When Annihilation was released theatrically in February, it immediately seemed like the kind of film you might want to watch twice. From its trippy landscapes to its surreal story line to a controversial ending that led to a split with Skydance Productions after disappointing test screenings, the film invited the kind of on-the-fly decoding that can thrill internet theorists but drive blockbuster-minded producers nuts.
Alex Garland, its director and screenwriter (he adapted the best-selling novel by Jeff VanderMeer), has consistently made smart, engaging genre films, first as the screenwriter for 28 Days Later and Sunshine (both directed by Danny Boyle) and then as a director with Ex Machina. In the week of Annihilation’s release on DVD, Vulture spoke to Garland about what draws him to genre movies, that controversial ending, and the Easter eggs people should look for on that second (or third) viewing.
You’ve said Annihilation is essentially about different kinds of personal self-destruction. So why not just make a movie about a quartet of self-destructive friends at a dinner party or something, with no mutant bears in it? Why adapt this very peculiar novel?
There are many forms of self-destruction that get name-checked in the film — cancer is an obvious one. But the particular kind of self-destruction I was most fixated on is the intense and deeply subjective experience of psychological self-destruction. The novel was like a canvas where you could get very, very subjective indeed. Everything from the structure of plant forms or crystal forms or the lighthouse — everything could get pushed. A creature containing the pain of something else. All of these things could get fused together into a mega-subjective experience.
You’ve said you only read the book once …
I read the book once, yes.
… and then adapted it from memory.
Reading the book was very much a dreamlike experience, so I thought I had two options: I could adapt what you’d call the plot — the sequence of events laid out in the book — or I could adapt the experience of reading the book. In the end, that was the most powerful effect the book had on me — the experience of reading the book.
You’ve always worked in different genres, from zombie films to sci-fi. What draws you back to it?
Genre gives you efficiency, in some ways. You have a shorthand that allows you to move at a certain clip. Genre also puts you in a space where you can subvert and shift and play around with stuff. And I like that. I have a restless and subversive instinct.
Sometimes when you subvert people’s expectations, you also disappoint them. You had some conflict with some of your original producers about the ending. How do you deal with that?
You stick to your guns, is what you do.
Do you worry about how an audience reacts to the film?
Annihilation is a particular kind of movie. The film is like a 50-50 deal with the audience — it will only work for the kind of viewer who is up for providing 50 percent of it with their own response and their own imagination and their own desire to infer things from the film. Unless you’re up to being a participant in that process, you’ll never get the story. So it’s a film that you make knowing that you’re going to leave a lot of people very, very cold. They’re going to think it’s meaningless, or dumb, or inconsequential, or nothing leads to anything. Then there’s another kind of viewer who is a participant in it, who will see quite a lot.
The DVD for 28 Days Later contains a fascinating extra where you talk about all the different alternate endings, some of which were storyboarded and parts of which were filmed. Is that the way you like to work?
No. Definitely not. The absolute opposite.
So did you always know the ending of Annihilation?
The element I was always most sure about was the ending, and I was always working toward that ending. The 28 Days Later model is not the way I choose to work now. To be flat out honest about it — there’s no fucking way I want to be in the position of storyboarding endings and shooting extra bits. That does not appeal to me at all. That’s not a happy place to be for me.
Now that Annihilation is on DVD and, soon, will be streaming, people can rewatch it multiple times. What should they be looking for?
There are certain conversations that — ah, fuck it. I’m not going to be too coy about this. There’s a conversation near the beginning of the film that happens between the lead character and another university professor, and that conversation has a different layer to it the second time you watch it. There are also things you might notice — it might be a tattoo, it might be the physical structures of suburbia and the physical structure of the house inside the shimmer. Oscar Isaac’s character has a tattoo of a bear on his chest. I don’t think anyone’s going to notice that the first time around. And then later, when the bear comes into the house, which carries a lot of internal pain in it, that might have a resonance on second viewing. I don’t think anybody’s going to draw that inference the first time around. I’d be impressed if anyone did. But there is stuff in there that collectively the people who made the film consciously included for a second viewing, not the first.
Don’t underestimate the internet’s ability to sleuth these things out.
That’s exactly why the internet is terrifying. It’s ability to inspect.
Do you enjoy that kind of speculation?
What I try to do in my films is to hold something back — so there aren’t explicit answers. Therefore, it can stay alive in people’s minds. If you know the answers to everything, then what is there to discuss? I try to make things that stay alive in people’s heads.