Code, at least those people are reading books. Most of us don’t even do that much.

Most of us go to the movies, though. So maybe the real test is whether a movie based on the book, a movie that respects the spirit of the book, can make it when thrown into the ring with Marvel and Pixar and LucasFilm and 20th-Century F— ah, let’s just keep it simple: with Disney.

As I write this, it doesn’t look good for “Annihilation” (the movie— henceforth distinguished from Annihilation, the novel). Box Office Mojo reports that it debuted at #4 (losing out to Peter Rabbit at #3)— which makes it a bomb, financially, but no worse than you could expect from a movie that test audiences found “too intellectual” and “too complicated”. That part actually gave me hope; that hope grew when director Alex Garland and producer Scott Rudin stood firm and told Paramount to fuck right off, when the studio wanted to make the film more “accessible”.

Paramount retaliated by cancelling plans for overseas theatrical distribution (except for China) and dumping those rights onto Netflix.  I didn’t care; all signs pointed to a good film, a smart film, and the fact that it was too confusing for your average Transformers fan only proved the point. A lot of people hated “2001” when it came out; “The Thing” nearly killed John Carpenter’s career. And unlike “The Thing” on first release, the critics love “Annihilation”: 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, 79% on Metacritic. One of the few exceptions was science fiction’s own Annalee Newitz , who thought it sucked.

I believe I may fall somewhere in between.

Garland’s movie perfectly evokes the weird, skin-crawling dream-fever I experienced while reading the book. You can feel the air pressing down like invisible treacle. You sense the things watching you from just out-of-frame, you wonder at the skewed strangeness of the things right before your eyes. The acting is top-notch, and the science— well, you don’t go into a movie about an expanding paradimensional soap-bubble-o’doom expecting a list of technical citations. But the movie is science-savvy enough to know when it’s breaking the rules— at least, the rules we talking apes have discovered up to this point— and I’m fine with that.

Actually, kudos to the physicist for even knowing what Hox genes are.

Actually, kudos to the physicist for even knowing what Hox genes are.

Case in point: strange natural scarecrows springing up in lawns and meadows, shrubbery spontaneously assuming humanoid shape. The physicist (not being a biologist) speculates that you’ll find human Hox genes in that foliage, because Hox genes are what tell the tissue how to arrange itself during development. It’s both reasonable (that is what Hox genes do) and wrong. (The plants are not growing, Ent-like, into solid humanoid shapes, as they would even in the unlikely event that the humanoid recipe had somehow been ported between Kingdoms. They’re just the usual tangle of vines and twigs and branches— simply confined, bonsai-like, to a human-shaped jar. There’s some tertiary metaprocess involved here). The biologist immediately responds: “literally not possible”— leaving us not with a scientific boner, but with a scientific mystery that happens to go unsolved (along with pretty much everything else in this movie, admittedly). The idea of genetic refraction— presented not just as mechanism but as metaphor, as literal visual ambiance— kind of appeals to me.

Newitz seems to have missed this deliberate bit of ass-covering when she decries “Annihilation”‘s “painfully bad representations of how DNA works”. Or maybe she got it, but just didn’t buy it. Either way, I think she’s being too harsh. Obviously there’s more than DNA at work here; obviously we’re dealing with alien forces beyond our comprehension.  Kubrick didn’t provide technical specs on how the monolith worked, either— and for all the folks who had trouble with “2001” when it first came out, I don’t remember anyone complaining about that fact.

Which makes this a good spot to talk about the ending, which Vandermeer himself has compared to the end of “2001”. I am not convinced. No matter how opaque Kubrick’s ending might have seemed at first glance, there’s no question that it resolved the plot: a specific thing happened to finish the story, whether it was obvious or not. Kubrick did, after all, have hard-SF maestro Arthur C. Clarke riding shotgun, to keep him from venturing too deeply into the woo. They knew what they were doing, even if audiences didn’t.

Not so sure that’s the case here.

The ending Garland stapled onto the movie is utterly unrelated to anything in the novel. He really had no choice about that. The novel doesn’t even have an ending— at least, not one that leaves us any wiser about all the mysteries laid out in the preceding pages. The book doesn’t so much end as go on hiatus, which is something you can forgive in the first act of a trilogy.

Garland obviously had to stick something before the credits. I’m not entirely sure he knew what it was, though. You’ve got a scaled-down version of the interior of the derelict alien ship from Alien. You’ve got twinkly Human/energy metamorphosis a la “Star Trek: The Motionless Picture”. You’ve got that humanoid oil slick from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”‘s execrable “Evil Skin” episode. And you’ve got some kind of mirror-mode marionette that inexplicably mimics every move our lone survivor makes, while in the process becoming her “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” doppelganger— which isn’t really in keeping with anything we’ve seen in Area X up until now (the Shimmer refracts things, it doesn’t reflect them— this whole pod-person element just comes out of nowhere).

Garland’s a smart guy; I really liked “Ex Machina” (although maybe a bit less than most). He seems to be pretty scrupulous about thinking things through— or at least he learned to be, sometime after making “Sunshine”. But I can’t shake the feeling than in this case, he just grabbed a bunch of random stuff and mooshed it together, hoping against hope that we’d read profundity into chaos.

I have to wonder how much that ending changed the middle, how many vital elements of the novel were jettisoned solely because the movie had to converge on some arbitrary endpoint thumbtacked to Garland’s corkboard. Is that why we lost the inverted tower spiraling down into the earth, the weird mutated Crawler scratching its endless prose into those walls? Is that why we never found how just how massively corrupt the Southern Reach was, why the lies and deceptions and all those unacknowledged previous expeditions never made it into the script? Is that why the very name of the story was changed so utterly in meaning, even if every letter was left in place?

Again: Alex Garland is a smart guy. At this stage in his career, he might not even be capable of making a bad movie, and “Annihilation” is not one. “Annihilation” is, at the very least, a good movie; it is an undeniably beautiful movie. It is even a brave movie, a movie made in defiance of lazy viewers and nervous distributors. I think the ending keeps it from being a brilliant movie, but I can’t be sure after one viewing (I’ll have to catch it again on Netflix).

I can be sure of one thing, though:

“Annihilation” is not Annihilation.

Am I sick, or is this kind of beautiful?

Am I sick, or is this kind of beautiful?


[1] Although it’s been around long enough that we should probably be calling it “Middle-Aged Weird” by now.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Thursday March 01 2018at 02:03 pm , filed under ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

71 Responses to “Annihilation”

  1. I haven’t read Vandermeer’s novels, but did watch the movie a few days ago. Liked it quite a bit, if for no other reason: the myopic strangeness of it. As a fan of dramatic science fiction, I always seek something new, something I’ve never seen or read before.

    This movie provided that, at least.

    And a lot more. I agree that its ending was a little… incongruous. It’s an incursion, seems like, of chaotic, unsympathetic… uh, presence, maybe. Energy. Otherness. Garland, I am certain, wrote a different ending initially, but had to change it to get the movie funded. So he wrote what we saw.

    A freaky, not-sure-what-I’m-seeing-here showdown between Lena and whatever it was. Alien life intrigues me. As it does many humans. What I enjoyed was the fact it wasn’t truly explained. Not really.

    My personal head-scratching question, though: why was it a solid, explosion-causing vessel that started it? Wouldn’t something with that technology utilize a different form of incursion? Something us humans wouldn’t necessarily see or be aware of? Not sure how it happened it the books, but that starting point gave me pause.

    Not really criticizing it, though. And I dug your points about it.

  2. I read the book and watched the movie. I think in this case the execs got it right. Maybe this was a movie worth making if you could make it on the cheap, mostly for prestige but with some hope of a modest profit if it turned into a cult classic. But nothing this weird was going to find a large audience. Too much of what happens is just plain left unexplained. It’s a question without an answer. It’s not so much scary as alienating.

    Damn pretty, though. Damn pretty.

  3. Oof, this is the guy that did “Sunshine”?

    Damn it. Nope. I’m still not over my nerd-grudge about the enormously, terribly *stupid* turn that Sunshine took. The Sun Was Antagonist Enough.

