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Sinister 7: Writer/Director Alex Garland Journeys Into The Shimmer in “Annihilation”

Wednesday, February 21, 2018 | Interviews


Alex Garland first rose to prominence in the late 1990’s with his debut novel The Beach, which led some critics to dub him ‘the leading voice of Generation X.’ Shortly thereafter, Garland moved to scriptwriting, penning genre favourites like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd. In 2015, Garland swiftly transitioned into directing with his thought-proving and acclaimed breakout hit Ex-Machina, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Garland’s latest film, Annihilation, is an even more ambitious science fiction thriller. The film is an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s book of the same name – the first in his acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy. It follows a biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman) as she joins a team of female scientists who are tracking a mysterious phenomenon referred to as “The Shimmer,” which is expanding across the American coastline. Despite it’s beauty, The Shimmer leads the team into a dangerous world called Area X that includes mutated landscapes and creatures. The film also stars Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and Oscar Isaac.

Despite receiving high praise by critics, the release of Annihilation has unfortunately been surrounded in controversy. After test-screening results last summer deemed the film to be “too complicated” for general audiences, Paramount was concerned about the box office risk and sold the film’s international rights to Netflix. Audiences in the U.S, Canada, and China can still see the version of the film that Garland intended on February 23rd, but unfortunately, Annihilation won’t be shown on the big screen in his native home in England and abroad.

Prior to this news, Rue Morgue had the chance to attend an advanced screening of the film and to sit down with Garland to discuss his latest project.

Annihilation is based on a novel of the same name. Despite this, I’ve read that you had an idea for the story you wanted to tell and then the novel was brought to you later. What was the original story that you started with and how did the addition of the book shape the direction of the film?

My original idea was a kind of alien first contact story. Then the book was presented and the story just developed from there.

Annihilation centres on an all-female team of scientists. What is particularly unique is the fact that the film (as well as the book) isn’t at all preoccupied with this notion. In fact, the characters are referred as their roles in the team instead of their gender. Can you elaborate on this decision?

If anything, the film does the opposite of elaborating on it. The key thing for me was the absence of a discussion or an argument. I just worked on Ex-Machina, which was very preoccupied with these notions. Aside from it being about artificial intelligence and sentience and that kind of thing, it had a separate thread in it that was about gender and objectification. It had a very imbedded argument that was plotted through. With this film, however, I wanted to do the opposite, which was to have the absence of an argument. The problem of course is that it makes it difficult for me to talk about, because I don’t want to undermine the absence of the argument in talking about the film. I really do think that the absence is more interesting in a way.

A common theme that runs throughout your work is an interest in science and advances in technology. How much research do you conduct prior to making a film of this nature?

I tend to start with a bunch of thoughts and preoccupations on these kinds of things. So I’ll write it and then I’ll get a friend of mine called Adam Rutherford (who’s a geneticist) or someone like him to look over it. Adam did that for me on Annihilation.

The Shimmer is quite visually unique. More to that point, it’s something that we as humans have never seen before. How did you go about visualizing something like this, especially since it has such an aesthetic quality?

Well it all really happens from the point that the script exists. The script doesn’t exactly visualize anything, it just describes stuff. I then distribute the script amongst the group of people I work with, some of whom I’ve been working with for like twenty years or something like that. We know each other really well and we sort of just get each others’ sensibilities and that kind of thing. So you have all these different kinds of people, which loosely represents all these different kinds of departments like production design, visual effects, camera, and so on. Then everybody really just got talking and began to swap ideas. It’s like a kind of evolution. It’s a long and slow evolution building up to the stuff that eventually gets codified in the construction of the sets and the visual effects and the way it gets shot. 

Annihilation establishes a deep connection between humans and nature. This seems like a timely message considering current anxieties around climate change. Can you comment on the film’s environmental warnings?

I think that in a way the environmental stuff is more the preoccupation of the book. The film takes a slightly stepped back view and talks more about self-destruction and visualizing that. In particular, it delves into why we have this strange instinct for self-destruction, which of course climate change is a product of. We’re doing things that we know cause climate change, but yet we still willfully keep doing them. The film also opens up the way selves also self-destruct and the way peoples’ psychologies self-destruct. Because in a way, an act of self-destruction is just an attack on the self isn’t it? So even more to that point, it’s really about the way everything self-destructs: stars, the universe, our lifespan, or whatever happens to beings. Naturally that also includes the environmental stuff within it.

Annihilation features some unnerving, visceral moments of violence. Was this a conscious decision?

What we were shooting for was that we were trying to make a film that was beautiful and disturbing at the same time. Roughly, we tried to never do anything beautiful without it also being kind of unsettling. On the opposite end, we also didn’t want to do anything disturbing that wasn’t also somehow beautiful. That was the methodology throughout. There’s some kind of extreme stuff in the film, including people getting cut open in a particular kind of way or weird creatures that have the capacity for immense violence, but it just felt naturally part of the story to approach it in such a way.

The book Annihilation is the first in a trilogy. Would you consider having the film follow this same structure?

No, I wouldn’t. If anybody else wanted to do it that’s fine, that’s between them and the studio. But I am not planning on venturing down that path.

Maddi McGillvray
Maddi is the Editorial Assistant at Rue Morgue Magazine. She is also a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at York University, where she writes extensively on the horror genre. Maddi is completing her doctoral dissertation on women working in horror. She is also currently writing book chapters titled "Fleshy Female Corporealities: The Cannibal Films of the New French Extremity" as well as "To Grandmother’s House We Go: Documenting the Aging Female Body in Found Footage Horror Films."