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'Annihilation' director wove memory into a dream-like movie

Alex Garland tells us why he loves to "subvert" the sci-fi genre, won’t make VR films and can’t get enough of video games.

With "Ex Machina," writer and director Alex Garland delivered a complex, thought-provoking sci-fi thriller that explored artificial intelligence, robots and what it means to be human.

With "Annihilation," which opens in US theaters Friday, he aims to take us on an even more mind-bending journey in a sci-fi fantasy laced with horror. 

This time, a crew of scientists led by biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is on a quest to find the source of an unexplained alien phenomenon called "The Shimmer." Fans of Jeff VanderMeer's best-selling novel will note that the book and movie diverge. That's something Garland said he needed to do, partly because he likes "subverting" genres such as thrillers and sci-fi but also because he needed to take a completely different approach to bring his vision of VanderMeer's very "original" story to life. 

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Sci-fi horror "Annihilation" follows a group of scientists who enter a mysterious quarantined zone where nature has mutated in unexpected ways. 

Netflix

"It was the experience of reading the book that felt most relevant," Garland said in an interview at CNET headquarters in San Francisco on Feb. 8. "Instead of going back and rereading it and underlining passages, I did an adaptation from my experience of having read it ... I thought that that was a way to be faithful to the thing that I experienced the most strongly, which was its dream-like nature."

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In a wide-ranging interview, Garland, an avid video gamer who has written story lines for several games, talked about his never-made screenplay for a movie based on the popular game Halo. He explained why he thinks it's important to take a "measured" approach to new technologies such as AI rather than fear them, and he said he believes streaming services are becoming a great medium for "morally complex stories."

Garland also talked about why he sees virtual reality as a great application for the video games he loves, but a challenging one for filmmakers. "I don't know how to direct the gaze in ... VR, which you do in film easily with lighting and focus," he said. "But mainly I'm not sure how you move the camera without making people want to throw up or take the [VR] helmet off."

Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: It's fair to say you spent most of the past two decades working in sci-fi, with stories that play off tech and science. But I read you got into science in your 20s on your own rather than studying it in school.
Garland: When I was at school, I struggled. We got streamed into slow groups and fast groups and stuff like that. And some of things, certainly things like mathematics, in fact, pretty much everything, I was in the slow group. [laughs]

When it came to science with physics and biology and chemistry, I wasn't able to take any of them as exams because my performance wasn't up to it. I think I just figured that it was all beyond me. And in many respects, it is all beyond me, except that as a lay person I can be interested in it.

In my 20s, I began to hear things that related to science, such as "The faster you go, the slower time passes." That kind of thing puzzled me. It didn't fit with any sense of time that I had. And so I started reading, but really, as an uneducated lay person. And that never really stopped. I'm now 47, and I've been trying to get my head around the collapse of wave function, or whatever, as best I can, which isn't very much. But I understand why it's interesting.

Then I tried to put it in the narratives as much as possible because there is something strange about the way the world is functioning at the moment, where there's a massive disconnect. There are disconnects everywhere, almost everywhere you look, between people who have and don't have, or know and don't know. And one of the areas is science. It's an increasingly rarefied group, and the knowledge gap is scary and I don't think helpful. So I guess I try and include it in the narratives I write.

The future is a very strange, unsettling place in your creative world. You're a fan of B-movies like "Soylent Green," "Logan's Run" and "Planet of the Apes." How did they inform your take on sci-fi?
Well, I work in genre. I write thrillers and sci-fi movies and then to some extent try to subvert them. Actually some of those older films were very subversive. They're usually anti-authoritarian in some kind of way and suspicious and take all kind of risks. That's the kind of stuff I grew up on, and of course it's found its way into what I do.

You've said you love sci-fi as a genre because, and this is a quote, "It allows for really, really big subject matter without having to be embarrassed about it."
That's right. When I first started, I always felt like I had to smuggle ideas into the stories. The first movie I ever wrote was "28 Days Later," which is a zombie flick. There were ideas in it, but they were kind of buried or hidden, for the most part. I realized increasingly that in science fiction you have permission, you have permission for big ideas. Actually most sci-fi tends to work as an analogy or metaphor in some kind of way. And so I increasingly gravitated towards it. It just like you said in the question. You didn't have to feel embarrassed about the idea. In fact it's almost encouraged.

What about comedy? Would you ever do one?
I just tried to write one. So yeah. [laughs]

Any hint?
A kids movie. I just wrote two scripts back-to-back actually. One of them is a kind of tech thriller, which is set here in San Francisco.

But I've got two children and they've never seen anything I've worked on. It's always too violent or druggy or whatever. And so I thought I will try, before my daughter gets too old, to do one kids movie. She's 10, so if I can get it done within the next two years she'll be interested.

Ever thought of doing a movie in VR?
I'm a big video gamer. I love video games, so I'm aware of VR.

I think its application seems more suited to video games than to filmed narrative. And it's not because of anything other than nausea, actually. In a video game, you're controlling the camera, and so you don't get the seasick thing where the boat moves in a direction you're not expecting, and you start to feel terrible. You get a visceral response, you get an inner ear type problem, a nausea type problem and a stomach type problem, that sort of lurching feeling.