  4. Interesting. I’ll be sure to check it out on Netflix. Mostly I’ve been hearing about it as comparing favorably to Netflix’s Mute, since those are both two high concept SF pieces dropping on Netflix at the same time.

    I’m ambivalent about the whole Netflix thing. On the one hand it seems churlish to condemn it–hard SF fans are being treated to something of a golden age at present, with really ambitious, decently funded projects finding homes they traditionally wouldn’t have been able to. The rumor is this movie never would have been made without the Netflix deal–studios just dont believe in high concept SF at the box office. After Villeneuve’s “better than it had any right to be” Blade Runner sequel tanked, despite being probably one of the best films of the year (even if it wasn’t completely embraced around these parts), I can’t even say they’re wrong.

    On that point, Villeneuve says he can’t afford to make another high concept thinky SF piece now after 2049 tanked. Unfortunately the next project he’s attached to is motherfucking Dune, so the timing couldn’t be worse if you were looking for optimism for that film.

    Back on the Netflix thing, I’m aware that Annihilation is coming on the heels of Mute and Altered Carbon on Netflix. Netflix is throwing a lot of money at this niche to try and make something happen, presumably chasing Westworld on HBO, and I really, really appreciate that. I’m afraid though that if one of these projects doesn’t eventually transcend the level of being “just ok”, the ride might be coming to an end before long.

  5. I was so looking forward to watching this in the cinema…fuck. The execs are right though, it would have bombed, like Blade Runner. God forbid a movie forces people to even use their gray matter a little bit.

  6. It wasn’t really Paramount that Garland and Rudin were fighting with, it was the other producer, David Ellison (the guy who gave us Geostorm), who thought the movie was “too intellectual” and “too complicated”. The full story is here:

    https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/annihilation-how-a-clash-between-producers-led-a-netflix-deal-1065465

    It’s not true that the movie never would have been made without the Netflix deal – it was already in the can – but it might never have been distributed. The upside of the deal is that Netflix basically picked up the production costs, so even a poor box office performance doesn’t make it a bomb for the studio. But in the wake of the box office failure of Blade Runner 2049, a movie that hugely impressed me (in spite of its third-act problems), it certainly doesn’t bode well for intelligent, challenging SF films, no matter how critically acclaimed.

    I also came away from Annihilation disappointed, although I think it’s definitely worth seeing. My biggest complaint – aside from the ending, which I didn’t think worked at all – is that Garland didn’t seem to trust audiences to take on the mystery of Area X on its own terms, and decided on giving the characters the sort of pop-psychology cliche backstories to explain their motivations that helped make Prometheus into one of the stupidest SF films ever made. And in principle, that could have made for an interesting film (albeit one a bit more akin to the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic than Vandermeer’s novel): connecting the fates of the characters within Area X to the desires and motivations that brought them there. Except the film doesn’t really do any of that, it just clunkily dumps it on the table and gives us a bunch of flashbacks to the biologist’s life prior to her husband’s disappearance.

    Garland remains an interesting writer and director, but it seems to me that so far the films he’s helmed haven’t quite hit their targets. Ex Machina was a film purporting to be about artificial intelligence that instead turned out to be a study of toxic masculinity; Annihilation, derived from a haunting, mysterious novel about an utterly inexplicable Other, resolves into a portrait of a troubled marriage.

    I would really have liked to see what a director as completely uncompromising as Jonathan Glazer would have done with Annihilation, but the likelihood that anyone would give him $55 million to make a film is pretty much zero; I think it took him ten years to scrape together the funding for Under the Skin.

  7. If we can take him at face value, here’s the reason for most of those changes Garland made (well, this plus not reading Authority or Acceptance):

    “I thought, ‘Reading this book is like a dream, so what I’m going to do is I’m going to adapt it like a dream. I’m not going to re-read the book. I’m going to adapt it from my memory of the book’… In some places it will correlate very closely, and in other places it won’t. It’s a dream response to a dream book.”

    https://twitter.com/BBW_BFF/status/967842492975480833

    Not a criticism or defence or the movie, or of Peter’s take here, just context. I’m glad I knew the above before seeing the movie, certainly.

  8. PhilRM: It’s not true that the movie never would have been made without the Netflix deal – it was already in the can

    Yeah. If that was aimed at me, I’m sorry for bungling that. I hadn’t had my coffee yet, was skimming this article, and mangled that point in my rush to point out we’ve been a bit spoiled of late, with a lot of decent SF making it to big and small screen than might have in years past. Dr. Watts had also summed up that point nicely in his original post.

    This movie had already been completed and tested poorly, prompting the studio to bail, but there are a lot of other ambitious projects that are finding homes on the streaming services like Netflix that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. I just wish a few more of them were actually really good. So much squandered potential in an era of opportunity we may not see again.

  9. Off Topic, it appears that octopus skepticism is a thing. I was wondering if Dr. Watts cared to put on his marine biologist hat and defend the cephalopod. I want to believe.

  10. DA: … there are a lot of other ambitious projects that are finding homes on the streaming services like Netflix that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. I just wish a few more of them were actually really good. So much squandered potential in an era of opportunity we may not see again.

    Yeah, that’s the vital piece that a lot of the producers seem to be overlooking.

    I haven’t had coffee yet is a slogan I should wear on a t-shirt.

  11. JB:

    My personal head-scratching question, though: why was it a solid, explosion-causing vessel that started it? Wouldn’t something with that technology utilize a different form of incursion? Something us humans wouldn’t necessarily see or be aware of? Not sure how it happened it the books, but that starting point gave me pause.

    I figured it was a comet or asteroid that crashed carrying… something, not any kind of technology. No sentience, no intelligence or deliberate action, just an alien contaminant from Outside acting on our environment in ways we can’t really understand. The mutations, anomalies and doppelgangers an automatic reaction to exposure to the Shimmer, without any more malice or thought involved than a really weird natural disaster or chemical spill.

    Less alien invasion and more “The Color Out of Space”, if that makes sense.

  12. I’ve always been amazed that Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy became a massive best-seller. Truth is, I’m kind of amazed it even made it past the small presses.

    Don’t take this as a criticism of the novels. Take it, rather, as an indictment of the North American reading public.

    But isn’t that actually a tribute to the North American reading public? The Southern Reach Trilogy did become a massive bestseller.

  13. “It just becomes inexplicable visuals for the sake of inexplicable visuals. It’s ice on fire, and crystal trees, and walls that flow like molasses. Done within the framework of a compelling story those things can be incredible visuals that complement the story, resonate with it to create something greater than the parts. But it’s so terribly easy to fall into the CGI trap, especially in a story about the horror of the unknowable. What is the actual difference on the screen between visuals that are weird because we are trying to grasp the ungraspable, and visuals that are weird because a CGI team thought something looked cool?” (From ‘Annihilation’ Review: Maybe Alex Garland Should Read the Entire Series Before Adapting the First Book’ By Steven Lloyd Wilson)
    http://www.pajiba.com/film_reviews/annihilation-review-spoilers-analysis-and-explanation.php

  14. Hannibal the tv series too had weirdly beautiful macabre corpses in it!

  15. Ian Mathers: “I thought, ‘Reading this book is like a dream, so what I’m going to do is I’m going to adapt it like a dream. I’m not going to re-read the book. I’m going to adapt it from my memory of the book’… In some places it will correlate very closely, and in other places it won’t. It’s a dream response to a dream book.”

    From further down the same thread: “”I’m not going to re-read the book” shows a stunning laziness and contempt for the work.”.

    I won’t say Garland’s approach was “wrong”— it’s at the very least interesting—but it’s not the way I would have proceeded.

    DA:
    Off Topic, it appears that octopus skepticism is a thing. I was wondering if Dr. Watts cared to put on his marine biologist hat and defend the cephalopod. I want to believe.

