It’s hard to know where to start or how to even describe Annihilation – part alien invasion film, part surreal mind-bender, part heartfelt melodrama… I was on the set a little over a year ago, spoke with the producers, director, production & art designers, saw the mood boards tracking the story of the film, and watched a particularly tense sequence filmed – and yet even after all of that, I’m still not sure what to expect. This, by the by, is a great thing. There’s an oddness to Annihilation, something that can’t quite be distilled with mere words; more than anything – the film looks like an experience that needs to be seen to be fully understood. To be honest – I feel a little like Lena (Natalie Portman) herself does in the new trailer, asked to describe something that may well be indescribable.
So, I guess, let’s just start from the beginning.
Annihilation opens in an unnamed small town in the Baltimore suburbs – just your typical suburban middle class home. Lena (Natalie Portman) teaches microbiology at John Hopkins University, while her husband (Oscar Isaac) goes off on various missions for the government. One night – he returns home much worse for wear, but this reunion is cut short as a military team quickly ambushes the couple. Lena is then taken by gunpoint to a military medical research unit, close to a natural park where ‘occurrences’ are said to happen.
Lena’s put into a captivity room, which naturally she escapes from, leading her outside to discover ‘the shimmer’. Around the nearby park, a force field has emerged – alien, definitely not of here – shining a distortion of different lights. The scariest part: the force field seems to be growing at an accelerated rate. It’s not long before Lena, alongside four other women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez & Tuva Novotny), journeys within the force field (known as ‘Area X’) to discover what’s actually going on inside the alien terrain.
And that’s when things really get weird.
Per writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) – “The first conversation I had when I was meeting actors or having production meetings was that the film is about various things and various themes but the basic underlying principle is the journey from suburbia to psychedelia. We’re going to start in suburbia and end in psychedelia. That was the underlying principle.”
After the team enters ‘Area X’, their equipment begins to malfunction and time itself seems to distort. “At a certain point, it’s not necessarily clear how long they’ve been wandering out there. It may be days or [even] weeks…”
“It’s not about an alien invasion” production designer Mark Digby revealed, “It’s about something that is mutating and adding a cancer to all of our physicality. That means light waves, electric magnetic waves, vegetables, minerals, animal, DNA, crystal, organic… It’s all been mashed up and it’s all behaving oddly… It’s about an annihilation of our rules of science.”
Within Area X, the team discovers these various mutations – mutated plants, albino alligators, a nastily deformed (and ferocious) bear, and, well, let’s-just say-more…
It took over three years of development until Annihilation officially got the green light into production. “It was a long time,” producer Andrew MacDonald confided, “First of all there was the period writing the script. Then the studio changed personnel. Then there was casting of Natalie [Portman]. Then Natalie had some other projects. When she was free though, it was winter – so it was the wrong time. But one of the great positives [is that] we were able to think about the film and contribute ideas. Alex designed and processed everything, so we had a plan that worked. And in that time, we were able to get the rest of the cast right.”
Annihilation, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, takes some pretty big deviations from its source material. For one: in the novel, none of the characters are ever given names, simply called by their profession (The Biologist or The Psychologist or The Anthropologist, etc…). For the film though – Garland immediately keyed into giving each character their own name. Per Garland – “In a film with this kind of execution, it would be slightly too arch if they’re saying, ‘Hey, Biologist, come check this out.’ It makes it too other. This film is weird enough.”