Under the Radar

Director Alex Garland on 'Annihilation,' Science and the Military

(Paramount Pictures)

Director Alex Garland's "Annihilation" (out now on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD) is a worthy follow-up to "Ex Machina." It's another riveting movie that takes sci-fi and horror film conventions and uses them to make a movie that resonates far more deeply than the assembly-line genre pictures that everyone enjoys but forgets five minutes after they leave the theater.

We had a chance to speak with Garland about the movie and how his films capture the intersection between military and science.

This time he adapts the first novel from Jeff VanderMeer's "Southern Reach" trilogy, which created a sensation when all three novels ("Annihilation," "Authority" and "Acceptance") were released within a few months of each other in 2014. Garland has been upfront with his insistence that he was not thinking sequel when he made "Annihilation" and his film is remarkably free of the foreshadowing and setup scenes that dominate the Universes that most film studios are desperate to create.

We get a self-contained movie about a group of military-trained scientists and soldiers who embark on a top-secret mission to determine what's going on in The Shimmer, a mysterious quarantine zone that has decimated previous missions. Kane (Oscar Isaac) is the only man to return and he's near catatonic. His wife Lena (Natalie Portman), a scientist who's a former soldier, joins the crew.

One notable thing: every member of the unit is a woman and the movie makes no big deal about that fact. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny play the badass crew and the movie just accepts this as how things are done and doesn't demand a Gold Star for its progressive views.

The crew enters the mystery zone and encounters scenarios that are trippier and more disorienting than standard monster fare. Much of the film was shot at Windsor Great Park in England and the breathtaking natural setting is seamlessly merged with both practical and CGI effects to give a visual experience that surpasses movies with far greater budgets.

Alex talked to us about the ethical questions raised by AI and how he works with the composers who write his films' amazing scores.

Natalie Portman and Alex Garland on the set of "Annihilation." (Paramount Pictures)

All of your military-trained lead characters are women but the movie makes no big deal about the fact that they're women.  

I certainly didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. 

Well, it is. I can't think of another film that takes this approach and does it so well.

I think that the problem with me talking about this is that within the film there really isn't any kind of commentary about that.  And there’s a reason why there's no commentary about it. In a way, the lack of the commentary is the point.  It’s like that is the argument. 

So I guess, right now, to talk about it, I slightly kind of undermine the deliberate lack of commentary within the film.  Do you see what I mean?  It’s tricky for me to talk about.  In a way, I just feel like you make the thing and you put it out there and people can feel their own conclusions.  

I don’t know if you’ve done this on purpose, but there also seems to be a real intersection of interest for you between science, research, and military application.  Is that a conscious thing?

One thing I know from friends of mine who work in kind of slightly offbeat areas of the tech industry, is that they are constantly being approached by the military and the intelligence community. They are constantly being inspected by those groups in attempt to mine, in a way, what they're doing. It’s something that they get confronted by and have to make decisions about, in terms of how their tech will get used.  

It can be a very, very complicated, difficult, decision for them, because there is really a lot of power embedded within tech and science.

Lots of people don't understand that the entire foundation of Silicon Valley is military research. We have an internet because American military wanted a secure communications network.  

That’s a perfect example.  When we were researching AI to do with "Ex Machina," there were some really interesting, complicated debates.  

If you could get to a point where an AI-controlled drone was making better or more accurate and faster decisions about its usage of its own weaponry, is there an ethical issue with handing that decision to a drone or either the AI behind the drone, where you effectively have a machine making a life or death decision over a human?  

You also get it in a much more sort of domestic setting. You can have AI deciding how a health service is run, looking at the cost of drugs, and making decisions about which drugs would be available to which patients. The fact is that some patients would suffer as a result of that. The ethical implications are absolutely massive, but they are massive implications that we all have to look at.  

I guess I tried to put some kind of suggestion  about the conversations we have to have.  Whatever the answer is, you’ve gotta have the conversation first.

As the unit gets further into the Shimmer, there are trippy effects that evoke the imagery used by rave culture in the 90s. Is that a scene that influenced you? 

I was born in London I remember as a kid the transition from a hippie vibe into punk, and then punk through various stages that ultimately led to rave culture.  Of course, I grew up around that imagery.  

When we were sitting there and figuring out how to make "Annihilation," we described it as a journey from suburbia to psychedelia.  And so you look to what represents psychedelia to you, I guess.

Another thing that’s really incredible about your work is that you recruited Geoff Barrow from Portishead to write these non-traditional scores.   

Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury are absolutely fundamental, really, to both "Ex Machina" and "Annihilation."  And actually, even the film from before that, "Dredd," Geoff and Ben had some key input at times into soundscape of it.  I loved working with those guys.  

With a lot of films, it seems like the score is the last step, something tacked on at the end of production.  These scores seem to be woven in.  They almost share screenplay DNA in your films.

You're exactly right, you're exactly right.  I started working with Geoff and Ben in both movies in preproduction, before anything was shot.  Very often composers are given an edited film to score. Geoff and Ben were involved the whole way through and, in fact, started writing while we were shooting. 


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