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Alex Garland Wants You to Know ‘Annihilation’ is the Anti-‘Ex Machina’: ‘It Demands an Open Mind’

Garland jumps from the indie world to studio-funded filmmaking with the Natalie Portman-starring "Annihilation."

Alex Garland has been one of the most reliable names in science-fiction cinema over the last decade, first as the screenwriter of titles such as “28 Days Later” and “Never Let Me Go” and later as the breakthrough director of “Ex Machina.” The latter was one of the big critical hits of 2015, winning an Oscar for VFX and recently being named one of the best sci-fi films of the century by IndieWire. All of this is to say expectations are sky high for Garland’s new sci-fi offering, the studio-funded “Annihilation.”

“Annihilation” is based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. Natalie Portman leads the cast as a biologist who must enter an ecological disaster zone in North America to try and figure out what is threatening her husband’s life. The supporting cast includes Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, and Oscar Isaac. On the heels of the new trailer debuting, Garland spoke with IndieWire about what to expect from his most ambitious effort to date.

“Annihilation” Is Nothing Like “Ex Machina”

Anyone expecting “Annihilation” to give them “Ex Machina” vibes will surely be disappointed, as Garland very much intended to do something radically different with his new film. “With each new movie, I tend to react against the thing I just did,” Garland said, noting just how different films like “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd” were in style and scope. “They are always push-backs against the previous thing. I don’t really care about the budget. As long as you can do the things you’re trying to do, then the budget is almost irrelevant. It’s a purely creative thing.”

After the chamber-piece human drama of “Ex Machina,” Garland was ready to take on a more sprawling mystery like “Annihilation.” He notes that his new movie is the anti-“Ex Machina” when it comes to story focus. “‘Ex Machina’ was very zoned in and specific. It had a very small cast. It’s ineffectively one location. There were four people, and often each scene included only pairs,” he said. “In ‘Annihilation,’ you often have five people in a scene at once, so it required a lot more coverage. Everything is more stretched out in ‘Annihilation,’ from the cast to the VFX.”

"Annihilation"

“Annihilation”

The Film Is About Scientists, Not “Female Scientists”

Natalie Portman has been front and center in both “Annihilation” trailers thus far, but Garland teases that the movie isn’t just her story alone. He describes the film less as a character study about Portman’s biologist and more as an ensemble film about five scientists who embark on a mission through what is known as Area X in the book. Each member of the team is crucial to mission (Rodriguez plays a paramedic, for instance, while Leigh is a psychologist and leader of the group). Interestingly enough, the entire group is made up of women, but that dynamic hardly was a selling point for Garland.

“What I loved about the book, which I thought was a good way to approach it, was that these are fully capable scientists who just happen to be women,” Garland said, noting the film is not focused on the kind of gender politics that made up the heart of “Ex Machina.” “It’s not like a badge of honor. We’re not waving a flag. They are women, that’s just the way it is. That seemed like the best way to approach it for me. Otherwise it can all seem virtue-seeming, and it’s not that at all. Hopefully it’s just a strange and interesting story with a strange and interesting group of characters.”

The Trailers Are Misleading You

Garland has not been involved with the marketing for the movie, although he admits that’s not because Paramount doesn’t want him to be but because marketing is not at all his area of expertise. However, he did warn that the trailers are full of misdirections, which is only doing his twisting narrative justice. For instance, the new trailer presents something of a linear narrative, with Oscar Isaac and Natalie Portman’s peaceful marriage coming to an end when he leaves her behind and gets harmed in Area X. The movie, however, is anything but linear.

“The Oscar Isaac/Natalie Portman storyline is a very important part of the film, but it’s kind of a thread that weaves through it,” Garland said. “The bulk of the film is about these five scientists who are entering into an area of North America where there is a strange event going on. There’s a twin narrative. One has to do with a marriage. One has to do with a mission. They will take interesting turns, separately and together.”

One of the biggest spoilers in the trailer comes when a watch is shown in Area X to be spinning out of control, teasing a setting where time will bend. The trailer offers no answers to this dangling plot thread, and Garland refuses to spoil anything, though he does have this to say about the film: “It is it its own thing. It demands open-mindedness. It’s a film to go into in a kind of open-minded way and just go along with it and see where it ends up and where it takes you.”

"Annihilation"

“Annihilation”

Avoid All Spoilers (Even the Trailer)

“If it was up to me, I would know nothing about the film. But that’s just unrealistic, isn’t it?” Garland said. “The only thing I get nervous about usually relates to the last third of the film. I’ve many times sat in a cinema and felt like, ‘Well I now know what’s coming. I know exactly what’s going to happen from the beginning to the end of this movie.’ I find it strange how much studios reveal sometimes. You want it to be like when you’re watching television late at night, and suddenly something comes on you had no idea was about to and you’re hooked. You’re like, ‘Wow, what is this?’ That’s what I want ‘Annihilation’ to feel like.”

He’s Releasing the Movie He Wanted to Make (and Paramount Won’t Get in the Way of That)

“Annihilation” was in the news most recently over a reported feud between producers Scott Rudin and David Ellison over the final cut of the film. Netflix has been courted to take international rights to the film because allegedly Ellison is worried that it’s just “too intellectual” and “too complicated” to connect with mainstream audiences. Apparently Ellison wanted to make changes that included changing the ending. Rudin feels otherwise and has refused to take notes on the matter. Fortunately, Rudin has final-cut privileges.

Garland remained relatively silent on the issue but did guarantee that his version will be the one audiences get to see in theaters. “I completely ignore that aspect of it,” Gardland said on the reported feud. “The way I approach these things is with transparency. I never bullshit fucking anybody about what my intension is. I say, ‘Here is the script, the script is not a pretend script, it’s the actual script. Here are some visuals, too.’ The way I see it from that point is that if they agree to make the film, then it becomes like a contract. Importantly, that contract is not open to being broken later. There’s a creative agreement. If people do have a problem, and that’s fine if they do, but the time to express that is early, not late.”

“Annihilation” opens in theaters nationwide February 23.

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