    “Octopus” covers a range of species, from those tiny thumbnail ones in the deep sea to Octopus vulgaris in the Pacific. The little ones probably are dumb. But even the skeptic can’t punch holes in the claim that the smart ones are comparable to raccoons— and as someone currently in the process of shelling out a few grands on reinforcements after the last trash-panda incursion on our roof, that’s plenty smart enough for me.

    PhilRM: But isn’t that actually a tribute to the North American reading public? The Southern Reach Trilogy did become a massive bestseller.

    No, it was my expectation that reflects the contempt for the American Reader. I didn’t think they’d go for it. The fact that they did— well, I don’t quite know how to process that. I’d hate to think they were smarter than I’d given them credit for.

    Marshb:
    Hannibal the tv series too had weirdly beautifulmacabre corpses in it!

    They did! And did you know, I actually got to see some of them in the flesh!

  16. I just watched this and wanted to discuss some thoughts: the short of it is, the Shimmer is a probably non-conscious, not very intelligent galactic cancer. It’s hinted at through the movie – Lenna mentions a woman with cancer at the beginning, her work studying the aging process is relevant for cancer research. In a flashback we even see her reading a book about Henrietta Lacks! Also, Ventress (who has cancer) even says it’s inside me – referring directly to the alien, but drawing an explicit parallel with illness.

    The Shimmur doesn’t necessarily have a goal, or intention or – as they point out – even a ‘want’. The solid vessel in the lighthouse could be a natural body (as suggested in another comment) OR could be created by intelligent mutations.

    The mutations of local wildlife could be a way of exploring possible ways of metastasizing in whatever ecosystem the shimmer finds itself in – and the replicating/tweaking of local intelligences might *very occasionally* yield entities that *do* have intention and attempt to spread the shimmer using whatever tech they have available. If intelligent civilizations prove to be very effective at spreading the shimmer, then strains of shimmer that try to replicate/tweak local intelligences should tend to predominate over time.

  17. DA: After Villeneuve’s “better than it had any right to be” Blade Runner sequel tanked, despite being probably one of the best films of the year (even if it wasn’t completely embraced around these parts), I can’t even say they’re wrong.

    Really? I watched it recently and thought it was fantastic. Will have to go back and read the Blade Runner thread.

    I haven’t read the Southern Reach books (yet), but I am a big fan of Vandermeer’s earlier work. This sounds similar, but different: a lot of beautiful weirdness for the sake of beautiful weirdness, and if you can’t stand not finding out The Answer, too bad. A definite choice for movie night.

    Much of the Netflix content I’ve seen recently is good, or very good. More encouragingly, it also seems to be profitable. Excellent news, especially for fans of horror and sci-fi.

  18. Fatman: Really? I watched it recently and thought it was fantastic.

    I liked it quite a bit. I was referring to our host’s more reserved take on it in his review.

    In case I wasn’t clear, I meant I can’t say a producer is wrong to shy away from ambitious hard sf projects. It rarely matters how good a movie is– it would be like asking them to take a hundred million and just light it on fire.

    Fatman: Will have to go back and read the Blade Runner thread.

    I wouldn’t advise that. We got pretty into the weeds on that one.

    Fatman: Much of the Netflix content I’ve seen recently is good, or very good. More encouragingly, it also seems to be profitable. Excellent news, especially for fans of horror and sci-fi.

    If we’re speaking of original exclusive content, your luck has been better than mine. Altered Carbon and Mute were both disappointing to various degrees, despite having high, Blade Runnery production values. Their Cloverfield thing was a bomb. The OA was utter nonsense. Annihilation seems like it actually might be their best recent SF bullet point. People talk up Black Mirror, but that has always struck me as SF for people who don’t like SF, or at least have never seen an episode of the Twilight Zone.

    Impossible to tell how Netflix reckons profitability, since they are so protective of their internal metrics. If one of these costly projects was able to transcend being “just ok” and receive a lot of critical praise it might be worth keeping around just for brand prestige, but Netflix has spent a lot of money on this stuff for a lot of faint praise. Sooner or later they’ll learn the same lesson that Hollywood mostly adheres to: spending big money to deliver a polished production designed to appeal to an older, notoriously nitpicky niche audience is a terrible investment, when you can be more profitable making cheaper and/or dumber shit with much less risk.

    Good ambitious SF is difficult and frequently costly to make. All of us here have made terrible decisions about what sort of entertainment to favor. There are so many better served options that don’t involve being constantly disappointed.

  19. DA: If we’re speaking of original exclusive content, your luck has been better than mine.

    I like sci-fi, but I’m more into horror, and some of the stuff that’s coming out on Netflix (i.e. where Netflix is the main distributor) is pretty promising. You should understand that, when it comes to horror, the bar for “pretty promising” is set rather low, and at times drags along the ground.

    It’s hard to categorize Black Mirror. Like the Twilight Zone, it fits the definition of “kind of thing I like to watch”. Like the Twilight Zone, some episodes are great, some weaker, the majority are good. The sci-fi flavoring is mild enough not to limit the show’s broader appeal, and both critical and audience reception have been overwhelmingly positive. This makes me hopeful that Netflix is indeed ushering in a golden age – of sci-fi, but other genres too.

    DA: spending big money to deliver a polished production designed to appeal to an older, notoriously nitpicky niche audience

    I tend to take a dim view of programs designed to appeal to the fanboy niche, as I believe this to be detrimental to production and storytelling in general. At both extremes, the result is “dumber shit”.

  20. Fatman: DA: spending big money to deliver a polished production designed to appeal to an older, notoriously nitpicky niche audience

    I tend to take a dim view of programs designed to appeal to the fanboy niche, as I believe this to be detrimental to production and storytelling in general. At both extremes, the result is “dumber shit”.

    I’m not explaining myself well I see–I’m not sure where we got “fanboys” out of this.

    When I refer to the “niche” audience, I’m referring to the small audience that appreciates and seeks out thoughtful, ambitious, harder, more artfully crafted SF–anything more sophisticated than spandex clad superheroes punching each other or hitting each other over the head with brightly colored nerfbats. I mean, I enjoy that stuff too in moderation, but it’s not the kind of SF I want my options limited to.

    That audience is small, skews older, is difficult to please, and will nitpick your stuff to death. There’s little financial incentive to pursue that audience at great risk when there are easier or cheaper paths available.

    If the term “fanboy” has been broadened now to include “people that enjoy intelligent genre fiction”, then it is essentially meaningless. A movie can fail in its ambitions and still be a bad movie, but it is never “dumber” than the alternative for having tried.

  21. Fatman,

    I’m not sure if you have read the books, but in many ways they are more horror than sci fi. Attempts to apply “sci” to the situation are less than effective. If it is SF then it is well into Clarke’s law territory.

  22. dpb: I’m not sure if you have read the books, but in many ways they are more horror than sci fi.

    No, but this is what I’d expect, having read Vandermeer’s other stuff.

  23. Fatman: I tend to take a dim view of programs designed to appeal to the fanboy niche, as I believe this to be detrimental to production and storytelling in general. At both extremes, the result is “dumber shit”.

    I tried to clarify this a bit more, but that reply was eaten by the ‘Crawl. Unless the term “fanboy” has somehow expanded to mean “people that enjoy thoughtful, ambitious, well-crafted genre fiction”, then we are speaking about different things entirely, and I have failed miserably to make myself understood.

    Probably best to let it go at that then, rather than descend into an increasingly granular discussion for a subject Im not overly concerned about.

  24. DA: Unless the term “fanboy” has somehow expanded to mean “people that enjoy thoughtful, ambitious, well-crafted genre fiction”, then we are speaking about different things entirely, and I have failed miserably to make myself understood.

    Well, no, just that one man’s thoughtful and ambitious genre fiction is another man’s Terminator Genisys, and vice versa. The fact that I can nitpick doesn’t mean that my nitpicking is meaningful in any objective sense, or contributes anything of value to any discussion.

    Fanboy (verb): behave in an obsessive or overexcited way. I guess I should have included fangirls for the sake of equality, although they tend to be fewer and less obnoxious.

