Alex Garland has become somewhat of a master of sci-fi film since he added director to his creative toolkit, which had previously included novel writing (The Beach) and screenwriting (including Dredd and 28 Days Later). Consider his 2014 directorial debut, the thriller Ex Machina, a visceral, mysterious, and carnal take on Isaac Asimov’s explorations into the identity of robots, and the c’est autre chose and thought-provoking Annihilation, which will hit American cinemas in wide fashion tomorrow.
Both of Garland’s directorial efforts are the type of sci-fi films that are designed to scare people into questioning humanity’s place as custodians of all things — a haunting mission only truly completed with the crucial help of the composing duo of Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and long-time composer Ben Salisbury. (Among other projects, the two also are behind the Drokk, which released the Dredd-related Drokk: Music inspired by Mega-City One.)
For Ex Machina, Barrow and Salisbury kept their synth-heavy score in a variously atmospheric, minimalist, and tempered space, constricted beautifully to match the important and compelling claustrophobia of that film. This time around, though, Annihilation calls for something more expansive, and the composers deliver in an encompassing and rewarding fashion. (Lakeshore Records and Invada Records will release the album tomorrow, Feb. 23.)
Annihilation, the film, which many say differs from the Jeff VanderMeer-penned novel on which its based, generally follows a group of military scientists investigating a mysterious, off-limits zone called “The Shimmer,” a place filled with biological mutations that seem to defy the very laws of nature. It’s not a utopia.
To help propel this bigger story in their Annihilation soundtrack, Barrow and Salisbury take a different path than they did in their first outing with Garland. This time, the score is orchestral, and blended in are synths, diverse sound design, a key theme portrayed on an acoustic guitar, and manipulated vocal effects. The orchestral part is crucial, its ominousness bolstering the suspense and sense of danger that synth patches alone can’t possibly achieve here.
The orchestral part is crucial, its ominousness bolstering the suspense and sense of danger that synth patches alone can’t possibly achieve here.
One of the most striking cues is “The Alien,” excerpted below. It seems to use the full force of the tools available to Barrow and Salisbury for this film in a way that’s just phenomenal.
The 12-minute cue is a crescendo of unbridled suspense, beginning with spectral strings that build upon each other continuously, until what once was a solo expression is now a minor-key orchestral army that rips the atoms right out of you.
Slowly lumbering its way toward us is a dissonant, bursting synth melody, bathed in an astringent of distortion and flutter that ultimately moans with blasts of decaying horror.
Slowly lumbering its way toward us is a dissonant, bursting synth melody, bathed in an astringent of distortion and flutter that ultimately moans with blasts of decaying horror. Underneath it is a slow-building chunk of apprehensive synths and strings, waiting to be exorcised from their jail cell. That all gives way to a series of additional cues-within-cue that recall the spectral string themes and unnerving synth expressions. This cue alone is worth the price of admission. (For Salisbury’s take on this cue, read this great Slate interview.)
Another cue that stands out is “The Body,” which features layers of manipulated vocals — a chorus which I assume is synthetic, but I’m not sure — that give way to beautifully minimal symphonic expressions and atmospherics that give a confusing sense of security and foreboding.
At the risk of listing off too many one-off cues, I’ll just focus on one more, “The Bear.” I’ve been listening to the Annihilation soundtrack for a week, and it’s this cue that causes shortness of breath and unsettling feelings whenever I hear it, regardless of listening environment.
I haven’t fully seen the film — and won’t until Sunday — so I can only speculate as to its role in the horrors of The Shimmer. Nevertheless, here’s what I know: this is one of those cues that truly showcases Barrow’s and Salisbury’s compositional prowess. It employs traditional and synthetic sounds, some with a light touch and others in industrial tumult, in such a way as to provoke a true sense of horror, slowly and with great patience, manipulating the fear and anxiety responses of those within earshot, all in a narrative fashion. What more could you ask for?
I find that the best scores are those that are able to help filmmakers tell a story without detracting from it, while also allowing an isolated listening experience around which those experiencing it can craft their own story. On Annihilation, Barrow and Salisbury achieve this profoundly and with great reward for listeners and, notably, filmgoers.
The Annihilation score will be available for purchase digitally via Lakeshore Records and Invada Records on Friday, Feb. 23. CD and vinyl options are forthcoming.
One important note: My review centers on the standard edition. “Where’s the deluxe version,” you might ask? Well, head over to Apple’s world and you’ll get access to another 11 cuts, a few of which are alternate versions of cues with the rest new.
A note on the film: Although it’s getting a cinematic release in the US, Canada, and China, on Feb. 23, Netflix apparently has the rights everywhere else, with a March 12 release.
Annihilation (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) Tracklist
01. What Do You Know?
02. Ambulance Chase
03. Approaching The Shimmer
05. The Alligator
06. For Those That Follow
07. The Swimming Pool
08. The Watchtower
10. The Body
11. Plant People
12. Cells Divide
13. The Bear
14. The Beach
15. Were You Me?
16. Lighthouse Chamber
17. The Alien
01. The Beach (Alt Version) (Bonus Track)
02. Coma (Bonus Track)
03. Southern Reach Questioning (Bonus Track)
04. Shimmer Reveal (Bonus Track)
05. Abandoned Army Base (Bonus Track)
06. Camp Awakening (Bonus Track)
07. Two Theories (Bonus Track)
08. In All Of Us (Bonus Track)
09. We Are Headed That Way (Bonus Track)
10. End Titles (Alt Version) (Bonus Track)
11. End Credits (Alt Version) (Bonus Track)