Writer-Director Alex Garland Ponders 5 Of Annihilation’s Alluring Mysteries
Riding high on the acclaim of 2015’s Ex Machina, writer-director Alex Garland (the scribe behind 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd) landed a far more substantial budget for his sophomore directing effort, an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, Annihilation.
Juggling a variety of genre movie sensibilities—from the crowd-pleasing mission horror of Prometheus and The Descent to the arty mysticism of Under the Skin, Stalker, and 2001: A Space Odyssey—Garland is likely to leave movie fans debating this film’s mysteries for months to come.
On Monday night, the writer-director participated in a Q&A following a screening at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. Here are some of the (spoiler free) highlights.
1. Adapting an atmosphere
Several years ago, Garland wrote a slavishly faithful adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro Never Let Me Go, but he decided to take a looser approach this time around. “It’s quite an abstract novel, and it’s not a no-brainer as an adaptation,” he said. “I wasn’t exactly sure how to approach it… I thought, ‘What is the thing one is adapting? What’s the thing that’s hitting me very strongly?’ And it was the atmosphere. What I tried to do was an adaptation of the experience of reading the book and, in order to do that—with Jeff’s blessing, I should add—I wrote a screenplay from a memory of the book.”
2. Broken circles
Exploring a secret expedition into a mysterious zone known as The Shimmer, Annihilation is more interested in lasting mysteries than instant gratification. “I think there’s, very broadly, two kinds of narratives,” Garland explained. “There are some that are a full circle. Everything you see within the film is expressed as a statement and so you know everything that is intended to be expressed. There are other kinds—which this would fit into—which are more like broken circles. It’s often less by statement than it is by inference. The reason to do that would be to hope that the film has some kind of life beyond the experience of watching it and that people could discuss or debate or just think about or hold on to the atmosphere or the vibe.”
3. “Helplessly Hoping”
In a slight detour from sci-fi tradition, Garland leans heavily on overt displays of emotion, particularly in his use of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping,” a song featured in two key sequences. “That song is oddly spooky or melancholy. It’s got a funny quality to it, but it is also very overtly beautiful… so that fit everything else we were kind of trying to do. There was another thing as well, which is there’s something about beauty that makes people want to hedge their bets, right? There’s a kind of courage to it that is required… and people hedge their bets often I think with irony. They step back a little bit because they’re afraid of looking stupid, you know, and what that song does is it doesn’t hide behind f*cking anything.”
4. Female consciousness
Even a quick glimpse at the poster of Annihilation makes it clear that this is a rare Hollywood film that revolves almost entirely around women, but Garland never saw this as a challenge. “There is absolutely no difference between male and female consciousness,” he said. “We are lead to believe, in some really spurious ways—like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus—that there are, but it’s bullsh*t… if you’re talking about consciousness, there’s no difference, so I don’t write it any different.”
5. A self-contained story
As fans of the source material know, Jeff VanderMeer has written two sequels, but Garland has absolutely no interest in bringing them to the screen. “Life is short and when I’ve finished on a film, I’m done with it,” he explained. “I made it really clear to the financiers: I’m not interested in a franchise. I don’t ever work on a franchise. It’s fine for other people, but it’s just not my scene. This is a self-contained story. The books can carry on—but look, there’s never going to be a sequel to this. Are you kidding? If there was, I’d be fine with it, but I don’t want to work on it.”
Annihilation arrives in theatres February 23. Check out the trailer below.