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Annihilation starring Natalie Portman: Interview with Director Alex Garland #book2movies [trailer]

 Natalie Portman toplines the mostly female cast

I’m currently in the midst of reading Annihilation. A science fiction novel, it’s one of those books I wouldn’t naturally pick up if I wasn’t reading for this blog. Written by Jeff Vandermeer, with four females as its main characters, it’s a book I’m pleased to have discovered. 

Just past the midway point—the book is only 195 pages long—the four women are only identified only as a biologist, anthropologist, a surveyor and the mission’s leader, a psychologist, on an expedition to an abandoned salt marsh area.

The story is told from the biologist’s point of view, played by Natalie Portman in the film.

“Our mission was simple: to continue the government’s investigation into the mysteries of Area X, slowly working our way out from base camp.’’

With the exception of the psychologist ‘who was older than the rest of us’ the women are not described. No physical descriptions. No spunky redheads who flick their hair behind their ears, no cool steely-eyed blondes who push their glasses back on top of their heads, and certainly no brunettes who ‘scrape their hair back into a ponytail’—a pet peeve, I’ve been encountering this phrase a bit too frequently of late. The women don’t even have names, let alone race and color. 

It might seem odd then, that Alex Garland’s soon to be released film based on the book has been accused of ‘white-washing.’ The reality is that the book was optioned before Vandermeer wrote the sequels in which the women are presented in a more diverse light. 
‘‘I knew at that time there were supposed to be three books planned, but I didn't know [anything] about the other two.’’ 

While I flinch at the notion of bringing casting down to a one from Column A, one from Column B approach, I agree filmmakers should make a more concerted effort to ensure our film worlds look more like our real worlds. In general, that means more hispanic, black and Asians on our screen which in turn brings more of us out to the movies. Anyone who has seen the success of Black Panther—a marvel of a Marvel moviewould likely agree

The book is taut, full of tension, mystery and mistrust and I find I’m loving it. Alex Garland, who has reportedly taken quite a few liberties with the novel in his film spoke with Gregory Wakeman at the online journal, Metro.

How did you first come across Jeff VanderMeer’s novel?

“I was in post-production on ‘Ex Machina,’ and one of the producers, Scott Rudin, said he wanted me to take a look at adapting it. After I read it there were two things that I really noticed immediately. It was very, very original, and that in itself was unusual. Because most books and movies are usually in some way a repetition of other stories. It was unusual to find a one-off, and something that is only like itself. But what ultimately drew me in though was its unusual and powerful atmosphere, which had an immediate and lasting impression on me.”

Talk about adapting the novel, what did you want to bring to the big-screen from it?

“The fundamentals of the book are in the film. It is team of female scientists entering a sealed off area, and a trippy, dreamlike, and hallucinogenic environment. It’s got some structural differences. The book substantially takes place with the characters having made the journey. This is the journey. I knew that I needed to be true to the atmosphere. I wanted to try to recreate the feeling I had when I first read it. But you want to be respectful, because Jeff had done something so unusual and interesting.”

What was the appeal of its prominently female cast?

“The thing that I thought was most interesting was the absence of a conversation about the scientists being female. I’m steering clear of it to try and preserve the absence of the conversation. Because that’s where the point resides. It would be undermining the purpose to then start drawing attention to it.”

There’s a lot of science and jargon in “Annihilation,” did you ever consider dumbing it down for a wider audience?

“I am definitely not trying to make this for as big an audience as possible. I never think about that. And the box office for my films demonstrates that I think. I have never had a mainstream hit, and I can’t imagine I will. I had an accidental one years and years ago when I wrote ‘The Beach,’ which was trippy, druggy, slightly crazy and it somehow popped out into the mainstream.”

You can feel aspects of “Alien” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” when watching the film, talk about their influence.

“I think they are present just because I have seen them. And they are films that I really, really like. Are they going to be an influence? Definitely. But one of the films I was most conscious of when making it was an old Walter Hill movie called ‘Southern Comfort’ and ‘Apocalypse Now.’ Because that has a very similar structure. It is really a journey through countryside that is getting progressive more surreal and extreme as you get deeper in.”

“Annihilation” stars Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, David Gyasi, Sonoya Mizuno, and Benedict Wong and comes out this week on February 23.

I hope you’ll read Annihilation whether or not you head out to see the movie. Like Garland says, it’s kind of ‘trippy’ and so strangely sparse, it’s almost genderless in its telling.