Home > Reviews > ANNIHILATION – Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow

ANNIHILATION – Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow

February 28, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Annihilation is an ambitious and intelligent sci-fi action-drama based on the series of Southern Reach novels by author Jeff Vander Meer. The film stars Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist and former soldier, who is recruited by a secret US military science organization, and becomes part of a team sent to investigate ‘the shimmer,’ a mysterious phenomenon that has appeared in the Florida Everglades. Once inside the quarantined shimmer zone, Lena and her all-female team – psychologist Ventress, medic Anya, physicist Josie, and geologist Sheppard – begin to search for the source of the phenomenon, and encounter all manner of unusual animals and plants along the way. However, unknown to the other members of the group, Lena also has a secondary mission of her own: to find out what happened to her husband Kane, who was part of a previous team sent into the Shimmer, and which never returned. The film co-stars Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Oscar Isaac, and was directed by Alex Garland.

The film has been roundly praised for its innovation and its visual magnificence, as well as for its fascinating exploration of themes involving identity, the nature of reality, loss and grief, and for addressing complicated scientific topics including evolutionary biology and cellular chemistry. For those who don’t care to get into all that, it’s also just a really good yarn, with moments of action, tension and horror that work very well. I don’t want to get too much into the detail, so as not to ruin the mystery, but the finale of the film will likely be divisive. I personally loved it, and enjoyed both the ambiguity and downright weirdness of it all. Unfortunately, the ‘visual magnificence’ element of the film has been somewhat undermined by film studio Paramount’s decision to release the film straight-to-Netflix everywhere except the United States, a short sighted choice which will rob cinema goers of some of the most startling, memorable big screen imagery in quite some time.

The final aspects of the film which have been almost unanimously praised by mainstream critics are its sound design, and its score. The sound design elements, and the associated sound effects editing, are genuinely excellent, creative, and at times overwhelmingly powerful. As far as the score is concerned… well, let’s just say I have a different opinion. The music is by British composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. 46-year old Barrow is one of the founder members of the ‘trip hop’ electronica band Portishead, while 47-year old Salisbury is a composer who has worked extensively on numerous BBC nature documentaries. The pair teamed up for the first time in 2014 to write the score for Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, and collaborated again last year on the action thriller Free Fire.

Whenever I sit down to write a film score review, one of my first thoughts is to try to be fair to the composers. No score is written in isolation; it’s informed by the narrative, the visuals, the wishes of the director (and the producer, and the executive producer…), and of course it must serve the story, first and foremost. When it comes to predominantly electronic scores like Annihilation I have to work extra hard on this, because my natural musical taste is geared towards acoustic instruments and orchestras, thematic ideas, melody, and so on. Obviously not every film can be scored like that, and many of them should absolutely not be scored like that. There are many examples where electronic sounds are required, where processed synthesizers should be used primarily, and where a themes-and-variations structure would not be appropriate. In those circumstances, I try to understand what it is the composer is actually saying with the music. What does it mean? What is this music doing to serve the narrative?

On something like Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Arrival, which Annihilation superficially resembles, it was clear that Jóhannsson was writing music that acted similarly to the alien language in that film, and that he was using compositional palindromes as a way to musically mimic one of the story’s key intellectual ideas. As such, as I was listening to Annihilation, and as I was watching the film, I was trying to figure out what Barrow and Salisbury were doing. Were they trying to address the intellectual concept of refraction that continually occurs in the film? Were they using some sort of music-based prism to somehow scramble and then re-assemble the DNA of their music, the way the Shimmer does to light, and time, and to the DNA of living organisms? And then something occurred to me… and that was that I’m working way too hard on this. If I’m having to look so closely, and dissect the score so minutely for these incredibly deep philosophical and technical connections to justify why the music in Annihilation sounds the way it does, then it’s gotten way past the point where the music has failed to achieve the thing that in my opinion all film music must achieve, and that’s support the film.

The bottom line is that, irrespective of all the intellectualizing and theorizing one could do, Annihilation is a failure of basic musical storytelling. I’ve written variations of this paragraph before but it bears repeating again: for me, the best film composers are great storytellers in the same way that the best directors are great storytellers. They take you on a cinematic journey, make you feel a myriad of emotions, they connect dots and narrative strands with recurring thematic ideas – be they melodic, textural, or whatever – and help guide the audience toward the experience the filmmakers want them to have. Annihilation, for me, does none of that.

Virtually the entire score – and I do mean the entire score – is a series of slow, droning tones augmented with bass thumps, synthesized ambient noises, and occasional little tinkles from various metallic percussion items. There are a decent amount of live, acoustic instruments buried in there somewhere – I detected what might have been some low brass in “Approaching the Shimmer,” in addition to the beds of strings mentioned below – but whatever human touch is present has been digitally manipulated within an inch of its life so that all semblance of the original sound has been virtually obliterated. I don’t possess the vocabulary to adequately describe what it really sounds like because, frankly, 90% of it sounds the same. They use different synthesizers to create different tones, but by the middle of the score it has basically all morphed into one all-encompassing drone. In fact, a lot of the score seems to exist for no other reason than the fact that it’s necessary for there to be some sound, as opposed to there being silence, and they are using the ambiences to fill that void.