I don't know how to direct the gaze in that kind of VR, which you do in film easily with lighting and focus. I'm not sure how you do that in VR, but mainly I'm not sure how you move the camera without making people want to throw up or take the helmet off. I don't know how to do it, but someone will.

Let's talk about "Ex Machina." You've said you felt huge affection for Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, and it's her story you were writing. Why was that the story you wanted to tell?  
The film had two separate sets of concerns. One was sentience and artificial intelligence and human intelligence -- that's very apparent. But there was another set of interests in it as well, which loosely speaking you'd say were attached to gender. You have a machine that looks female, and how is the gender attributed? Is it something that is contained in a physical form or is it conferred upon the machine by other people? Why would the word "it" feel inappropriate to the machine? Or is it simply an appearance? And so initially there's a gender discussion but then it becomes something else as well, which was literally just about objectification.

This young kid, Caleb, is set a task. Does this machine have an interior life? It's a very, very straightforward question. He has asked the question, and the audience has asked the question at the same time. So he, in that respect, is a surrogate for the audience. And at a certain point, the machine stops looking like a machine.

When the machine first appears, it is very clearly, overtly a machine. But the machine aspect is increasingly hidden. And as the machine aspect is hidden, the question stops being asked. Now that might not be true for every audience member. But effectively, there is a twist at the end -- which is the machine does have an interior life. Now that would not be a twist if you had continued to expect that the machine had an interior life. So why was it in there? Because it was the preoccupation of the film.

Any plans to continue her story?
No. [laughs]

There was and is a lot of discussion around AI. You wrote an op-ed piece in 2015 defending AI and calling out people like Stephen Hawkings and Elon Musk who are afraid of it.You said that it's not the machine component of AI that scares you, but the humans. Can you tell us about your thinking?
I think you can make a good analogy with nuclear power. Nuclear power is clearly powerful and therefore potentially dangerous, but it becomes about the application of it. I think there was another thing I felt as well, which is I don't like Luddite thinking. I understand the technology is potentially dangerous, but I also think it's potentially beneficial. You just have to take a measured approach to it.

I live in Britain and in Britain we have a National Health Service, which is run by humans. And it seems to me to be perfectly plausible that the state-run National Health Service would be better run by an AI. That doesn't seem dangerous to me. That seems potentially beneficial. Also it's political decisions and how you attribute resources might better be done by an AI. So am I alarmed by that? No, I think it's a possibility. There's other areas in which AI could potentially be very dangerous. So it's not to take a benign or a paranoid view. It's just to take a measured view.

How much AI have you adopted in your personal life? Do you have a smart speaker? Do you talk to your phone?
No, I don't. I'm sort of slightly too old maybe, but my son does. I've noticed when he sends a text message he doesn't type it in, he talks it. I'm sort of used to the disconnect in some respect. I saw it with my parents when they couldn't use the remote control on the television and it's in the nature of what happens. But even though I don't use those things, I'm aware of them to the extent I can be, and I don't feel alarmed by them.

What drew you to "Annihilation?"
[Producer Scott Rudin] came to me with the book. We'd just worked together on "Ex Machina." I was struck actually by the book's originality. It just wasn't like other stories that I'd read.

One of the things that happens with stories is that we repeat them. We say the same story again and again and again. We change details or elements, but essentially it's the same story. And this felt outside of that. For that reason alone I was very attracted to it. It also had a very strong atmosphere, a very unusual atmosphere. So I felt I did want to work on it while not being entirely sure how to work on it.  

You've described "Annihilation" as  being truly alien. What does that mean?  
When we deal with aliens, we often make them like us in some way, maybe they want to eat us or maybe they want our water, our resources. Or they want to teach us about galactic federations or whatever it happens to be. These are all sort of human concerns and it seems like a legitimate thing to say that alien might not be like us in anyway at all. We are motivated by things and we have agendas and an alien might not have an agenda or might not be motivated. And so it was an attempt to create an "alien" alien.

In "Annihilation," you talked about it as a journey from suburbia to psychedelia.  
In a literal way, the story starts in suburbia and ends in psychedelia. It was a sort of shorthand on the film, just the way we used to talk about it to each other. And it had a purpose to it as well, because if what you want to do is end in a place that is strange, that is truly strange, the means by which you get there become very important.

If you start something strange, so not in suburbia -- which let's take suburbia as representing not strange, although of course it is -- that's a reach. What you find is that strangeness has a diminishing return. We're sort of proximity-based creatures, and we get acclimatized to a state quite quickly. And so by the end of the film what was strange is no longer strange, it's just the landscape in which you exist. And so it felt like it needed to be a progression from something.

Your screenplay and the book part ways. As someone who's written screenplays that are faithful to the original material, like "Never Let me Go" and are semi-faithful like "Dredd," you've said "Annihilation" was a chance to do a free-for-all. Why?
Maybe freeform, rather than free-for-all. What I felt when I was reading the book was that reading it was a dream-like experience. In an adaptation like "Never Let Me Go," I could cut and paste narrative. I couldn't do that in "Annihilation." It was the experience of reading the book that felt most relevant.

