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Soundtrack review: Annihilation (Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow – 2018)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: Annihilation (Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow – 2018)

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From visionary writer and director Alex Garland (Ex Machina, 28 Days Later) and based on the acclaimed best-selling Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation stars Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny. Portman plays Lena, a biologist and former soldier, that joins a mission to uncover what happened to her husband inside Area X – a sinister and mysterious phenomenon that is expanding across the American coastline. Once inside, the expedition discovers a world of mutated landscape and creatures, as dangerous as it is beautiful, that threatens both their lives and their sanity. I am definitely all in for this movie. Luckily the director chose the composer pair from “Ex-machina”, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, to write the score.

As the opening cue “What do you know” rolls on I am instantly sucked back right into the “Ex-machina” atmosphere and it says a lot about how poignant this sound is because it’s not like I listened often to that score or have it in the back of my mind but there is a resort there, an echo that is activated soon as I hear the music. An ambient start, an acoustic guitar middle, a dissolved ending. Then a buzzing / humming in “Ambulance chase” which barely counts as music but has that quirky atmospheric vibe that works for me. The voices are both creepy and soothing and this cue reminds a bit of the wonderfully weird score for “Swiss Army Man”. Purists who only count music as film music will cringe at this cue but for me it’s the way a movie like this should sound.

The musical or, of you wish, melodic moments are sparse in “Annihilation”; they have the desired effect as the sudden shot or warmth gives me hope but the composers do a great job of creating an uncomfortable, menacing texture that represents the soundscape of that desolate and sinister world. There is barely any light in this quiet and opaque composition that does a great job, even on its own, of make me as a listener feel just how strange that world is. You have to take this album for what it is and not expect themes and melodies; “Annihilation” is a soundscape for the world the director created, a panic induced hallucination, a mutated musical composition. The atmosphere is uncomfortable, ominous with the rare, occasional guitar motifs that bring the only rays of light and with those humming motifs every now and then.

As a standalone musical experience, once is enough because of just how unpleasant the atmosphere is. This is “Alien” level stuff and it wasn’t written to be enjoyed on its own. In the context of the movie though it’s an entirely different story as the movie would not have worked without this brilliant addition and without this sonic component that just ads extra depth and conviction to the story. Salisbury and Barrow should be a permanent presence at the top of the lists of directors looking for composers to score post apocalyptic or zombie virus or just mysterious dystopian thrillers.

Cue rating: 76 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 8 / 60

Album excellence: 13%

Highlights:
What Do You Know?
For Those That Follow
The Watchtower

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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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