The fact that Annihilation is led by five women isn't the most interesting part of the movie. Alex Garland's film about a group of scientists tasked with investigating a growing (and perhaps alien) phenomena known as The Shimmer is a gorgeous, almost transcendental cinematic experience. But having women take the centre-stage in a science fiction thriller is rare enough that it would be dishonest not to mention it. Which is why the art that appears on the upcoming DVD release is so confusing.
If you haven't seen it yet, take look here:
You might notice that Oscar Isaac is pretty prominently featured, more so than say Gina Rodriguez, or Tessa Thompson, despite the fact that they have more than double his screen time.
Film critic Kristen Lopez was the first to notice this discrepancy, tweeting: "You all know I LOVE Oscar Isaac but why the fuck is he on this cover so prominently? I swear, Paramount REALLY wants to get men into this."
Isaac plays Kane, Lena's (Portman) husband who returns from a top secret military assignment with a mysterious illness. When she realises the answer to his recovery may lie inside The Shimmer, she volunteers to accompany an all-woman group of military scientists on a potential suicide mission to seek the truth. In other words, Isaac plays the catalyst to the action rather than the character propelling the action forward. And sure, he holds star power, perhaps more than Jennifer Jason Leigh or Tuva Novotny, who round off the quintet. But is that really worth concealing the true nature of this film, one of the only ones of its genre to prominently feature not just women, but women of color?
This isn't the first time the studio has made news in its handling of the film. Prior to the film's release in February, Paramount announced that while Annihilation would hit theaters in the US, Canada, and China, the international distribution would be handled by Netflix.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the decision came as the result of conflict between producers Scott Rudin and David Ellison, who disagreed over the direction the film should take after a reportedly "poor" test screening. But claims that the movie was simply "too intellectual" and "too complicated" for regular theatre-goers to appreciate feel like a euphemism for a darker reality: a lack of confidence in a female-led big budget film's ability to attract an audience. The fact that Natalie Portman's character was tweaked to appear "more sympathetic" all but confirms that.
Hollywood has a history of sanitising promotional material to make progressive movies appear more palatable to mainstream audiences. The poster for Kramer vs. Kramer, Robert Benton's 1979 classic about a couple going through a nasty custody battle, featured Dustin Hoffman with his arm around a smiling Meryl Streep. The Italian posters for 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning 2012 film about Solomon Northup's harrowing journey to freedom after he is kidnapped and sold into slavery, featured huge blowups of Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender's faces, relegating Chiwetel Eljiofor (the movie's star) to the far right corner. Even more recently, Call Me By Your Name came under fire for a poster implying that the film's love story was between Timothee Chalamet and Esther Garrel's characters, rather than between Chalamet's Elio and Armie Hammer's Oliver.
In other words, we shouldn't really be surprised that the DVD for Annihilation, which comes out May 29, would pull a stunt like this. But that doesn't mean it's not disappointing. If Hollywood truly wants to support its women, as we've heard countless times in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it can start by not hiding from the rare woman-led project that did manage to sneak past the glass ceiling.
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