Unnatural Resource: Alex Garland and Natalie Portman probe the mysteries of 'Annihilation'

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Nature abhors a vacuum, but she's pretty laissez faire about everything else. Tip the average temperature a few degrees, let a little more radiation than usual in through the ozone layer, have a minor nuclear meltdown at a Japanese power plant, and pretty soon you start getting mutations—not X-Men level mutations, maybe, but all it takes is one strain of bee that doesn't pollinate and you're looking at the title of filmmaker Alex Garland's new philosophical science-fiction suspense-thriller, Annihilation, out Feb. 23 from Paramount Pictures.

Based on Jeff VanderMeer's 2014 novel of that name, the first of a trilogy, the film opens with an outer-space object striking a lighthouse in some unspecified swampy part of the Southern United States. The area becomes the locus of an ever-spreading iridescent field that a government response team at the quickly arranged facility Area X calls “The Shimmer.” No one knows exactly what's inside—nothing sent in so far, neither drones nor animals nor military personnel, has sent back messages or returned. And the way The Shimmer is growing, it eventually will encompass all of Earth. With nothing else having worked, Area X will now send in scientists including microbiologist Lena (Natalie Portman); team leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychiatrist; Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), a physicist; and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist, along with paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez).

Once inside, they find that not only has nature changed, but they have as well—though in ways far removed from any sci-fi tropes. More Stanley Kubrick than Cloverfield, the intense and thoughtful Annihilation questions the supposed specialness of humanity. We believe we are unique, conscious beings of free will. Yet like all other life forms—plant, animal, bacteria—we're nothing more than a collective conglomeration of DNA... just jigsaw puzzles that can think.

British screenwriter and director Garland, 47, a former novelist famed for his Gen-X touchstone The Beach (1996), does a lot of thinking, simple conglomeration of DNA or not, and that question of what it means to be human has infused his cinematic work, from screenplays (2002's 28 Days Later) to adapted screenplays (2010's Never Let Me Go) to his previous film as writer-director, 2015's Ex Machina, an original script about an android achieving—or seeming to achieve—sentience.

In Portman, 36, who won a lead-actress Academy Award for her role as a brilliant but tortured ballet dancer in Black Swan (2010), Garland found a performer who combines a visceral intelligence and strength with vulnerability—and who despite her small stature can call up the physicality required to convincingly play a former U.S. Army soldier who can handle an automatic firearm and a 30-pound backpack with equal aplomb.

We spoke separately by phone with Garland and Portman.

There is a lot of imaginatively hybridized life in Annihilation that blur lines between species, between plant and animal, between organism and sentience. Without giving spoilers as to what else causes me to say this, would I be wrong in thinking that despite the apocalyptic threat and the suspense and all that, the move is primarily concerned with questions of identity?

Alex Garland: It's very interesting that you say that, because I've written something that I hopefully am going to shoot later this year…

The eight-part FX series that's been announced

AG: Yes, that's right. That [miniseries] is explicitly concerned with precisely that, and one of the things I've noticed over my working life is the way threads float up through things and then coalesce at a certain point. I would say [Annihilation] is concerned with identity because its primary focus, from my point of view, is self-destruction—that is, the destruction of identity. So, yes. The thing that I was most thinking about in making it actually just came from observation, which was realizing that everybody I knew, or everybody I encountered, was in some way self-destructive. And it made me sort of wonder why that was, where it came from, what triggered it and the various ways in which it manifests itself.

Given all your success and accolades in both literature and filmmaking, it's hard to imagine you being self-destructive.

AG: I do so much, I wouldn't know how to begin to start cataloguing it. But I think the important thing about the self-destructive thing is its universality. Certainly what I've noticed is that, of course, we meet lots of people who offer up their self-destruction to us. They make it very easy and apparent to spot because they're into heroin or they're recidivists or they're alcoholics or whatever it happens to be. But then you meet people who seem to be incredibly comfortable in their own skin, have a terrific job or a lovely family or whatever the outward signs of togetherness seem to be—and then you get to know them and you see fault lines and within the fault lines you see behavior that is really quite extreme and quite dismantling. Am I immune from that? No, I am definitely not. But I also think that nobody is, and that was the thing that interested me about this film.

Natalie Portman: I think that's a very valid interpretation and that it's one of those very rare movies that present an opportunity [for audiences] to have very different perceptions and very different experiences because of what you bring to it.

What do you bring to it? As an actress, what's your take on the film's theme?

NP: I don't love to prescribe that; I feel like people can take what they will. In terms of the character, she's going through a personal exploration of her own, and that's sort of externalized as this environment or phenomenon called The Shimmer.

Alex says we're all self destructive—do you think that's true?

NP: I think it depends on how you define self-destructive. Alex defines it pretty broadly to include hurting relationships with people you love, and we all have a tendency to do that—with our parents, our children, our partners, our friends. We all do things that are destructive to our relationships. And that's destructive to us… Maybe sometimes it's not malicious self-destruction, but self-destruction that we're not aware of, that doesn't have a purpose. Why do we do things that hurt ourselves?

