• Ben Erickson


Annihilation, written and directed by Alex Garland, is the most recent in a long history of science-fiction horror films, with music composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. This musical pair has been working together since 2012, and formerly collaborated with Garland on the sobering 2015 picture exploring artificial intelligence, Ex Machina. Thus, Annihilation marks the second major film undertaken by the composers and solidifies what looks to be a lasting partnership within the music industry. Looking at Ex Machina, I can say I gave them a lot of credit for what they accomplished (see the Ex Machina review here for details), but unfortunately that recognition goes no further at present. The score for Annihilation does not challenge the viewer in the same way the score for Ex Machina did, falling instead into categories of noise and dissension. Like its predecessor the score was assembled with electronic instruments; namely, synthesizers. Synthesizers offer a wide array of effects that imitate natural sounds, and in the context of a film they make for a present-day application of musique concrète and electroacoustic music. Shimmers, cavernous echoes, clanging bells, white noise, whisking, blowing wind, whirling fans, slippery strings, seismic energy, and humming like that of a flying insect are but a few of the various effects heard in abundance throughout the score. In this sense I can understand the choice to further explore the use of synthesizers for a film steeped in ecological horror. Moreover, according to the "science" of the film, it would likewise be fair to say that the repetitive ideas found in the score constitute the composers' interpretation of refraction. Refraction in the sense of the film not only applies to light and radio waves, but to any genetic property within Area X, constantly recycling, integrating, and evolving it into something new. This explains then the gradual combination of the assorted effects throughout the score; a traffic of voices only a synthesizer can so effortlessly merge. The vocal component was one of the more noticeable musical features, periodically stacking with descending semitones, such as when we view the video tape left behind by a former expedition into Area X ("For Those That Follow"). The guitar is of course another prominent instrument heard throughout the score, offsetting the biologically driven ambiance with a backwoods country vibe, or in the case of the meteorite acting as a witness ("What Do You Know?") - picking open fifths with a pedal bass string, occasionally changing position (heard as the left hand slides up and down the fret board), and wandering through the key in the upper register. "The Swimming Pool" cue uses synthesized strings, which we do not hear again until the confrontation with "The Alien", and there is another scraping quality in the score amidst the standing bells that is caused by a waterphone; an inharmonic stainless steel instrument. "The Alien" cue at the climax of the film is the first time we are given much besides droning noises in the score. The music trumpets and pulses, thrums and recoils, and aimless strings are drawn out of the air, speaking not for the alien necessarily, but for the utter bewilderment and incomprehension of what we see; of the unfamiliar territory before our eyes. Interestingly, like Ex Machina, the music takes complete auditory dominion for the final act of the film. I would surmise this is a trait more particular to Garland's style of film making than it is the active decision or assessment of the composers. There is also a five-note motif used in the end when we first see the dopplegänger form from the nebulas mass. Something comparable to the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, if only as a disturbed parody. Any literary fans reading this might reflect not only on the source material by Jeff VanderMeer but on the short story The Colour Out of Space written by the master of cosmic horror, H.P. Lovecraft, as you will no doubt find many derivative parallels. Salisbury and Barrow have ridden a fine line between new music and film composition. To craft smooth ambiance does take a particular skill set with which not all or even most composers are equipped, and I will readily concede that I was unsettled by the overall structure of the score. Something much darker than an ordinary horror score waited at the very centre of the music and weighed upon me as a viewer to the point that I did not want to go on listening. Unlike a horror score, however, which inevitably reveals itself in the end, freeing us of our fears, the score for Annihilation does no such thing. It fought to maintain its concealment, and this distinct quality was understood at every degree. For its narrative apathy, there is little more I can say to the benefit of the music. The score had its own overall structure, and much like the film the music makes you think before you develop a proper understanding of its purpose. It deserves more thought than perhaps even the most intricately designed melodic scores as the virtue of the music is found within its subtleties, almost making you question the very nature of film music. But a score is also meant to support the film, and this score accomplished that only indirectly. It created its own mood which by happenstance lent itself to the film. For Salisbury and Barrow, and likely Garland as well, the film speaks for itself and has no use of musical support as we know it. These composers are more interested in acoustic properties than they are story telling, and to that end we may ask what is the point in writing music at all other than to provide an extra level of sensory perception? What more does it achieve than a wall of distraction? I can only conclude that they pushed the envelope too far. While I am endlessly intrigued by their efforts, the score given to Annihilation was not the score it needed.