    Fanboys can be found among followers of superhero blockbusters, eyes glazed and drooling slightly as they watch hot people in spandex fly around and shoot laser beams out of their nether parts. Fanboys exist among the brooding and pretentious connoisseurs of, like, Real Art, man (cue smug smile and narrowing of eyes). Trying to cater to the expectations of fanboys results in a weaker and dumber version of the story. Dare you imagine Blade Runner 2049 written to the specs of the original film’s fanboy-base? That’s what I meant.

  25. Fatman: Dare you imagine Blade Runner 2049 written to the specs of the original film’s fanboy-base? That’s what I meant.

    Yes, I understand the traditional use of the term, even though it’s stupid. The word “fan” already means what the term “fanboy” has come to encompass. It’s only real use is as an infantalizing pejorative when you want to belittle a particular fanbase, which is why it confused me when you employed it where you did.

    I was making the argument that I understood studio reluctance to support hard SF projects, or at least ambitious, thoughtful SF projects if you don’t want to use those terms interchangeably. It’s a losing proposition. Quality is no defense–many (most even?) of the greatest SF films in history have received a tepid response or been outright rejected by the public.

    SF films tend to be expensive productions relative to a lot of other things. You could make the best movie in the world, and it’s potential success is still limited because the audience for challenging SF that requires viewers running on something other than autopilot is tiny, and always has been. It skews older, and older people are picky and much more difficult to please than an audience that skews younger. You could make a great movie, and Neil Degrasse Tyson is still going to dunk on you all day long on twitter for not getting some bit of science right. Hard SF writers are going to bust your balls for not being ambitious enough. The mainstream public is going to reject it because you made them work a bit, or because the film lets the actors pause to take a breath now and then, or because it isn’t one of the three acceptable social issues Hollywood tries to jello mold any SF project more sophisticated than SW into, that we have to retread again and again.

    They managed to make a good film out of Blade Runner 2049, and lensed it by one of the greatest living cinematographers for a truly beautiful cinematic experience. They allowed it to unfold at a contemplative pace that let dialogue land, cultivated emotional undercurrents, and let the audience glean information from performance, rather than being spoonfed. They showed, rather than told.

    Completely tanked, and probably ruined the likelihood of any other thoughtful, ambitious SF past a certain budget amount for the foreseeable future. If they *had* catered to the “fanboy base” whatever that means, it could have only helped it.

    The fanboy argument applies to some other situation, where fans are arguing over whether lightsabers should be purple or not, or whatever the fuck Star Wars fans are upset by this week. SW isn’t a “niche” audience–the franchise is a license to print money. This isn’t about service to fans of an established franchise, this is about whether or not certain *kinds* of movies are even made at all. Since you’re here on this blog, I admit to assuming you’re a fan of at least some challenging SF, and would like to see, for instance, films based on the work of Dr. Watts, or high quality films in that vein. It perplexes me that you’d frame that desire as catering to “fanboys”.

    But like I said, I don’t blame them for not making more. If I had a few hundred million to invest in a movie, you’re damn right I’m putting it into the next dancing CG penguin movie that comes along, and far away from some thoughtful movie that explores the fabric of reality itself that maybe 17 people might see if I’m lucky.

  26. It’s always exciting to see big, uncompromising genre attempts, even when imperfect. I think it’s fair to say that – on a plot and science level – the ending is muddled, but in terms of the character arcs and emotional/psychological themes of the film, as a meditation on trauma and guilt and change, I thought the ending felt right on the mark. FilmCritHulk said it really well in his essay on the film (as he so often does):

    https://filmcrithulk.blog/2018/02/27/annihilation-the-horrors-of-change/

    “Which brings us to the very ending of the film, one we could get lost in some kind of argument over if we still thought movies were puzzles: is her story a lie? Was her alien doppelgänger the one who really get out? Is it just trying to give us a nonsensical horror scare? Yeah, those questions don’t matter because Garland isn’t playing a game, creating a puzzle, or trying to jerk you around. The answer lies in what happens when you merely accept what’s been given and follow the damn metaphor: having gone through the fires of annihilation, whether you are someone who has given in and immolated and left the husk of yourself behind (like Kane), or burned your worst bloody self in the name of finally expunging (like Lena)… the truth is we’re never really sure if we’ve grown or transcended those boundaries. Just as we’re never sure how much of the old us in still inside. Because the truly haunting thing about our grappling with disease, mental illness, or that which annihilates us, is that it’s never really gone. The pain and trauma of it is dyed into our bodies, and we must carry it with us into new lives no matter what. Like the final image reels, you can see the pain in our eyes, like singed ashes, burning radiant and wild, eating us still… We may be through the fire. But we are not the same.”

  27. DA: It’s only real use is as an infantalizing pejorative when you want to belittle a particular fanbase, which is why it confused me when you employed it where you did.

    No confusion – I used the word exactly for the purpose you noted, i.e. to belittle a particular fanbase. I.e. the pretentious “my definition of art is better than that of the unwashed masses” crowd.

    DA: Since you’re here on this blog, I admit to assuming you’re a fan of at least some challenging SF, and would like to see, for instance, films based on the work of Dr. Watts, or high quality films in that vein.

    Great example. I’m actually not sure I would. Several times I have stated that I don’t think Dr. Watts’s novels would transition well to the big screen, because a lot of the story and background would be lost.

    Of course this is my opinion only (maybe shared by one or two other fanboys). Were such a movie to be made (e.g. Blindsight, with that beautiful trailer posted a couple of posts ago), I might roll up my sleeves, furiously scratch my neckbeard and launch into a 10,000 word online rant about how the movie is merely mediocre and visually attractive where it had the potential to be Real Art, challenge humanity’s views on identity and sentience, etc., etc. Ending in a lament on how Watts sold out to appease his multi-million-dollar investors and how this tawdry spectacle is a slap in the face for all of us, his small yet refined and discerning audience. I mean, Willem Dafoe as Jukka Sarasti, man. Seriously not cool.

    DA: Neil Degrasse Tyson is still going to dunk on you all day long on twitter for not getting some bit of science right.

    Oddly coincidental, a day ago I read a quote by NDT on art versus entertainment. It made me happy, because it proves that extremely smart people can say extremely stupid things on occasion. Now I feel better about spouting the above nonsense.

  28. Fatman: No confusion – I used the word exactly for the purpose you noted, i.e. to belittle a particular fanbase. I.e. the pretentious “my definition of art is better than that of the unwashed masses” crowd.

    Yeah, but as near as I can tell ( I hope I’m wrong and there’s simply a communication issue ) the “fanbase” you’re belittling are the small groups of people–fans of any genre, not just SF– who seek out and would like to see more mature, ambitious projects make it to screen.

    While I argue that I *understand* the reason why this niche is under-served, you appear to be arguing that no attempt *should* be made, because “pandering to fanboys” or something? If that’s an accurate summary of your opinion, I remain bewildered.

    My definition of art *is* better than the masses when it comes to determining the sort of things I’d like to see more of. I have no patience for the game where we pretend that every opinion is equally valid and deserving of respect simply because it exists. Somewhere right now someone believes the earth is flat, but I’m not required to shut my brain down and give that opinion any particular weight.

    If *you’d* like to pretend that projects like Arrival, or Ex Machina, or 2049, or Westworld don’t have more merit as quality science fiction than Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and that anyone who thinks that is a snob that’s fine, but I’m way too old not to call that particular spade a shovel.

    Fatman: DA: Since you’re here on this blog, I admit to assuming you’re a fan of at least some challenging SF, and would like to see, for instance, films based on the work of Dr. Watts, or high quality films in that vein.

    Great example. I’m actually not sure I would. Several times I have stated that I don’t think Dr. Watts’s novels would transition well to the big screen, because a lot of the story and background would be lost.

    So because something might be bad, we should set the bar no higher than the latest Transformers movie? Adapting ambitious source material is definitely a challenge. But sometimes things work out. There was little reason to believe that 2049 was going to be any good, after all.

    I don’t agree with your positions on this issue. Which is fine, we simply differ. But I’m starting to suspect you might actually be trolling me for slighting something above that you enjoyed. That actually *would* make your “fanboy” argument more relevant.

