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Shimmer school: ‘Ex Machina’ writer and director Alex Garland discusses his brainy, dreamy new sci-fi ‘Annihilation’

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Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson investigate a weird anomaly in “Annihilation.” (Courtesy Paramount Pictures/Skydance)

Alex Garland broke into the movie business when his novel “The Beach” was adapted into a 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio film, directed by Danny Boyle. Seventeen years later, his directorial debut, “Ex Machina,” received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

If “Ex Machina” was a deeply thoughtful, haunting sci-fi film, Garland’s truly amazing, transporting “Annihilation” goes even further. It offers a brainy puzzle without giving all the answers.

“Film, probably more than any other medium, has had a preoccupation with presenting a full circle, and of course, full circles are satisfying,” Garland said during a recent visit to The City.

“But there is space for broken circles and wavy lines and squares and all sorts of other constructs,” he continued. “What we were looking for was further conversation after the film was finished. We did not necessarily want you to agree about what you’d just seen.”

“Annihilation” tells the story of five women who volunteer to enter into a mysterious and expanding zone called The Shimmer. No one knows what happens inside, but no one that has gone in has ever come out.

It’s a scenario that recalls Andre Tarkovsky’s great 1979 classic “Stalker,” which is high praise for any sci-fi movie these days. “I’m a film nerd and ‘Stalker’ is one of my favorite movies, so I did think about it,” Garland admits.

Writer and director Alex Garland gives Natalie Portman some direction on the set of the trippy, brain new sci-fi movie “Annihilation.” (Courtesy Peter Mountain/Paramount Pictures)

The women are played by Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny. And, amazingly, happily, Garland said there was no pressure at any point to turn them into male characters.

Indeed, Garland was given a great amount of freedom in adapting and making the movie just the way he wanted.

In writing an adapted screenplay, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Garland asks one question.

“What is the significant thing you are adapting?” he says. When he adapted the Nobel Prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Never Let Me Go” into the 2010 film, Garland found his writing was a little too faithful to its source.

“’Never Let Me Go’ was, in many respects, a slavish adaptation, to such an extent that in an existential way I ended up thinking: why are we adapting this?”

So for “Annihilation,” he took a new track. “I thought, ‘What is this book like to read? It is like a dream. And so, rather than read and re-read and make notes, I’m gonna do my memory of the book.”

As a result, certain scenes in the movie diverge greatly from the book, and others are very close.

“It was finding the dreamlike quality by making the adaptation a dreamlike process,” he said.

Amazingly, VanderMeer himself was on board with this idea. “I think ultimately he felt okay with the idea, and with taking risks, because it’s what Jeff himself does,” Garland said.

VanderMeer’s novel has now turned into the “Southern Reach Trilogy,” and of course, there’s some question as to whether there will be movie adaptations of the second and third books.

“I am not personally interested in franchises,” Garland explained. He adds that he sees his work as a series of opposites, each a specific, converse reaction to the work that came before it. So to work on the same thing for such a long time is not appealing to him.

“I was always clear. I am gonna work on my adaptation of this book,” he said. “Beyond that, if other people wanted to do it, that’s fine. Life is short.”


Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac
Written by: Alex Garland, based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer
Directed by: Alex Garland
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes

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