Alex Garland knows a lot of you aren't going to understand — or like — his latest film, Annihilation. And he's really okay with that. He's not being smug or pretentious. At this stage of his career, it's just being pragmatic. Garland sees his audience test score like any other director, and while it can be disheartening, it's not debilitating when he knows he and his creative team made the film they intended to make.
"Nothing really matters except being true to the film," Garland tells SYFY WIRE with quiet intent. "I've been working in film for about 20 years, and I've basically learned that at a certain point, box office becomes lost in memory, and all that is left is the film.
"I'm aware enough of that process to not be too concerned about it. And I'm really not judgmental about people who are commerce-oriented," he adds. "That's fine. That's what they want to do. But it is just simply not what I'm interested in."
What interests Garland are stories about what makes us tick: what choices we make in life, what our choices do to one another, and how technology impacts us. In reading the early galley for novelist Jeff VanderMeer's book Annihilation, Garland found a vessel to explore these things that most occupy his art.
The bare-bones description of VanderMeer's award-winning 2014 sci-fi novel (the first story in what would become the Southern Reach trilogy) is that four unnamed female scientists set off on an expedition into an area of Florida that's been taken over by a force that's changing the landscape — and the people who venture into it. The book is tense, suspenseful, and enigmatic.
Garland took those elements and ran with them for a unique adaptation that takes the basic narrative and transforms it into something new. Like the book, Garland retains the all-female expedition with Natalie Portman's Lena, a cellular biologist, joining Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, and Tessa Thompson's expedition of scientists.
To dig into specifics of what differs from the book, the creation of the Shimmer (which is Area X in the book), and what the journey into the third act represents, we sat down with Garland to discuss what audiences do gain through the exploration of Annihilation.
SPOILER WARNING! Minor spoilers linger below ...
For anyone who's read VanderMeer's book, there's no clear through-line for adaptation.
Certainly not an obvious one.
Once you finished reading it, where did you start?
I was immediately taken by it, so I thought, "Okay, I'd like to try and adapt it." I'd had different experiences with other adaptations. I'd done Never Let Me Go, which was really a very faithful adaptation, which lent itself actually, in narrative terms, to an adaptation of that sort. For Dredd, it was an adaptation of being faithful to the character.
Did your first draft of Annihilation come easily to you?
Yes, I tend to write first drafts quite quickly.
Were there a lot of follow-up drafts?
To be honest, I can't remember. I don't exactly see it that way, anyway. Because really what happens is at a certain point, you say, "Okay, this is a shooting script. And we're gonna shoot it." There's an element of writing that goes through to editing because, actually, at a certain point with writing, you have the thing. And then the writing becomes editorial, and editing is editorial, obviously, film editing.
Do you find a lot changes in your edit room?
No. It's not changing it. It's to do with getting closer to the heart of it, I think. I shoot the script and, in a way, cut what we shot. But still, it's about the purest, best version of what you have, rather than making it something else.
Let's talk about Lena (Portman) and Kane (Oscar Isaac), whose marriage helps create the spine of your adaptation. We're meeting them at a very guarded place in their relationship, with only a wisp of seeing them at their best together.
A glimpse, maybe.
Was there a clear line in your head of how much to reveal about them?
To be thematically true to itself, [the story] needs to demonstrate the self-destructions. But one of the important things about it is that the self-destructions are not necessarily motivated by anything clear, or good. So in having a broken marriage as a result of an infidelity, it's important to not show a notional reason for the infidelity, because the reason is stranger, and less certain, than the reasons we might tell ourselves why these things happen. And so the rationalizations for the self-destructive acts are not important. It's actually the lack of reason that is important.
Is there anything that you feel helps define Kane for us as a character?
We know some things about him, but all of this is by inference. I tend to like inference rather than statement, and a lot of this film is by inference. But for example, if a man knows his wife is cheating and then goes on a mission where he may not come back, and he doesn't reveal that he knows about the infidelity before leaving, then that is actually quite a lot of information about him. Because it shows compassion, in a way. And so, that's the way in which information is related in the film. In a way, it's in the hands of the viewer, about what they access and why they access it.
Lena's a scientist, so she has a biological curiosity that feels like a credible reason for her to go into the Shimmer. But then, maybe she's going in to make amends for her actions? Does one supersede the other in terms of motivation?
What is the motivation for saving him? Is it an act of absolution, actually? Is it a self-referential act, or is it a broad, more altruistic thing?
What was your conversation with production designer Mark Digby about bringing the Shimmer to life on screen?
It was a big conversation, and it didn't just involve Mark and the production design team. It was across the board, and it would be involving ...
Your DP and your VFX team?
Exactly. Precisely. What we did was we went searching for these things. Some of it, we'd find it in nature. One of the key ones that we found was actually on an iPad app. It was a representation of a mathematical shape, which is a 3D representation of a fractal form, like the Mandelbrot set. If you animate them, they move in a way that feels predictable and makes sense, but is also literally not possible to predict. It's slightly organic and slightly nonorganic at the same time. In the end, the thing that became most significant, I think, was that 3D fractal shape.