  29. Thanks to this review (at least, the warning about spoilers; I waited to read the rest of it) I’ve seen my second film in a year in a theater (the other was BR2049). (Note to theater owners: Change the exit signs back to red – green is too bright – and dim the stair lights.)

    I like Garland, although I thought he missed a couple of the more gut wrenching moments in Never Let Me Go when they would have worked perfectly. I haven’t read Annihilation, so I enjoyed the movie in a way I didn’t feel when I watched Arrival after reading the story it was based on (although I loved Sicario, fantastic director – a trailer before Annihilation promises a sequel, too). I think maybe the only way to film a novel for those who have read it is as a ten part series, and for a trilogy, go three seasons.

    I guess I would sum up Annihilation thusly:

    Pro: Apocalypse Now on acid

    Con: Women instead of men trekking through the jungle with assault rifles – it felt invasive and alien

    Disclaimer: This comment was written by a previous version of myself, and does not necessarily represent the person I am now.

  30. Peter Watts: and as someone currently in the process of shelling out a few grands on reinforcements after the last trash-panda incursion on our roof, that’s plenty smart enough for me.

    Does it cost that much to put some trash panda heads on spikes?

    If they’re so clever they’d get the hint, I think.

  31. Y.: Does it cost that much to put some trash panda heads on spikes?

    If they’re so clever they’d get the hint, I think.

    I’d rather see a moat patrolled by octopuses so we could see which animal puts their 500 million neurons to better use. You know. For science.

  32. DA,

    Are there any truly predatory ones?

    All the ones I’ve seen so far were kinda timid.

  33. DA: If *you’d* like to pretend that projects like Arrival, or Ex Machina, or 2049, or Westworld don’t have more merit as quality science fiction than Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and that anyone who thinks that is a snob that’s fine

    The point I tried to make is that fanboys found bones to pick even with Arrival, Ex Machina, 2049 and Westworld. Even Interstellar and Gravity got sneered at. There is no appeasing the pretentious. The dumb are a much more thankful audience. Hence the preponderance of Batmen vs. Supermen.

    DA: While I argue that I *understand* the reason why this niche is under-served, you appear to be arguing that no attempt *should* be made, because “pandering to fanboys” or something?

    No, my argument is that filmmakers should try to put out the best movie possible without trying to pander to either the Marvel superhero fanbase or the Discerning Gentlemen of Culture and Taste. At the risk of repeating myself, the result is “dumber shit”.

  34. Fatman: The point I tried to make is that fanboys found bones to pick even with Arrival, Ex Machina, 2049 and Westworld. Even Interstellar and Gravity got sneered at. There is no appeasing the pretentious.

    Dude, people sneered at Interstellar because it’s an imbecilic movie. It was so stupid it retroactively raised my opinion of Gravity (which got a lot of plot-crucial physics needlessly wrong, but had a fine central performance from Sandra Bullock).

    I thought Arrival was brilliant. I was hugely impressed by Blade Runner 2049 (a film that at any point prior to about fifteen minutes into my first viewing I would have told you should never have been made), but that doesn’t alter the fact that its third act is a bit of a mess.

    Ex Machina was an interesting, worthwhile film, but like Annihilation didn’t quite hit its target: what promised to be a story about AI turned out to be a study of toxic masculinity. And although there were a lot of great things about Westworld, it’s not without some substantial flaws: I thought the resolution of the Ed Harris/Man in Black storyline was prett weak.

    Criticism is not pretentiousness. And since Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, Annihilation, Ex Machina, Gravity, Westworld, and Interstellar were all critically acclaimed (Interstellar less so, but still overwhelmingly positive), I still don’t know what your point is. If you think the prevalence of lowest common denominator junk is the fault of pretentious critics nitpicking great films: I give you the entire career of Adam Sandler.

  35. PhilRM,

    I’m not sure where I fit on this continuum. I’m not a fan of the Marvel type films (I can’t find anything meaningful in the action or anyone to identify with or even be interested in, and cannot remember any aspect of the plot even as I’m watching; I find them very boring to sit through and have only done so to please other people).

    I would have liked Arrival except that my reading of the story it was based on seemed to dictate that knowledge of the future could not in any way change it, and the language based logic of the story that structured this conception was what made the story work so well for me.

    I like the other films mentioned in an uncritical kind of way. I’m willing to let some things slide in order to further other narrative and thematic elements.

    I liked the toxic masculinity in Ex Machina. Any true Turing test (albeit not what Turing was discussing, but a test of self-awareness – which can never be more than circumstantial even when assessing other humans) is going to need to get at the stuff in us below the neo-cortex.

    I like Adam Sandler films.

    Am I fanboy, uncritical yob, pretentious critic, toxic male…?

  36. Saw “Annihilation” at the theater and really like it. Haven’t read Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy yet and didn’t want to read the first book because I didn’t want to do that check-list thing of comparing the movie to the book it was based on. However, I was kind of wondering about the last 10 minutes of the movie seeming rather rushed in order rap the story up and also knowing that there are two more books following the first book. You solved that for me by pointing out that the ending was a deviation from the book. Just makes me want to read the Southern Reach Trilogy more.

    Peter, have you watched “Altered Carbon” on Netflix yet? Curious to know your take on the series. I almost re-read the book before watching the series, but didn’t want to do the check-list thing. Read the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy by Richard K. Morgan when they came out years ago. I was able to watch the series with fresh eyes and found it very enjoyable, even remembered some of scenes from the book.

  37. PhilRM: And since Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, Annihilation, Ex Machina, Gravity, Westworld, and Interstellar were all critically acclaimed (Interstellar less so, but still overwhelmingly positive), I still don’t know what your point is.

    But that’s exactly my point. These films were all critically acclaimed, yet segments of the audience (e.g. you) did not enjoy some of them, to the point of using the terms “imbecilic”, or found “significant flaws”. Star Wars and BR 2049 both got excoriated by fanboys/girls for refusing to pay heed to ridiculous fan theories. So I stand by what I wrote, while acknowledging that everyone is entitled to an opinion.

    PhilRM: If you think the prevalence of lowest common denominator junk is the fault of pretentious critics nitpicking great films: I give you the entire career of Adam Sandler.

    I don’t know where you got that from – certainly not anything I wrote.

    Movies that you refer to as lowest-common-denominator get made, and will keep getting made, because they are profitable.

    But then consider this discussion thread. We complain about the lack of intelligent and ambitious cinema, then in the same breath indulge in nonsensical nitpicking of the few projects that might fit this bill. It could be that we are Discerning Gentlemen of True Culture and Taste, ever raising the bar higher in our pursuit of the unattainable ideal of True Art. Or it could be that we are a bunch of pretentious dickweeds. I don’t know what the answer is.

    Phil: I’m not a fan of the Marvel type films (I can’t find anything meaningful in the action or anyone to identify with or even be interested in, and cannot remember any aspect of the plot even as I’m watching; I find them very boring to sit through and have only done so to please other people).

    I feel the same way – please accept this tip of the fedora from one Discerning Gentleman of True Culture and Taste to another.

    But I know quite a few people who enjoy Marvel superhero films, and not all of them speak in monosyllables and drag their knuckles along the ground when they walk. People who grew up reading Marvel comics tend to like Marvel movies. I didn’t, so I don’t.

  38. Phil,

    Beats me – put yourself anywhere you want!

    It wasn’t the presence of toxic masculinity that I didn’t like in Ex Machina, it was that it became the actual theme of the film.

    This would be a long discussion that I unfortunately don’t have time for, but I don’t think the film of Arrival actually presents any evidence that knowledge of the future allows one to change anything, either.

  39. Fatman: But that’s exactly my point. These films were all critically acclaimed, yet segments of the audience (e.g. you) did not enjoy some of them, to the point of using the terms “imbecilic”, or found “significant flaws”. Star Wars and BR 2049 both got excoriated by fanboys/girls for refusing to pay heed to ridiculous fan theories. So I stand by what I wrote, while acknowledging that everyone is entitled to an opinion.

