Alex Garland impressed audiences and critics alike with his 2014 directorial debut, Ex Machina, a modern-day fable that explores the nature of AI and sentience from all angles. With his follow-up film, Annihilation, he ventures into the realm of the surreal while still operating within the larger sci-fi umbrella. It’s an intoxicating, thought-provoking, unsettling genre piece with a haunting visual style and horrific moments that will rattle you to the core.
Annihilation is a much more experiential film than Ex Machina in that it’s focused on atmosphere and abstractions. It follows five scientists as they investigate a growing, anomalous area on a secluded coast in which nature, time, and space seem to be changing in previously unimaginable ways. Natalie Portman stars alongside Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Sonoya Mizuno, and Oscar Isaac.
PopMatters meets with Garland for a roundtable interview in which he discusses Annihilation‘s unique stance on gender, the influence of nature and math on the art design, the freedom of genre material, why he’s not a “franchise guy”, the artistic potential of video games, and more.
Annihilation revolves around a main cast of five women, but I’ve read that you wanted to avoid virtue signaling and the subject of gender.
Annihilation is based on the novel Annhiliation, by Jeff VanderMeer (2014). I find the whole virtue-signaling thing complex, and I’d rather just avoid it. But it’s also something I can’t take any credit for because I was adapting a novel. In essence, I had just done a film in Ex Machina that – as a part of its set of concerns–- is concerned with gender. There is a conversation within it about gender.
With [Annihilation], partly what I was interested in doing was almost the absence of gender. That was, in itself, a statement of sorts. There’s one real reference to it, and it’s pointed out that the women are scientists. That’s what they are. Five scientists going into this strange, expanding, existential area.
Five tough scientists…
They’re tough scientists, but they’re smart. One of them, the physicist, figures out what’s going on in a very strange environment. Also… they’re not all tough. Some of them are scared shitless, and one of them goes crazy. I think toughness is overrated.
How did you get your actors into the right mindset for this story?
I didn’t do anything. I sort of approach film in a particular way. I’m not interested in the pyramid structure, with the director at the top. It doesn’t interest me at all. I see the process as a collective. It’s a group of people making a film. All of the different people in the film are very autonomous.
In loose terms, it’s an anarchy-based way of making a film. The anarchy is not chaos, but the people involved are all working for a collective goal, and they have a lot of autonomy. For example, when we do a lineup when we rehearse, and then it’s time to shoot, I won’t turn to the DoP and say, “I want to put a camera here with this lens, and I want to move it like this.” I’ll say, “Rob, how do you want to shoot it?”
That is broadly the same throughout, so that’s true for the actors. When you see their performances, they aren’t performances I’ve coaxed out of them or constructed or told them how to do. They are what the actors brought to the film.
A majority of your work is original stories. What was it like balancing the expectations of VanderMeer’s book against your style and creative control?
It’s a mixture. You feel anxiety because you don’t want to let down readers of the book. I’m a reader of the book, and I love it. It’s partly that, and it’s partly feeling pleased and excited to be involved in such a strange, interesting, original project.
Two things that struck me about the book were the originality and the atmosphere. I thought that that was how I would orient the stuff that was my responsibility. In a literal sense, I did not see how I could make a beat-by-beat adaptation of the book because it’s a kind of dreamlike, trippy, strange experience to read.
In that respect, the story is subjective. Two people reading the book would have very different takes on it. I thought what I can do is write the script based on my take on the book and my interpretation. VanderMeer is a kind of relaxed and generous guy. He permitted me to do that, so that’s what I did.
There’s a mystery at the center of this Annihilation that, when unveiled, turns out to be this immense idea, this immense concept. Portraying that idea in a book is one thing, but representing that idea cinematically, with imagery and sound, must have been a tall task for you and your team.
It was challenging. It was tough. There’s a funny kind of contract that exists in books between the author and the reader, which is sort of 50/50. The imagination of the reader is filling in an enormous amount of the gaps. I used to work as a novelist years ago, and I’m familiar with that transaction and the relationship between writer and reader. In a film, at some point, you need something to stick a camera in front of, you know? The bottle has to be on the table, and the camera needs to be pointing at it. If it’s not, you don’t have a bottle on the table in the narrative.
A book that exists in a kind of surrealist zone presents, past a certain point, near-endless challenges. The short answer about how we dealt with that is that we sat around – me, the head of VFX, the DoP, the production designer, and the set decorator – and we talked and talked and talked. It was still mutating and evolving the whole way through.
At the end of Annihilation, Natalie’s character walks down a beach, and there are these crystal trees that are a kind of echo of the forest that she’s just come out of. Until about two months into post-production, those were not trees, they were human-form figures that burst out of the sand. At a certain point, we felt that after having done a lot of work on them and they were looking cool, they weren’t right. We had just done a sequence where the characters walk into an abandoned town, and the trees had turned into human forms in some respects. [The crystal people] would be a repetition of that, and it would be stranger and braver to try other forms.
We were constantly pushing and changing [the designs]. The bullet forms that come out of the humanoid’s back [near the end of Annihilation] we based on the shapes particles make when they collide in a particle accelerator. That idea came very close to the end of post-production, and when we talked about it, the VFX guy dropped his head in his hands and said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” We found a way to get it in there.
What else influenced Annihilation’s eerie visual style?
