'Annihilation' director Alex Garland breaks down his sci-fi nightmare as new trailer debuts (exclusive)

When writer-director Alex Garland read Annihilation, the bestselling science-fiction novel by Jeff VanderMeer, the filmmaker was struck by the sensation of being inside a dream. The surreal novel is full of haunting images and unexplained phenomena, which makes for a compelling read — but how to translate that into a film? “What I did was, I took a really weird approach to the adaptation,” Garland, whose last film was the sci-fi sleeper hit Ex Machina, exclusivelyexplained to Yahoo Entertainment. “I thought, I’m not going to re-read the book; I’m going to adapt it like a dream of the book.”

In other words, Garland committed to an unfaithful adaptation, using VanderMeer’s work as inspiration (with the novelist’s blessing). That gave the director space to invent his own cinematic world, one that is glimpsed in the new trailer for Annihilation, above.

The clip begins with Natalie Portman’s character saying goodbye to her husband (Oscar Isaac) as he leaves for a top-secret mission. He returns, but in a coma — and, according to the woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) debriefing Portman, he’s the only person who has ever even come back from the mysterious zone nicknamed “the shimmer.” Along with a team of fellow scientists and soldiers, Portman’s character undertakes a journey to follow in her husband’s footsteps and figure out what happened to him. When she crosses the border, she encounters an environment that is stranger, more beautiful, and more dangerous than she expected.

“It’s as if everything is slightly refracted and familiar things are unfamiliar,” Garland said of the forbidden zone, located in an unspecified region of North America. “Plants, animals, and humans are colliding with each other in a particular kind of way. And so some of the creatures that are encountered are the creatures that we know, but that they’ve been kind of twisted by their position within that environment.” Witness, for example, the alligator with the teeth of a shark, or the human-plant hybrid standing eerily still beside an overgrown house. “It’s not destroying,” says Portman of the mysterious invader, “it’s making something new.”

While the characters in VanderMeer’s novel are never given names (they are referenced only by their jobs), Garland quickly dismissed the idea for his screenplay. (“People in the middle of conversation use each other’s names, so it would have felt slightly arch,” he explained.) He did, however, stick with the book’s concept of an all-female team of scientists. For these characters, Garland recruited a killer ensemble cast, including Portman, Leigh, Tessa Thompson, and Gina Rodriguez. The director’s decision to cast Portman was inspired largely by her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan.

“I personally was very struck by watching Black Swan, because there is a similarity in some respects with Annihilation,” he said. “Black Swan is in some ways very extreme and quite wild, and her character goes to extremes within it, but her performance is very modulated and controlled.”

He added that all of the lead actresses “have a really significant weight to carry,” and that each member of the ensemble delivers one of the film’s key scenes. The fact that the lead characters are all women wasn’t something that Garland dwelled on, though he did have a few moments during filming when he was struck by the reversal of traditional Hollywood gender roles.

“I had a shot of the five women walking through jungle, carrying backpacks and rifles. And I was looking at it on the camera thinking, this is such a strange image — why is it strange? We’ve seen it so many times,” Garland recalled.  “But it tends to be in war films, I suppose, and so it would be five guys. And so there were things like that that were unexpected, but they weren’t really planned.”

Given the freedom Garland took with his adaptation, even hardcore fans of the novel may not see where Annihilation is headed. The director, whose Ex Machina ending was an unforgettable gut punch, hopes that end of this film — a descent into what he describes as “psychedelia” — will knock audiences off their feet. “The collective that made the film really worked their guts out on this movie,” he said, “and nothing was harder or more challenging than the last half hour.”

Annihilation opens in theaters on Feb. 23.

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