    You've still lost me, because you don't really seem to believe that last sentence. Because something was critically acclaimed, no one is allowed to criticize it? Even ignoring the nonsense astrophysics in Interstellar, I’m supposed to overlook that it was idiot plotting from start to finish? What does Star Wars (I assume you’re referring to Last Jedi) have to do with this discussion? It was a box office smash, independent of any fanboy excoriation.

    But then consider this discussion thread. We complain about the lack of intelligent and ambitious cinema, then in the same breath indulge in nonsensical nitpicking of the few projects that might fit this bill.

    Or it could be that we don’t all feel that sitting down and shutting the fuck up is the only allowed response to even an admirably ambitious but flawed movie.
    My wife and I saw Arrival twice in the theater. We saw BR2049 three times – it would have been four if it had stayed in theaters longer. We went to see Annihilation on opening weekend. I don’t think we’re really the issue when it comes to the box office performance of those films. Of course, Arrival actually did fairly well – although not anywhere near as well as Interstellar, which took in about $675 million worldwide.

    PhilRM: If you think the prevalence of lowest common denominator junk is the fault of pretentious critics nitpicking great films: I give you the entire career of Adam Sandler.

    I don’t know where you got that from – certainly not anything I wrote.

    That was a (possibly unfair) inference – you seem – as far as I can tell – to be arguing that the relative box-office failure of films like Annihilation and BR2049 is entirely the fault of people who like intelligent, challenging SF not clapping hard enough for any movies that even vaguely point in that direction.

  40. Fatman: No, my argument is that filmmakers should try to put out the best movie possible without trying to pander to either the Marvel superhero fanbase or the Discerning Gentlemen of Culture and Taste. At the risk of repeating myself, the result is “dumber shit”.

    Well then, as near as I can tell your goals and the goals of the Discerning Gentlemen align perfectly. The only thing the Discerning Gentlemen appear to be guilty of is being someone else other than *you* that say they’d like to see the best movie possible, for which they get denounced as fanboys. As I said before, a movie can fail in its ambitions and still be a bad movie, but they’re never dumber than the alternative for having been ambitious.

    As a discerning gentleman myself, I’ve been tolerating your low grade insult up til now, but it’s wearing thin. The only distinction between trying to make the best movie possible, and “catering to discerning fans” who want to see better examples of their favored genre, seems to be your indignation that anyone else would express an opinion about it.

    I’m not even going to beat up on the marvel fanbase, because I don’t see those projects as existing in a spectrum with the sort of projects Id like to see more of. Those things are what they are, theyre a fairly well crafted product, and I’m capable of enjoying those myself in moderation. It’s not a matter of trying to shape those projects into a “better” version–it’s a matter of the sort of things Im most interested in not existing at all. I don’t want to tell someone how to make their quality, ambitious SF film–I’d just like for more of them to be able to get made.

    Unfortunately, the goal of the entertainment media is not to make “the best film possible”. It’s to make money, and quality is incidental. BR2049 was probably close to being the best possible thing we could have expected for an unnecessary sequel to a cult SF film, but it tanked hard. If good SF is ever also good box office, it’s usually an accident.

    As someone with niche tastes, I’m aware that I’m likely to be consistently disappointed. Personally I feel like that’s enough of a bummer in itself, so I’m not inclined to sit through your insults any longer. Let’s wrap this one up.

  41. Y.: DA,

    Are there any truly predatory ones?

    All the ones I’ve seen so far were kinda timid.

    Most octopuses are predatory as far as I know. Their prey is typically smaller than a raccoon, but maybe with the right training, or forcing the trash pandas to run through a fine misting of herring mucus.

    I’m only joking of course. I can’t lie– “Octopus Moat” is on my short list of proposed solutions to any number of problems ranging from roommate boundary disputes to climate change. It’s just a coincidence it’s actually relevant in this case.

  42. Fatman,

    “I know quite a few people who enjoy Marvel superhero films, and not all of them speak in monosyllables and drag their knuckles along the ground when they walk.”

    True that. Person foremost in mind that I’ve sat through Marvel movies with is much smarter than me in most ways.

  43. DA,

    Well said.

    The only thing I would even slightly disagree with is that Blade Runner 2049 tanked hard. It grossed about $260 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo (about 65% of that outside the US), which means it actually took in somewhat more than Arrival (about $200 million, split equally between US and non-US). The trouble is that BR2049 cost far more to make than Arrival (reportedly $150 million vs $47 million, not counting promotion), so that relatively speaking it was a box office failure, although not a studio-destroying one. That it was nearly three hours long and rated R probably didn’t help its box office performance.

    Speaking of niche movies, have you seen Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin?

  44. A friend suggested it was about comparing and contrasting suicide and self-destruction. Not sure how that fits in with the lying/delusional “Shark-mouthed dingos ate your away team member.”

  45. PhilRM: The only thing I would even slightly disagree with is that Blade Runner 2049 tanked hard. It grossed about $260 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo (about 65% of that outside the US), which means it actually took in somewhat more than Arrival (about $200 million, split equally between US and non-US). The trouble is that BR2049 cost far more to make than Arrival (reportedly $150 million vs $47 million, not counting promotion), so that relatively speaking it was a box office failure, although not a studio-destroying one.

    The metrics of film profitability are arcane and few people can really hold up a balance sheet and point to a number, but people that estimate film profitability frequently make a couple mistakes.

    1) Promotion (marketing) is substantial, and can sometimes double the entire production budget of the film, so “not counting promotion” is leaving out a major piece of the pie.

    2) Box office grosses aren’t studio profits. All the money a film makes has to be split with the theaters that show it. This formula differs from film to film, and is usually closely guarded. I’ve seen it suggested that a studio’s cut is typically front loaded to where they get most of the money from the opening days and the theater’s share increases as time goes on. But a good rule of thumb is 50/50.

    So take that figure that you think the movie made, and chop it in half. Now compare it with the production budget, factor in a conservative 50-100 million in marketing, and you see the magnitude of the failure.

    It’s true also that movies continue to make money over time, with things like disk sales, streaming and television rights, etc. For a runaway hit this can be substantial, but there’s no reason to think that BR2049 wouldn’t face the same uphill battle in this arena with finding an audience as it did in theaters.

    All studios see is that that same 150 million invested in certain types of projects doesn’t tend to return the same money as a 150 million spent on dancing penguins or spandex fisticuffs. There is maybe room for more ambitious smaller budget films like Arrival, but even that’s no guarantee. I was going to mention Moon as an example of of good small budget SF that did well, but I looked it up and that film only made 10 million worldwide, and easily cost much more than that to make.

    When you look at numbers like that, you marvel that any great SF movies get made at all. I don’t blame studios–they’re predictable beasts. The blame is entirely on ourselves.

  46. PhilRM: The only thing I would even slightly disagree with is that Blade Runner 2049 tanked hard. It grossed about $260 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo (about 65% of that outside the US), which means it actually took in somewhat more than Arrival (about $200 million, split equally between US and non-US). The trouble is that BR2049 cost far more to make than Arrival (reportedly $150 million vs $47 million, not counting promotion), so that relatively speaking it was a box office failure, although not a studio-destroying one

    Made a much more thorough reply to this, but was eaten by the ‘Crawl spam filter. If that never shows up, don’t forget to chop that worldwide gross in half to account for studio/theater split. Formula varies by film, but 50/50 is a decent rule of thumb. Marketing for a film like BR also non-trivial. Can double production budget for big movies.

  47. Annihilation – Alex Garland & Jeff VanderMeer Interview:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hv74XKAYR2I

  48. So Stephen Hawking has passed. Now I feel ridiculous for having spent the week arguing about this stuff. I should have felt ridiculous before, but better late than never I guess.

  49. DA: Made a much more thorough reply to this, but was eaten by the ‘Crawl spam filter. If that never shows up, don’t forget to chop that worldwide gross in half to account for studio/theater split. Formula varies by film, but 50/50 is a decent rule of thumb. Marketing for a film like BR also non-trivial. Can double production budget for big movies.

