After making quite a splash in the science-fiction world with Ex Machina, writer/director Alex Garland is back with Annihilation. Based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer (the first in a trilogy of books), the story follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist married to Kane (Oscar Isaac). He’s sent on a mission to investigate “The Shimmer,” a massive mysterious zone that’s claiming more and more territory and from which nothing returns.
Or almost nothing. When Kane comes back as the only survivor from his team, Lena is sent in to find out what happened within The Shimmer. Joining her are Josie (Tessa Thompson), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Once inside the perimeter, they’re quickly surrounded by a world where the standard laws of nature no longer apply and which is filled with unexpected dangers.
That there was just one poster created for the movie doesn’t do much to counter the arguments of those who felt Paramount didn’t put its full weight into marketing the release. Natalie Portman’s name appears at the top and she’s the primary figure in the image, more visible through the distortion of The Shimmer than the rest of her team, who are obscured in the background. Copy above the title tells us to “Fear what’s inside” while below the audience is reminded this is coming from the director of Ex Machina.
The first trailer appeared right after an early still was released. We see The Biologist and her team walking across a strange-looking landscape and entering an equally strange forest of some sort. Cut to later on when she’s being debriefed as to what they saw while they were in there. We get some hints that her husband went into the same forest and never came back out, driving her to investigate.
Well that looks awesome. Incredible visuals, great performances. Yeah, it’s a solid first pitch to the audience, with a tone that seems similar to the one used to sell Arrival last year.
As the second trailer opens The Biologist is being questioned by hazmat-suited officials who hope she can describe what she encountered before we flashback to see her saying goodbye to her husband, who’s leaving on some kind of mission. Later on he’s been found but is in bad shape after entering “The Shimmer.” The Biologist decides to lead another team into the phenomenon to find out what’s inside its ever-expanding borders, a mission that’s needed because no drones or other probes are returning any data and The Biologist’s Husband is the only human to return. The encounter all sorts of strange and dangerous creatures and while some see The Shimmer as destruction, others see it as a new form of creation.
There’s a lot more of the story and the character motivations on display here in a trailer that’s just as effective as the first. It retains much of the mystery and doesn’t give too much away, only showing events that cause more questions both for the team in the movie and the audience. Clearly there’s a philosophical lesson being shared here, but it’s wrapped in a mind-bending sci-fi story.
Online and Social
Unfortunately the movie only received the lackluster tickets-centric treatment for an official website. There’s the second “Trailer” and a “Synopsis” where you can get an overview of the story. Neither are linked to from the site but there’s also a Facebook and Twitter account.
On that Twitter account the studio left a series of cryptic clues that, when put together, unlocked a bit of exclusive new footage on ForThoseThatFollow. After viewing that it gave you the option to create your own message that could be shared and decoded by others.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
A short TV commercial introduces us to The Shimmer and the danger it poses. This one’s less about exploration and discovery than it is about danger and thrills, which is understandable. A longer spot lets the story breathe a bit more and hits more of the same mysterious beats as the trailers by focusing on the mutations and creations happening within The Shimmer while also clearly showing that danger lurks around most every corner.
The second trailer was used for paid posts on Twitter after it was released. And in the immediate lead up to release pre-roll and sidebar ads were run on YouTube.
Media and Publicity
Isaac spoke briefly about the movie and how weird he assumed it was going to be during a break in his stage performance schedule. A bit later the first still from the movie showing Portman was released. Portman was later announced as a host for “Saturday Night Live” right around the time of the film’s release, an episode that saw her do a bunch of skits based on the films she’s done over the years.
In early December the movie got a bit of a bloody nose with a story on how a clash between two of its producers stemming from a poor test screening lead to the unusual situation where Paramount is releasing the film in the U.S., Canada and China while Netflix gets it for the rest of the world about two weeks later. The disagreement centers around whether the movie is too “intellectual” to score with mainstream audiences looking for a little more action and zest in their sci-fi. The unique distribution deal, which included Netflix covering a percentage of the production budget, is a hedge by the new regime at Paramount against a flop
A much-discussed featurette offered a bit more information on “The Shimmer” that is so integral to the plot, which is what got people talking. If you look again, though, you’ll also notice that it’s focused solely on the female characters and talks only with the ladies of the cast. So there’s an attempt being made to pivot the publicity for the film to meet the cultural conversation about gender and racial diversity, with much of the cast also being pleasantly inclusive on the latter front.
Just a week before release a mini-scandal emerged when someone called out how both Portman and Leigh are white actors while their characters are both of mixed-ethnicities. Responses from both of them made it clear they weren’t aware of that disconnect and even Garland made comments along those lines, explaining that the race of those characters isn’t addressed in the first book on which the movie is based and that he didn’t know mixed-race descriptions are offered in the second book, which no one has apparently read.
Both Portman and Isaac made the media rounds in the last week prior to release to engage in late-night hijinks, share stories of sexual harassment in Hollywood, offer amusing personal anecdotes and more. There was also a feature interview with three of the main leads – Portman, Thompson and Rodriguez – where they talked about sci-fi that’s female-centric and the bond they formed while filming.
As the clock ran down there were also profiles of Isaac and Rodriguez about how they got involved in the movie and prepared for it, including that Isaac was filming this and the latest Star Wars at the same time, sometimes on the same day. There also an interview with VanderMeer where he talked about the long strange trip his book has taken to the screen.
Yeah, I kind of see the point people were making that there’s a less than full-throated effort being made by Paramount here. There’s nothing specifically that can be identified as necessarily lacking, but it all seems to add up to less than the sum of its parts. You can see the lack of effort in a website that’s not exactly robust and offers little in the way of entry points into the story as well as the surprisingly low number of trailers and just one poster that doesn’t take the same ensemble approach as much of the rest of the campaign.
If there’s one positive thing to call out it is that the studio made no effort to hide the fact that this is a female-driven story and that the character’s gender isn’t a big focus, like it’s something they have to overcome. Instead it just…is. That’s going to rankle some ignorant sci-fi fans who still believe the genre should be a boys-only club, but that’s reality, idiots. I just wish that had been extended even further into other elements of the campaign.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.