It’s probably too great a stretch to suggest that you try to forget everything you know about science-fiction movies before you watch Annihilation. It must be said, though, that in writer-director Alex Garland’s latest film, you will witness an alien intelligence unlike anything you’ve seen on-screen before.
Garland adapted Annihilation from Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel about a team sent in to investigate Area X, an uninhabited region contained by a mysterious force called the Shimmer. Other expeditions have entered Area X, but only one person, a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac), has ever returned.
When the team, headed by the stoic Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and including Lena (Natalie Portman)—a biologist who also happens to be Kane’s wife—penetrate the Shimmer’s iridescent veil, they find a rapidly evolving world, beautiful and horrifying in equal measure. Garland admits that he departed liberally from VanderMeer’s descriptions and—apart from a harrowing sequence involving an all-too-close encounter with a hideously mutated bear that the director acknowledges was inspired by Ridley Scott’s Alien—set out to depict something wholly original.
“What we were trying to do was to create something that was truly kind of ‘other’,” Garland tells the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “It came from the idea of, ‘What would an alien be like?’ And we tend to make aliens like us in some way. The alien in the movie Alien, aside from having two arms and two legs, and a head and teeth and stuff like that, what it really wants to do is eat people or use their bodies in a sort of harvesting process for growing new aliens. So, that is a kind of humanlike set of concerns in many ways. If you have an alien that wants to teach you about a galactic federation or wants to steal your resources or something, these are all kind of humanlike concerns. And what we wanted to do was have an alien who is just completely not like us in any way. And that doesn’t just include its physical form but also includes its intentions and its motivations and the way it thinks and everything.”
It’s heady stuff, and the suits at Paramount argued that it was “too intellectual” to appeal to a wide audience. Garland and producer Scott Rudin refused to make the alterations the studio demanded, which included making Portman’s character more sympathetic and reshooting the ending. As a result, Paramount is giving Annihilation a theatrical release in the U.S. and China—as well as here in Canada, where it hits cinemas on Friday (February 23)—but the rest of the world will log in to Netflix to find that the film has popped up under Just Added.
Garland, whose screenplay for his 2015 directorial debut, Ex Machina, earned him an Oscar nomination, is understandably unapologetic about his refusal to budge.
“From my point of view, it’s quite simple. At a certain point, I say: ‘Here is a script. The script is a serious intention about how the film is going to be made. Here are some visuals about how it’s going to look. Do you want to make it or not?’ And then from that point, if they say yes, I just do the thing I said I was going to do. It doesn’t massively change, I don’t bullshit people. I just get on and do it. The way I see it is that if the thing is green-lit, it’s not then open to being changed later on. It’s not a game. It’s a lot of hard work with a lot of people who are putting their guts and their heart and soul into it, and it’s just not open to being pissed about with.”