    Sure. But I wasn’t disputing that BR2049 lost money. (I read somewhere that its total cost, including promotion, was about $240 million, but I’m not sure how reliable that number is.) The point I was attempting to make was that, in absolute terms, it did respectable box office: about one-third better, worldwide, than Villeneuve’s previous film, Arrival. It was BR2049’s hefty price tag that made it, in commercial terms, a failure.

    ETA: By magic, your vanished post has appeared. I don’t think we’re really in any disagreement.

    Re: Hawking. Why? It’s sad, unquestionably. But he was a remarkable man whose brilliance was recognized and acclaimed in his lifetime, and he spent the last five decades giving death the finger every single day. I can’t imagine a better legacy.

  50. DA: I was going to mention Moon as an example of of good small budget SF that did well, but I looked it up and that film only made 10 million worldwide, and easily cost much more than that to make.

    Moon apparently was made on a budget of $5 million – this is according to IMDB, but I also found an online interview with Duncan Jones where he used that same number. This is not including promotion (I wasn’t trying to elide this in discussing BR2049, it’s just that finding those numbers is much more difficult than production costs), but I can’t imagine that the studio spent much more than that on it – I recall seeing a couple of ads for it on television, but that was it. So in theatrical release, it probably lost the studio some money*. However, for a film with a budget as small as Moon, DVD sales/rentals may have provided a substantial increase to the film’s profits, while that (or streaming, these days) probably only provided a modest bump for Br2049, but those numbers are even harder to obtain than promotional budgets.

    *Of course, according to studio accountants, no film in the history of cinema has ever turned a profit.

  51. PhilRM: Sure. But I wasn’t disputing that BR2049 lost money. (I read somewhere that its total cost, including promotion, was about $240 million, but I’m not sure how reliable that number is.) The point I was attempting to make was that, in absolute terms, it did respectable box office: about one-third better, worldwide, than Villeneuve’s previous film, Arrival. It was BR2049’s hefty price tag that made it, in commercial terms, a failure.

    There’s a failure to profit, and failure by comparison. BR2049 is both. As you say, it lost money, which is a huge no-no. Tell me how happy you’d be if you’d lost millions on an investment. It also failed by losing the theoretical profits it would have made by being a different kind of movie. The people that make the decisions to finance these films don’t only see the actual loss, they see the lost opportunity to have made much better return.

    Furthermore, I *want* to see that kind of money spend on good SF. I don’t want to see it restrained to low budget projects. I want to see more ambitious ideas imbued with the kind of beauty and artfulness 2049 had–the conceptual rendering that big budgets allow. That’s why 2049 is such a disaster, because it just further cements the idea of big, artfully rendered SF being a bad idea for the people who get to make those decisions.

    The only thing we’re quibbling about here is that you don’t think BR2049 “tanked” as hard as I do. I say it tanked hard enough.

  52. PhilRM: Re: Hawking. Why? It’s sad, unquestionably. But he was a remarkable man whose brilliance was recognized and acclaimed in his lifetime, and he spent the last five decades giving death the finger every single day. I can’t imagine a better legacy.

    Because now my recall of this admirable man is going to be forever linked to the insipid argument I was involved in earlier. “I remember when Stephen Hawking died–I was arguing with some guy and I said there should be smarter movies about space aliens, and he said nuh-uh there should only be dumb movies about space aliens, and I said nuh-uh, and then he called me a fanboy and I was sad.”

  53. DA: “I remember when Stephen Hawking died–I was arguing with some guy and I said there should be smarter movies about space aliens, and he said nuh-uh there should only be dumb movies about space aliens, and I said nuh-uh, and then he called me a fanboy and I was sad.”

    But if you approach it from the angle of “we had an argument in which I unquestionably proved to myself that my definition of ‘smarter movies’ is the only relevant definition”, there is still a way to salvage something positive from the entire tragedy-marred, insipid experience 🙂

    DA: It also failed by losing the theoretical profits it would have made by being a different kind of movie.

    Not sure I agree with that. Making BR 2049 dumber and more commercial would not have necessarily broadened its appeal and resulted in more profits – it would have simply been a worse and equally unprofitable movie. No way of knowing for sure, but whoever went into this venture probably knew they weren’t going to get phenomenal ROI, and made the movie because they wanted to make it.

    The movie industry runs on profit, but filmmakers are motivated by other goals too. Not everyone wants to be the next Michael Bay. Financial gains from lesser works have subsidized unprofitable masterpieces for as long as art has existed.

  54. DA:
    The only thing we’re quibbling about here is that you don’t think BR2049 “tanked” as hard as I do. I say it tanked hard enough.

    Fair point. Nor would I really dispute the implications of that statement. However (come on, you knew this was coming): neither you nor I are good models for the movie industry in our willingness to tolerate losses. Studios make films that lose money all the time – it’s baked into the business. This is because, as William Goldman said, nobody knows anything when it comes to predicting what is going to be a hit. In this the movie industry is like the publishing industry, only on a much larger financial scale: the small fraction of massive successes subsidize the majority of projects that either lose money or, at best, break even. No one wants to make a film that loses money, but that’s an unavoidable risk. I would argue that until it actually proved to be successful, no one could have been certain that The Force Awakens was actually going to reboot the Star Wars franchise. (And how such a stupid, derivative movie was a box office hit escapes me, but never mind – clearly my opinion is in the minority.) That was even more true of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, on which New Line placed an absolutely enormous, studio-risking gamble. In the modern era the losses are made somewhat more tolerable by being spread out over a large number of production companies, most of which have their fingers in a lot of studio pies for just that reason. For BR2049 it’s kind of ridiculous – about the first minute of the film is taken up by production company title cards.

    The other thing that plays a role is the jockeying for prestige among the studios. Has any Paul Thomas Anderson movie not lost money, let alone turned a profit? Yet studios keep funding his crtically-acclaimed, Oscar-winning movies. (This is akin to the ‘literary’ genre in book publishing, most of which fail to earn out their advances, but publishers keep releasing them.) Admittedly these aren’t budgets on the scale of BR2049, but apparently Villeneuve’s next project is going to be a two-film adaptation of Dune – I’m not at all sure that’s even a good idea, but how is that not going to be enormously expensive? The failure of BR2049 doesn’t seem to have affected the willingness of people to give him money to make films.

    DA:
    Furthermore, I *want* to see that kind of money spend on good SF. I don’t want to see it restrained to low budget projects. I want to see more ambitious ideas imbued with the kind of beauty and artfulness 2049 had–the conceptual rendering that big budgets allow.

    As do I, but ‘low budget’ is a little fuzzy here. Was Arrival a low budget movie? ($50 million here, $50 million there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.) That was a conceptually ambitious (more so, I think, than BR2049, in some ways) and visually stunning film; I’m not convinced it would have been better if they’d had a bigger budget.

  55. Guys, guys. You know what else tanked upon first release?

    The original Blade Runner.

  56. Fatman: Not sure I agree with that. Making BR 2049 dumber and more commercial would not have necessarily broadened its appeal and resulted in more profits

    Again you fail to grasp we’re talking about different things. I’m not talking about “dumbing down” BR or “smartening up” a spandex fisticuff feature. Jesus, I apologize on behalf of whatever nerd kicked sand in you face in the past for enjoying some dumb shit like we all do from time to time and put this chip on your shoulder. I’m talking about that same 150 million being invested in a dancing penguin movie rather than BR, so that BR never exists at all in any form, and fewer movies that resemble BR being made at all.

    Fatman: – it would have simply been a worse and equally unprofitable movie. No way of knowing for sure,

    I’m just going to leave this fragment here and let the point make itself.

    Fatman: The movie industry runs on profit, but filmmakers are motivated by other goals too. Not everyone wants to be the next Michael Bay. Financial gains from lesser works have subsidized unprofitable masterpieces for as long as art has existed.

