The Legacy of Annihilation

Alex Garland looks back at his modern sci-fi classic as Annihilation arrives on Blu-ray.

Natalie Portman in Annihilation
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Annihilation is not only an instant modern sci-fi classic, but it may be one of the best films of 2017. Following his brilliant directorial debut on Ex Machina in 2014, Alex Garland adapted Jeff VanderMeer’s eerie novel — an unsettling, surreal mix of horror and science fiction — with style and atmosphere to spare, taking liberties with the structure of the story but capturing the tone and meaning of the book with intelligence and intensity.

Watching Annihilation now on Blu-ray and DVD (it arrives today on physical formats after debuting on digital last week), one can again feel the same sense of impending doom mixed with a genuine unease about the real world in which we live. The idea that forces we cannot understand or control are mutating us and the environment around us has even more impact on additional viewings, given the current social and geopolitical straits we find ourselves in.

And while Garland was simply following the book in having his lead characters all turn out to be women — an expedition of five, led by Natalie Portman, into the mysterious zone known as the Shimmer that’s encroaching on a growing region of the American coastline — that refreshing change of pace feels bracing and forward-thinking by making it to the big screen intact.

It’s actually a wonder that difficult, challenging, adult genre fare like this made it to the screen at all. While it was not a box office success (which means that the next two books in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy probably won’t get adapted) and was released via Netflix outside North America and China, Annihilation is the kind of film that will hopefully find a new and long lease on life via the multiple formats available for home viewing today.

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Although Garland admitted to us when we got on the phone with him a few days ago (he’s currently working on an eight-hour limited speculative fiction series for FX called Devs) that he doesn’t care much to look back at projects once they’re completed, we did discuss the film’s home format release, his thoughts on its meaning and the debate over that, and the film’s potential legacy.

Den of Geek: I noticed no commentary track from you for either this Blu-ray or Ex Machina. Is that something you’re not particularly interested in doing?

Alex Garland: Yeah, I just don’t like doing them. It’s not really my thing. In truth, as much as is possible, I just want to do the thing and hand it over and that’s it. And I want the thing to kind of speak for itself, either succeed in doing so or sort of fail in doing so, but I kind of wait to take a step back and separate from it as soon as possible really.

You’re not interested in explaining something once you’ve done it.

I definitely want to avoid that, because if the thing is not explaining itself, then in a way that’s what would define itself as having failed in its intentions. So I just want to make it, put it out there, and then do something else, really.

Have you actually ever heard a commentary track by another filmmaker that you enjoy?

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No, I don’t listen to them. In general, I don’t like knowing the story behind films. I don’t like knowing too much about the novelist who wrote a book or the journalist who wrote a piece. It’s just never something I’ve been very interested in. You know, as you go through life you pick up details about some actual filmmaker or novelist or whatever, but I don’t seek it out.

On a purely technical level, when a film is released on Blu-ray, do you give it sort of a technical once-over to make sure that the actresses aren’t green or anything like that?

I don’t, actually. I think on everything I’ve ever worked on, the last time I’ve ever watched the film is at the very end of post-production doing the final sound mix, and you watch it to check that. Past that point I have a sort of, I don’t know, I guess it’s like an article of faith, I suppose. I just assume that the thing that we made will be the thing that gets put on Blu-ray. I know that there are people in the production, like the colorist, I’m sure he checks it. I never really talked to him about it, but I’m sure he does. Probably the director of photography has a look as well. But when a film is done I kind of detach myself from it.

Sometimes films reveal themselves differently to us over the course of time. Even though you don’t like to watch films once you’ve finished them, have you ever watched something years later and seen something different in it for yourself?

I think what I would say is that, definitely in the case of Annihilation and Ex Machina, there are things in it that are consciously there for a second viewing. They’re things that you couldn’t really pick up the significance of in a first viewing that in the second viewing you might, “Aha, I see, that conversation actually is happening in a different way than I thought it was” or something like that. And so there’s intentional things that might support a second viewing or reveal something in a second viewing.

But I think the baseline with me is that I can’t change anything. Once the picture is turned over, I can’t do anything. And I feel like if I look back at it I’ll just be thinking, “Oh, man, why didn’t I do this? We didn’t get that right.” So it feels like a sort of no win.

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One thing that struck me on a second viewing was the idea of the Shimmer breaking down the components of Area X — this time I thought of the world today and this uncharted territory we’re in. Do you think subconsciously this was part of the attraction for you to this story, the idea of our world being just broken apart by things we can’t understand?

Absolutely, I agree. I think broadly what I’d say is that you wouldn’t be able to find a moment in history where that isn’t the case. Because we’re always living in a world that is not quite, or maybe substantially not, the way that we hope it would be, or we believe it is. And more for the point, I think in the way that directly relates to Annihilation, is that our subjective position, which we think is objective, but is actually subjective, is constantly misleading us and tricking us and confusing us and frightening us.