Whenever you ask people about their influences, I’d be very wary of their answers. Usually, what they say is stuff that they like rather than what influenced them. They say it unconsciously – it’s not like they’re trying to mislead you. But the actual influences are often not what they seem to be.
A year after [the movie is out], someone will say, “That scene makes me think of ‘x’,” and you think, shit. That’s what it was. You suddenly realize what the influence was. Basically, what I’m saying is, don’t trust my answer.
That said, where we consciously drew influences from constantly was nature. We had a strange task in some respects because we were trying to lead viewers to an alien that was unlike other aliens. It has no agenda – it’s not trying to eat people or teach them about galactic federations. The question is, where do you find that? When the world is changing, what does it change into? When it’s mutating and refracting, what does that look like?
We looked at light refraction as a starting point. We looked at the strange forms that exist in nature, [like] the very strange forms you get in a shell, the mathematical forms of a fern. We looked at what literal mutations looked like, like tumors. Ultimately, what we looked at was maths.
The form we ended up settling on [for the humanoid alien] stemmed from a form called a Mandelbulb, a three-dimensional fractal shape. It’s a kind of 3D version of the Mandelbrot set. If you looked it up, you’d probably be familiar with it. It’s a shape with common currency because it’s beautiful. It has some very interesting qualities. It moves in a way that feels predictable and yet completely unpredictable. It sort of makes sense in the way it moves, but you can’t quite see where it will go. But as I said – all that is a lie. [laughs]
One of the things I found so compelling about Ex Machina was Alicia Vikander’s physical movement and how she used her body to tell the story. She’s one of those rare actors with that ability. Natalie Portman has that skill too. She has a wonderful scene near the end of the Annihilation that sees her use her whole body to emote in a way I’ve never seen before.
It is Natalie, but it’s also the person acting opposite her.
Was mo-cap used for her onscreen counterpart?
It’s not exactly motion-capture. To an extent, it is, but it’s slightly more complicated than that. It’s more abstract than that. The actress, Sonoya Mizuno, had the very complicated task of matching Natalie’s movements but not matching them too precisely because we wanted them slightly off. There were two people involved in the construction of that [scene]. In fact, there were three. It’s a complicated story.
But sure, the physicality in that scene is very, very important. Being able to project information via physicality is very important. Natalie is very good at that. She has a history with it, particularly with Black Swan. I think that film would be most obviously relevant to her movement.
The books are a trilogy, but I assume you don’t plan to make more than one film.
Definitely not. That’s not a judgment of any sort, I’m just not a franchise guy.
Why is that?
Because a film takes three years to make, and at the end of it, I want to do something different. Broadly speaking, all of the films I work on are like a reaction against what I just did. 28 Days Later is a violent zombie movie, and Sunshine is a much more reflective sci-fi space movie. Never Let Me Go is based on a novel that is sort of slow and sad, and Dredd is a nihilistic, psychotic movie. Ex Machina is a little clockwork movie, and Annihilation is a strange, visceral trip.
They’re always pushing back against the [movie] that just happened. I don’t want to stay in the same world. I’m 47, I’m already tired, and I want to do different shit.
Your body of work suggests you gravitate toward genre material.
I like genre a lot. You’ve got limited bandwidth in a story in certain respects. What genre allows you to do is use shorthand in lots of areas. Some of the bandwidth gets you a lot of mileage quite quickly. And then you’ve got space to subvert, do something strange, do something unsettling. If you’re given a bunch of paradigms – which genre does – that gives you a bunch of things you can break or use accordingly.
What are some of the limitations of working within the genre space?
If there are limitations, they’re not limitations I’m concerned with or aware of. One of the limitations is not so much with making the finished product but with perception. Genre is seen as less worthy, maybe, than other stuff. But I couldn’t give a fuck. I’m just doing the stuff I’m interested in for as long as I’m allowed to do it. It’s been 25 years, so I’ll keep doing it as long as I can until I stop getting the money or I’m dead.
I love your work on Enslaved. Andy Serkis’ performance is fantastic in it as well, and a lot of people don’t know about it. I’d be fascinated to see more of your work in video game form. The medium is coming up cinematically in that the games look better visually. Do you have any interest in doing more work in that arena?
Yeah, I’d love to. I think video games are, without a doubt, the equal of any other medium, and they’re doing some amazingly interesting stuff. There’s a lot of it, particularly in the indie scene, as you’d expect – Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, Braid are all fascinating games. Some games fit in the sort of twilight zone between, like Portal, which has a lot of indie sensibility in it but, of course, is a mainstream game. I find that interesting. All of those games have very strong narratives in them. Portal has got a very strong narrative. All of the games I’ve just mentioned do.
But in a way, the game that I find most telling about the potential within video games is still The Last of Us, which is now a reasonably old game. Still, it is stunningly effective in its storytelling ability. I just wished there were more. Video games do have a built-in difficulty, which is that they’re very, very expensive. They can be produced on an indie scale, but you can produce a film on a very, very low level, budget-wise, that is in many ways the equal of a big-budget film. It’s harder to do that with a video game because of the resources.
I think video games have enormous, stunning potential, and they’re still massively in the ascendency. I’ve got a nagging worry about the triple-A game nature and its effect on the industry. Too many fucking sequels. Too many. There’s a requirement there to be braver. Call of Duty is a lot of fun, but how many sequels do I need?