    Filmmakers (creative) =/= Filmmakers (studio). There is no shortage of ambitious creatives, but few with the power to will a big ambitious SF project into being. Yes, there have been happy accidents in the studio system, but for the most part the studio only learns the lesson of what does/doesnt work, which results in streaks where certain types of films don’t get made. Case in point, the only just-reversed trend of no female led superhero films for more than a decade because of some failures in the early 00s. Doesn’t matter that those movies were terrible, any more than it matters that BR2049 was good. Quality is incidental.

    I’ll repeat this from earlier in the thread. Villeneuve, maker of two surprisingly good, one successful, ambitious SF projects in a row, has stated that he can’t make another artful, ambitious SF project now, or he’s done. That should really say it all, and chill you if you happen to be a fan of the sorts of movies he makes.

    ***

    In case I wasn’t clear before, I”m done engaging with you on this topic. You don’t have an argument. You have a bone to pick with vocal fans of ambitious SF, which, while lamentable, is something I can at least understand. The arguments you make to support your bone-picking dont hold much water though.

    Call me a snob all you’d like, but get the fuck off my back. If you’d like to make an argument why one project might have more merit as SF than another, I’d welcome that discussion. If you’re going to continue carping about people with the nerve to state their own preferences and baldly identify which projects do/do not align with them, then I have no time for you.

  57. Peter Watts:
    Guys, guys. You know what else tanked upon first release?

    The original Blade Runner.

    I almost made that point but didn’t. (Which proves… nothing, I guess.) Also, I had a whole comment that apparently got eaten by the spam filter? It appeared as ‘awaiting moderation’, but when I tried to make a small edit it was disallowed on the grounds it had been flagged as spam. I don’t know why, this is the same IP I usually use.

  58. Testing to see if this gets eaten by the spam filter.

  59. Just finished reading it just so I can read this review.
    The novel had almost no answers to a whole lot of questions.

    I could have said that is a bad thing, but I never said that The Colour Out of Space by H.P. Lovecraft was bad, and there are still two more novels to go…

    And WRT cinema, if GI distribution is indeed Gaussian-ish, about half of the population is dumber than average. That’s a lot of dumb people and a lot of paying customers.
    Let it all burn in a fire.
    Annihilation annihilation annihilation!
    Doesn’t work… oh well. Perpetual Springfieldian tire fire is fine too.

    p.s. Considering the above, I have lost all hope of ever seeing your stuff in cinema or even on TV. It may come off as an insult or a compliment depending on how you want to take it.

  60. DA:
    I’ll repeat this from earlier in the thread. Villeneuve, maker of two surprisingly good, one successful, ambitious SF projects in a row, has stated that he can’t make another artful, ambitious SF project now, or he’s done.That should really say it all, and chill you if you happen to be a fan of the sorts of movies he makes.

    I had a long post in response to your earlier comment that got eaten by the spam filter (tl;dr version: Studios make films that lose money all the time, because they can’t avoid it by the nature of the business; the handful of blockbusters pay for all the others; nobody can predict what will be a hit). But never mind, I’m not going to repeat it – there’s really nothing in your latest comment that I disagree with.

    However, with reference to the paragraph I quoted: that was an extremely discouraging remark from Villeneuve. But now he says he’s going to adapt Dune, as at least two films:

    https://www.avclub.com/denis-villeneuve-says-hes-now-making-two-dune-movies-1823660070

    I don’t see any way in which that isn’t going to be tremendously ambitious and expensive, which suggests (neither the article nor the one that it links to give any details, unfortunately) that someone (or more likely, a group of someones) is still willing to throw a lot of money his way. And given the “You’re precisely as good as your last picture” nature of the film industry, if his Dune is a success people will be lined up to fund whatever he does next, even if it’s a film about talking space squid.

  61. PhilRM: Peter Watts:
    Guys, guys. You know what else tanked upon first release?

    The original Blade Runner.

    I almost made that point but didn’t. (Which proves… nothing, I guess.)

    I interpreted that comment as Dr. Watts doing a bit of good natured trolling when he discovered people were still commenting on this article and bickering over dumb shit.

    BTW, glad to see I’m not the only one wresting with the spam filter.

  62. PhilRM: However, with reference to the paragraph I quoted: that was an extremely discouraging remark from Villeneuve. But now he says he’s going to adapt Dune, as at least two films:I don’t see any way in which that isn’t going to be tremendously ambitious and expensive, which suggests (neither the article nor the one that it links to give any details, unfortunately) that someone (or more likely, a group of someones) is still willing to throw a lot of money his way.

    I believe that deal was already in the works before the BR2049 disaster, and is only proceeding precisely because he’s doing damage control and promising not to make anyone think about anything.

    When I read about his name attached after I had seen 2049, I was cautiously optimistic, but now I’m afraid it will amount to little more than off-brand Star Wars with little of that book’s essential weirdness intact.

  63. DA: I interpreted that comment as Dr. Watts doing a bit of good natured trolling when he discovered people were still commenting on this article and bickering over dumb shit.

    I interpreted it the same way, but hey, if we don’t argue over dumb shit, who will?

    It did prompt me to look up the numbers for the original Blade Runner: according to Paul Sammon’s Future Noir, which I think is reliable, the production budget was something over $28 million. I’m pretty sure that does not include publicity, which was substantial, but he doesn’t give a number for that (at least that I could find). In its initial theatrical release it grossed $14 million. Multiply those numbers by a factor of ~ 2.5 to get present-day dollars. So yeah, it tanked pretty hard. (Of course, it almost didn’t get made at all: the initial production company bailed during pre-production, and it wound up being a three-company collaboration.)

    A sentence I didn’t re-type from my vanished post in reference to Villeneuve’s Dune was “I’m not at all sure this is a good idea.” I’m not sure any film (or couple of films) is capable of capturing the book’s essential weirdness. Chances are your prediction is correct, but I’ll cross my fingers at least once in a while.

  64. Late to the party, but the events in the movie that were not in the book (at least the first one, I haven’t finished the series yet): the meteor strike, mentions of “mixing of forms”, and the trippy “fight” with something that might not actually be fighting, are eerily similar to the plot of Jacek Dukaj’s “Other Songs”. Though is probably coincidental, as the last time I’ve checked the novel did not have an official English translation.

  65. Information sidebar;

    Comments that posters above regard as being ‘rejected for moderation’ due to the ‘Spam Filter’, may in fact be
    rejected because their post has more than one URL link in it. That seems to be the default setting of WordPress,
    although the forum owner can change that default behaviour somewhere in the forum settings panel (and assuming, if the forum software gets patched, or returned to original settings, that the forum owner remembers to also reapply the change to that default setting). (Note; the WordPress ‘spam’ software module may possibly handle ‘too many URL’s in a post’ detections as well, so an information box appearing referencing ‘spam’ , may not necessarily mean that ‘spam’ is the rejection criteria.)
    I’m noticing that cut and paste quotes are (perhaps unintentionally) including a link to the quoted post – that
    may be a causal factor, also.

  66. buyerninety,

    Aha! I think it’s the combination of those two points (the URL limit, and the inclusion of links in quoted posts) that caused my problem, at least.

  67. @buyerninety:

    Thanks for the information. That could certainly be a factor sometimes, but not always.

    There are two different states involved when a post gets flagged. It can be marked for “moderation”, in which case Dr. Watts (presumably) releases it when he notices it, or it can be marked as “spam” where it disappears into spam limbo and rarely shows up afterward.

    Verbose postings, posts with a lot of formatting (this includes multiquotes), or posts with hyperlinks all run a good chance of being flagged for moderation in my experience. *Never* edit a post that’s been flagged for moderation. This risks the post being downgraded to spam, where it might be gone forever.

    Sometimes a comment just disappears completely upon hitting the submit button, with no indication whatever about what happened to it. I rarely see these again.

  68. @DA – you will continue to see a structure that is made of coquina and stone. You will trust your colleagues completely and feel a continued sense of fellowship them.

  69. Happy Easter, crawl.

  70. Forbes: The Quantum Physics Of Vampires.

  71. Bahumat,

    You can’t have nature as the sole antagonist, not anymore, that’s box office poison. The Greeks figured out it was bullshit a long time ago, too.