As much as Annihilation is a story and a film, it’s also an experience. Fittingly, that’s the word, director Alex Garland will use to describe the sci-fi world at the center of his movie, the Shimmer. It also seems to have been the very core of his adaptation from the get-go. “The book had this incredibly powerful atmosphere, and I felt that while I was reading it I was almost having the experience of having a dream whilst I was awake,” Garland told Nerdist while promoting the film’s release on Blu-ray and Digital HD. “That really struck me, and it presented a unique, interesting, and strange challenge. In the end, in a way, what I felt like I was adapting was my dreamlike feeling while I was reading Jeff [VanderMeer]’s book.”
So how has being adapted as a writer himself changed his view on directing an adaptation of someone else? For Garland, it doesn’t even register. “I don’t think the directorial aspect is relevant, in a way; I think it’s more in the writing,” he said. “It’s me thinking about: What is the thing I’m adapting—is it the story? Is it an atmosphere? Is it a character? Is it an argument?—And trying to understand: What is the thing that made you want to adapt it?”He continued, “There’s always a risk with an adaptation—you’re bound to piss some people off—so I guess ultimately what I try to do is be true to the thing in my head and not worry too much about pissing people off.”
Annihilation reads as a meditation on trauma and self-destruction, and those threads have spoken to a lot of the film’s audience, which has meant a lot to Garland on a personal level. “It would be fair to say that’s what the film is [about],” Garland said. “When I read pieces that discussed that, they were very powerful and meant a lot to me personally. Inevitably it was from my own personal experience; the impulse to try and explore that could only really come from personal experience.”
At Annihilation’s core is a brilliant cast: a group who, by Garland’s own definition, have contributed something to the project that he couldn’t foresee. “I would say that I cast with a view to finding actors that will elevate the material they are given and do something surprising, so in a way that’s the intention of the casting,” Garland said. “That group of people, all of them are highly intelligent and thoughtful, and also people who are comfortable with acting on their instincts. So having an impulse, and going with it and exploring it.”
He continued, “In a way, that’s always what I’m looking for with actors: people who’re quite autonomous and very much in possession of their characters. What I see is that it’s the filmmaking team’s job to capture what they’re doing and to respect it in the edits. To put the nuance and the courage of what they did on screen and make it visible to people.”
A lot has been said on the softness and femininity of the film, but as it turns out, Garland isn’t one to conform to widely accepted ideas of gender. “I’m not actually wholly convinced by that concept of ‘feminine’ anyway, and I don’t mean that in some woefully politically correct kind of way,” he said. “I’m just literally not convinced by it. I personally suspect that there’s no difference of any sort between a male and female consciousness, I just don’t buy it at all. I guess I don’t really think in those terms, and I understand how that makes me sound, and it makes me wince because it makes me sound like I’m putting a badge on myself, and I’m not. I just think it’s bulls***.”
Thematically, there’s much to pick apart from Garland’s bleakly hopeful sci-fi tale, and while he understands the allegorical takes that people have in response to the film, for him it’s about something much more tangible and simple. “Really, from my point of view, it’s more about events—significant, powerful, subjective experiences, which is basically what the Shimmer is,” he said. “It’s like being overwhelmed by subjective experience. That’s what those things do, they change us. They just simply change us, and the person who walks in isn’t the person who walks out. That doesn’t have to relate to an alien—that could relate to a personal experience.”
Annihilation is available on Digital and Blu-ray now.