At the end of the film, we actually just present that shape in pure form. But, prior to that point, we've used it many, many times. Sometimes in the lichen that is growing on trees, and sometimes in a form of a man who's died, where his form is spread across the wall of a swimming pool. And actually, when we first see the shimmer, from the outside, what you are actually seeing there is that 3D fractal shape, which has been rolled out and flattened and then had colors projected into it. So it was a combination of nature and math, but actually so is everything.
Like the exploration of a Fibonacci spiral in nature?
Yes. Maths is beauty. You often hear mathematicians talk in terms of the elegance of equations, and they're right. They are elegant. When something complex suddenly finds its simplest form, there is a beauty in that.
Despite woman dominating the story, it's not a female film. It's really about personality types going on a journey, and they happen to be women, which is so wonderful. How did that inform your casting choices for the scientists?
They're all very intelligent, and I actually think that is a commonality in that cast. That is to say, something they all have in common. Really what happened, though, in truth, is that apart from Oscar and Natalie, it was very traditional casting.
It was sitting in a room and meeting people, and [the role] would say "Anya Thorensen," which is really a Norwegian name, but I don't really care about the name. It's just a name. And then someone comes in and does a fantastic reading, and you think, "You're perfect for that part." And that's what happened with Gina and Tessa and Tuva. They just did beautiful readings, but also then talked very intelligently about what they thought about the script and what they would like to do with it.
The kayak conversation between Lena and Sheppard (Novotny) is profound in its simplicity and expresses that every single person is doing damage to themselves in life.
The characters all have damage, but I've never met anyone who didn't have damage. It actually is, in the end, partly how well we hide it, and also how well we cope with it. I think that some people cope with it less well, and some people cope with it better. I always admire people who cope with it well — because it's not easy.
Ventress has cancer, which is the physical manifestation of her self-destruction. She, outside of Lena, arguably has the strongest pull to make it to the lighthouse where the Shimmer started. Should we look at it like a mortality chase?
Yeah. The whole thing relates to mortality because what they're actually looking at is an existential thing which is growing closer. And that is a clear metaphor. Maybe not a clear one, but certainly a straightforward one.
With all of these things, I was partly asking, "Why are we all self-destructive, and what are the different ways we face that thing?" In the case of Ventress, to be honest, I was specifically thinking about one of my grandmothers, who had a very straightforward "look death in the eye" approach to her life, and her death. She had been moved to a hospital, and she realized she was about to die. She asked to be left alone and then she died alone. I thought that was a very interesting thing to do, that contained a lot of self-knowledge, and courage. And so, in some respects, Ventress was echoing that, because what she is doing is saying, "I know what's going to happen. I want to look it in the eye when it happens." And some of the others are deliberately looking away, and some of them are distracting themselves, which is something a lot of us do. We distract ourselves by fussing about the color of the walls we're gonna paint, as if it matters.
And of course, in some ways, it doesn't matter, but in other ways, it doesn't change anything. So, these are the different methodologies that we have in contemplating annihilation.
Once Lena gets to the lighthouse, the film really pivots into a deeply existential place.
Really, the whole film is in service of the last half hour.
Watching Lena with the mirroring entity made me think of her working through the stages of grief. Is that last act meant to be completely subjective for everyone watching?
There's this funny thing with these kinds of things, which is that if you state them, they can become prosaic. So instead, you can hopefully find something more emotional and meaningful and affecting by not stating them, but by letting people intuit it. I think that's partly about being respectful to an audience. And it's not arbitrary, as well. I think that kind of hallucinatory filmmaking can end up falling into, if it's not careful, a set of card tricks, or firework displays, which are actually non sequiturs, and they're really only existing for their own flamboyant state. Everything in there is not arbitrary. It's there for a reason, and it's in service of a theme or a structure.
Are you okay that short-attention-spanned viewers will miss a lot of that?
They probably won't dig the film.
Is this made for the viewer that loves walking out of a theater still thinking about what they saw for days afterwards?
That's exactly the intention. It's not something that everyone wants. And there's no judgment in that. There's no requirement on them to want that. But it is what I want, and so I work according to the thing I suppose I would like to see, in some ways. And I don't actually think about the commerce side of it at all. I can engage with it, and I can have conversations about it, but I'm not gonna change the thing in service of it. And I think that, as far as that goes, I think it's possible to be very honest and say, "This is the intention. This is the script. These are the visuals. This is what we're gonna do. Do you want to do it or not?" And if they say yes, you then just do it.
Is there a sequence that you're most proud of in the film?
Yeah. Absolutely. It would probably be what we essentially called the dance sequence, at the end. Because the film was ultimately leading to justifying the last half hour, and within that, for me, the most satisfying thing to have ever worked on in my working life was that dance sequence.
I found it mesmerizing.
For you. Some people get bored out of their minds. On the test sheets they're asking, "What the fuck is going on?"
Knowing Annihilation is not a consensus kind of film, is it easier in a way to put it out there and see what the world says?
I'm more than okay with it. I think it's inevitable. I think that two best friends who share many things can also disagree a lot about the same book. So what are you gonna do?
Annihilation is now in theaters.