One brief melodic idea exists: a simple acoustic guitar riff with a slight country/bluegrass twang, which appears in “What Do You Know,” “Disoriented,” “The Watchtower,” “Sheppard,” “Cells Divide,” and others. While watching the film I initially identified this as a recurring idea to represent the relationship between Lena and Kane, but then it appears in a couple of scenes in the film which have no clear connection to the Lena/Kane relationship, which means it’s either not a theme for them, or that the director decided to use it in other random scenes without any regard for the composers’ intended thematic application.

There are also a couple of notable textures which stand out. There is a humming vocal texture in “Ambulance Chase,” “For Those That Follow,” “Sheppard,” “The Body,” “Lighthouse Chamber,” and others, although in the former it is immediately followed by a screaming, irritating electronic sound effect that made me want to rip off my headphones. Elsewhere, in cues like “The Swimming Pool” and “The Beach,” Salisbury and Barrow make use of a bank of whining, keening strings, again augmented and overwhelmed by electronic textures, to create an atmosphere of overwhelming dread. I have read articles comparing the string writing in this score to the work of Krzysztof Penderecki but, truthfully, it’s nowhere near as challenging, innovative, or compositionally interesting as the Polish composer’s groundbreaking work – instead, it comes across as a pale, noisy imitation.

“The Bear” is unsettling, especially when it introduces a series of unearthly electronic groans and whines in its second half, and the first part of the aforementioned “The Beach” has a glassy sound that conveys a sense of crystalline wonderment and cool detachment, but the score’s most significant cue is the 12-minute finale, “The Alien.” It is in this cue that Salisbury and Barrow reveal what will likely be the score’s defining musical idea – the three-note electronic pulse that featured heavily in the film’s trailer, and which emerges for the first time at 4:47. They surround it with the most ambitious music in the entire score: iridescent strings, tortured-sounding brass, and bleating electronic tones which fade in and out and echo through our brains, as well as a reprise of the humming and sighing vocal texture, which at times appears almost angelic in tone. Some of the music is deeply, deeply unpleasant – there are long sequences where the music is little more than loosely organized static – but some of the more avant-garde electronic ideas are really quite impressive, especially when the music appears to be mimicking an otherworldly approximation of speech. If only the rest of the score had shown this level of innovation and creativity.

As you can clearly tell, with the exception of the 12-minute finale cue, I think Annihilation fails on all other fronts. It is neither a good film score in the narrative context of the film, nor is it an interesting piece of music in actual compositional terms. Salisbury and Barrow have their sound, and their way of working, and there is absolutely a place for this sort of writing in film music, as scores like Arrival attest. However, what bothers me most is that it’s becoming predictable. Truthfully I’m getting sick of the prevailing wisdom in Hollywood that, in order for it to be taken seriously and project a veneer of intellectualism, serious sci-fi film music needs to have all its emotion, all its melody, and all its narrative structure, stripped away, so that all we are left with is are quiet ambient tones enlivened only by occasional moments of ear-drum shredding noise.

For me, serious science fiction is often about finding the humanity among the cool intellect, searching for emotional meaning in a galaxy that is often devoid of it. If that emotional context is removed from film music, if there is no depth of feeling bridging the gap between the film and its audience, then the music becomes nothing but an intellectual exercise. Then, when something like Annihilation comes along, which for me failed to be musically stimulating from either an emotional or an intellectual point of view, all you’re left with is an hour’s worth of hollow noise with no narrative arc, no emotional core to connect with, and only a single 12-minute finale cue that teases us with the sort of intellectual composition the whole score should have had.

Buy the Annihilation soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • What Do You Know? (2:36)
  • Ambulance Chase (2:58)
  • Approaching the Shimmer (1:53)
  • Disoriented (2:37)
  • The Alligator (1:02)
  • For Those That Follow (2:49)
  • The Swimming Pool (2:57)
  • The Watchtower (2:08)
  • Sheppard (2:45)
  • The Body (2:04)
  • Plant People (2:45)
  • Cells Divide (1:37)
  • The Bear (4:53)
  • The Beach (4:24)
  • Were You Me? (3:03)
  • Lighthouse Chamber (2:05)
  • The Alien (12:04)
  • Annihilation (5:22)

Running Time: 60 minutes 03 seconds

Lakeshore Records (2018)

Music composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. Recorded and mixed by Rupert Coulson. Edited by Yann McCollough. Album produced by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.

  1. February 28, 2018 at 2:38 pm

    Oh boy. Writing reviews like this is never easy. And I expect a lot of people to yell at you for having a well-rounded opinion, which is always annoying as hell. If that happens, you have my pitty. I am on your side.

  2. Scott W Weber
    March 1, 2018 at 5:47 am

    I have to agree…as much as I like the movie, the score was a mess and I can’t imagine listening to it outside of the film either.

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