There was a lot of conversation about this film. Do you think in some ways this is an element of movie going that is vanishing, the idea that a film can spur that kind of debate?

I think there are types of films that do spur debate and some that don’t. What happens is if you have a narrative that at the end of the narrative has completely closed itself down, and all questions raised in the narrative have been provided with answers, then debate becomes kind of redundant, because the thing has debated itself into a kind of end zone. And I think there’s other films that are explicitly open to interpretation, or open to a subjective viewpoint, and do not tie up all ends, that do the converse, and they actually invite debate.

But I think there are many films that do that. You know, Blue Velvet a while ago, or Moonlight more recently. They exist. They’re out there. The question for me is whether — it’s not so much whether the films exist, but whether there’s an audience that wants to see them. I think that people often think of themselves that they like dark endings and open ended stories, but when they’re presented with them they kind of wish it was a happy ending.

Have you read any of the theories or hot takes about Annihilation and its ending?

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Yes, I have. I thought there were some pieces I read that I, personally, found very kind of affecting, actually, and powerful. And also, in a weird way, gave me a sense of relief, because the stuff that they were identifying was the stuff that I hoped was in there, and in a way the stuff I wouldn’t want to talk about in a director’s commentary. And so, it was quite meaningful to me that people were identifying the kind of elements of it of a kind of personal breakdown or depression or crisis and self-destruction and that kind of thing.

We all know how hard it is to get movies made. You got this one made. Was that some sort of extraordinary accomplishment in itself given the material and some of the things you were up against?

I’d say it wasn’t easy. But one of the beautiful things about working on film is that you’re working in a team, and if there’s a team that’s sharing the same kind of approach and the same attitude, that makes it a lot easier.

In one of the bonus behind-the-scenes mini-docs on the Blu-ray, you mention that on the set you take more of an approach of filmmaking being a collective.

Absolutely. I think that film, for the most part, always is made by a collective. I mean, like it’s not like any great insight. It’s starkly obvious. And I guess there’s different ways you can then approach that. You could push against it, I suppose, or you could embrace it. And I definitely would want to be on the embracing side of it.

further reading: Annihilation Ending Explained

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Would you get a personal sense of accomplishment if, 20 or 30 years from now, people are still talking about this as a classic of its genre?

Sure. If that were to ever happen, I guess so. I mean, I guess that would be a nice thing. I think that work is usually much more ephemeral than we like to tell ourselves it is. Like when you were talking about those pieces that got written, I personally found it very touching and very affecting because it means that the intention behind the collective was, at least to some extent achieved, and it affected people. And that is a good feeling, you know. It’s a good feeling partly because some of the things that it was talking about are very isolating feelings, and so just having a sense of commonality about it is nice. I mean, in terms of like whether it survives the test of time, look, I’d rather it did than didn’t.

Do you have a favorite sort of unsung classic in the sci-fi genre that you feel people should be talking about more?

You know what? The ones that I love are often the ones that the other people with my sensibility also love. It’s like maybe in the broader world people aren’t particularly into, let’s say Tarkovsky or whatever, but amongst film fans everybody knows. It’s not a great surprise. But there’s nothing sort of wildly esoteric about my taste, you know. Like what film do I really love maybe more than any other in sci-fi? 2001. Somewhere in my top list would be Alien, and you would find a bunch of people who felt the same.

There was a bit of talk about Netflix, who had distributed Annihilation outside the US, possibly doing something with the other books. I know you’re not interested in doing that. If they asked you for some kind of consultation, would you consider advising from afar?

I don’t think I’d be the right guy to consult. Actually, that’s literally the first I’ve heard of it, what you just mentioned. Good luck to them if they want to do it, good luck to them. And also, good luck to Jeff VanderMeer. He’s a terrific writer, and, you know, the guy they should consult with would be him.

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Where are things at with your next project, Devs?

Literally three minutes before we started speaking I walked out of a big VFX and production design meeting. We’re deep in pre-production, and it’s kind of cool. It’s all the same faces for the most part. We know each other really well. We like working together, and it’s a different kind of thing, because it’s shooting eight hours of drama instead of an hour and 50 minutes. We feel we’ve got a handle on it, and we’ve got some cool plans, and hopefully they’ll work out.

Can you elaborate on what it’s about?

I think what I’d really say is it’s about very, very, very big data. Like unbelievably big data. But it is also…you know, most stuff I do, in fact all stuff I do, is also political, and in some respects celebrating something, but in another respect being cautionary about it.

Are you still planning to direct all of it yourself?

That’s the plan. It has various kinds of challenges attached to it, but yeah, that’s the assumption we’re going on. We start shooting August 27th, and we don’t have any other directors hired, so I guess I’m it.

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Annihilation is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital.