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Alex Garland Talks Annihilation Movie
Alex Garland is nervous. Not chattering-teeth nervous, but he definitely gives off an air of a man who is, shall we say, uncertain about his immediate prospects. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do this again,” he says. “At some point I won’t get another chance.” The object of his uncertainty is his latest movie, Annihilation (out Friday), which provides the biggest cinematic headfuck since that giant space fetus hove into view at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film follows a five-woman expedition, including Natalie Portman and the great Jennifer Jason Leigh, as they make their way through a mysterious, slowly expanding luminescent bubble covering acres of the U. S. coast referred to as Area X. Inside, communications don’t work, the flora and fauna are strangely mutated, and time itself seems bent out of shape. So far, so sci-fi. But as the distortions start to affect the relations between the characters and their own physiognomy, things grow increasingly unreal. One of the women says it’s like they’re all suffering from dementia. Watching it, you may feel that way, too.
One of the women says it’s like they’re all suffering from dementia. Watching Annihilation, you may feel that way, too.
Garland is in phase three of a career that he began as a novelist and then a screenwriter before becoming a director. His first book, 1996’s The Beach, published when he was just 26, was a dark parable about Western backpackers discovering an idyllic, unspoiled beach in Thailand and turning it into a paranoid hellhole. Immensely popular, it marked Garland as not only a propulsive storyteller but also a keen thinker able to lace fiendish plots with digressions into alternate universes and four- dimensional hypercubes.
His 2002 screenplay for the movie 28 Days Later was similarly groundbreaking, single-handedly kick-starting the undead revival by having his zombies run. And then, in 2014, came his directorial debut, Ex Machina, in which a programmer played by Domhnall Gleeson is sent to perform the Turing test on a new robot that may or may not be capable of thought and consciousness. It was smart, talky, and tense as hell, preempting Westworld’s disquisitions on free will.
Garland sees Annihilation as a reaction against his previous film. “Ex Machina worked like a small clockwork movie. I wanted to push away from that.” The result is something that is looser and more open-ended, less hard science fiction than a dreamy kind of science pastoral, albeit one populated with mutant crocodiles. The rich strand of ecologically conscious sci-fi running through Annihilation comes from the cult 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer upon which the movie is based.
VanderMeer is the presiding emperor of weird fiction (his 2017 book, Borne, is about scavengers living in the shadow of a hundred-foot-tall levitating bear named Mord), but Annihilation, part one of the Southern Reach Trilogy, came to him while hiking in north Florida. “I’ve always been drawn to different forms of intelligence on this planet that seem like they’re alien,” VanderMeer says. “We’re like settlers on an alien planet and we still don’t really understand how this stuff works and how it’s all put together.”
This feeling of something being unknown and ultimately unknowable is what both book and movie most acutely share. But how do you depict this? “In order to tell the story correctly, exploring something that’s beyond human knowledge, you can’t actually provide the standard narrative answers at the end,” VanderMeer says. The director evidently concurs.
Garland explains that the film is itself a type of mutation. “It shifts from being a medical thriller to a hallucinogenic sci-fi film to a mutated body-horror movie out of David Cronenberg,” he says. “It’s something that a subset of the audience kind of enjoys, that feeling of being wrong-footed, but the other part of the audience just feels wrong-footed and wants to know where they are.”
The director’s aim was to make a film that transitions “from suburbia to psychedelia” by dropping viewers in the familiar, almost to the point of Hollywood cliché, and then gradually immersing them in the bizarre. It’s a very successful technique. Like a frog being slowly boiled alive in a pot of water, the audience will quite happily follow the beats of the story until they all of a sudden find that their brains have been cooked and served to them on a plate.
This article appears in the March ’18 issue of Esquire.