Alex, how much of this was in the book and how much did you bring to the screenplay?

AG: I think that theme was brought into the screenplay, but an enormous amount [of plot and character] is from the book. When you're doing an adaptation, you kind of, at some point, need to think about what it is that you're adapting, which can vary from project to project. I worked on a film years ago called Never Let Me Go [directed by Mark Romanek] that I adapted from a novel [by Kazuo Ishiguro] and was extremely and slavishly faithful. I did an adaptation of the comic-book character Judge Dredd [2012's Dredd, directed by Pete Travis] and there the faithfulness was in the character. In this story, although there's lots of the architecture [of the novel]—a group of women entering into a mysterious, sort of surrealist zone on an unspecified North American coastline—the thing I really thought my duty lay towards was the atmosphere and the tone of it.

There's a Stanley Kubrick quality to the film, and I know you've mentioned that his 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] has influenced you as a filmmaker.

AG: I'm always slightly suspicious of the word "influence," because often when people talk about influence, they mean "it's something like." And influence is kind of harder to get at. You often don't know what the influence is while you're doing [a movie] and then a year later or two years later somebody points out that a scene is eerily similar to a scene in such-and-such a thing and you think, "Ah, that's what the influence was."

Certainly when I think about [2001: A Space Odyssey] there is a kind of flatness to it—not a dead flatness, but more like a measured flatness. And also a strong sense that everything has been thought through, so stuff in there isn't fireworks or flashiness: Everything has a specific relevance to theme or plot or character. And I think a lot of the story is told by inference rather than by statement. So that, I guess, is something I aspire to.

Turning to the more physical aspects of Annihilation, it must have been difficult shooting in those remote locations in the U.K. [primarily in the South Forest of Windsor Great Park]. I didn't know you have Southern-style swamps in England.

AG: We do, but we also to an extent had to build one—that is to say, we found one and then built on it, I guess would be the best description. Some of the physical difficulty was really quite extreme: The sequence where Tessa Thompson's character gets pulled into the hut, that water was freezing cold and the day was long and Tessa was getting pulled really quite hard by cables and Natalie was having to spend an equal amount of time in the water with her and pushing her way through the water and that water was freezing. In fact, we had to have a kind of hot tub just off set on the location, just outside of where we were filming, so they could just literally sit in it and be saturated in warmth to prevent any problems with hypothermia. It was very, very tough. But I literally didn't hear a word of complaint out of either of them.

NP: It was definitely very physical… It was heavy going to carry around the guns and the packs on our backs all day, to be wearing this military gear. And it was cold and sometimes it was wet, the days the cast and I were in the water. There were days when we were ankle deep or knee deep in swampy water. It was really bonding; I think that it's so rare for women to get to have this sort of female camaraderie set in their military world.

AG: I think that with many actors—certainly the actors I've worked with—in a funny way they are looking for things that are challenging on various levels, certainly in terms of the range of the performance. But actually, more broadly, I think it's the sense of being challenged by what one's own limitations are. And also I think it's that when they take on a project, when they're in, they're in, you know? And that's what it requires. That's not true of all actors, but it's alwaysbeen true of the actors I've worked with. It's a kind of willingness—not to a stupid degree, not to a kind of self-harming degree—but there's a kind of rationality to it. But also kind of saying, "Yes, I get what this involves and we're up for it."

NP: It was fun to get to play an ex-soldier who had a real ease around these automatic weapons and it was really helpful to have the weapons team work with me and with all of the actresses ahead of time. And I was also lucky enough to have an Israeli security person working with me, and the guard I had helped me a lot, too. He would always show me how to move into it [when firing an automatic weapon].

AG: She did weapons training; she did an awful lot of practicing of some basic muscle-memory stuff like how you bring that gun up, where you tuck it into your shoulder, where your cheekbone is resting on it and that kind of thing.

All the other scientists were firing off rifles, but, Natalie, your ex-military character looked completely natural and even kind of scary as a trained shooter. Do you handle guns?

NP: Only in movies.

AG: Natalie has a lot of poise and she's able to create characters who have an enormous sense of self-control. But also, concurrent to that, a sense of damage and something broken, and she can put those things together—which in a way represents those people who seem supernaturally self-possessed but who have something damaged that you increasingly start to glimpse.

Let's wind down by fact-checking IMDb. Alex, some basic biographical facts: You were born in London, May 26, 1970? Correct?

AG: Yep, that's right. So I'm told.

And Natalie: Léon: The Professional, released in 1994, was your first screen work. But that same year there appears to be a half-hour short film, "Developing," a drama about a mother with breast cancer. IMDb says you did "Developing" first. Is that right?

NP: No. I did The Professional first, and then I did the short film.

Any final thoughts on shooting Annihilation?

AG:  I think Natalie's performance is absolutely brilliant—very complex and very nuanced as well.

NP: I think it was really special working with such incredible actresses; it's really rare to have that experience. It was just kind of a beautiful dream to be [there] everyday together and be able to support each other, and we've been able to stay very good friends after that, too.