So I did something slightly odd with the permission of the writer -- I hope I did -- which was to do it as an adaptation that was a memory of the book. Instead of going back and rereading it and underlining passages, I did an adaptation from my experience of having read it without going back to the book. What that means is that sometimes the film correlates very closely and sometimes it doesn't. So it really has a function of memory. And I thought that that was a way to be faithful to the thing that I experienced the most strongly, which was its dream-like nature.

There's a debate about diversity and the role of women in a variety of industries. So I want to applaud you for saying it didn't make a difference to you that "Annihilation" is about women scientists. It's about scientists who happen to be women.  
It was an adaptation of the book and that is the case in the book. I don't want to take credit for what Jeff did, really. But it is true that it didn't interest me. I thought that this was, to some extent, a reaction to "Ex Machina." I thought the absence of the argument was the thing that was interesting. I don't want to say more than that. It's the absence of the argument that I found interesting.

I understand you did a lot of research for "Annihilation" and talked to geneticists about evolution, mutation. What's the most important takeaway you want the people who watch it to have when it comes to the science?
Not much. It's not really science. It has an agenda, which is really about self-destruction. It's more sort of metaphysical than science, I'd say. There is science in there to ground it. There is a principle. This might sound strange, but think of a dream. I'm saying that this film is dream-like. Dreams feel grounded in some strange kind of a way. So now this is a dream and to my right is a grand piano and a couple of moments later it's a polar bear. And you don't within the dream say, "Why is the grand piano now a polar bear?" It's actually part of the dream logic, and it's part of the dream you're having, and it all makes sense.

And so, it felt important that the film had that strange sense of grounding in it. But it's also like, not free-for-all, but freeform. It has that quality, as well. So It was a sort of mixture of the two. I wouldn't really take the science too explicitly in some respects, although it's there.

Did you have fun making it?
No, no, it was a nightmare. It was a truly unpleasant film to work on. It's just a statement of fact, but I'm very proud of the film. I work in a collective. Some of the people I've worked with for 20 years and we worked flat out hard on this and it was a good group of people. Not easy. Not fun, but we ended up with something we collectively felt proud of.

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Alicia Vikander starred as Ava in Alex Garland's directorial debut, "Ex Machina." 

Lionsgate

It's going to be distributed in a very unusual way. We'll be able to see it here in the US, in China, Canada. And then Netflix has the international distribution rights. You've said you were disappointed in the deal because you designed this movie for the large screen. I'm curious, though, what you think about streaming services as a way to distribute movies and the potential you see there?
Yeah, it's an entirely separate issue and what I feel is that broadly [streaming] is a good thing. If I ask myself what is the best bit of filmed drama I saw last year, it's "Handmaid's Tale" and I saw that on a streaming service.

Some of the most sophisticated adult content -- adult meaning morally complex rather than pornographic -- was on streaming services and on the small screen in general. So, I think it's good. It disseminates stuff very widely and it is more comfortable with complex matter.

I would say that the big screen has a problem. The films cost a lot of money and if they don't generate a lot of money on the first weekend, people lose their jobs, people don't work again. It's serious and difficult. Streaming is different. It's a more passive relationship. It's $10 a month or whatever it is that someone is paying to participate in it and it allows for more creative freedom. So, I think that's a good thing.

Last year, you signed a deal to develop TV projects for FX. "Dredd" wasn't that well received -- would you consider redoing it for TV?
I was really pleased at that film. It bombed in the box office, but the film itself I thought was pretty cool.

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"[The small screen] disseminates stuff very widely and it is more comfortable with complex matter."

James Martin/CNET

So would you consider revisiting "Dredd"?
Definitely not, no. But that's just because I don't like working in franchises. I don't want to work in sequels just because life is short and I'd rather try something different.

In 2005 you wrote a script for a film adaptation of the popular video game Halo. It was never made into a film. What was your vision for Halo?
I went online and somebody had done a transcript of the entire video game, every bit of dialogue and every cut scene. I followed it very closely. That's what I did. I wanted to do a faithful adaptation of Halo. I actually really dug Halo. Some of my favorite video game experiences were working through Halo. Maybe no one here remembers Halo, but its hardest setting was Legendary. It was a split screen because I'm not sure we had the ability to hook up play online. Me and my brother would get stoned and play Halo and gradually claw our way through the Legendary level and I loved it. So I wanted to try and honor that.

Too avant garde?
Sort of stoner avant garde, yeah. [laughs]

You've also co-written a bunch of other video game stories:  Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. You worked as a story supervisor on the game Devil May Cry. Why do you like video games?
I grew up with video games. I'm 47. My best friend lived a couple streets over. His mom and dad went to America and came back with Pong, and I just couldn't believe it. I thought it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. I started playing games and never stopped. Grew up with them: Space Invaders, Pac-Man. Then Nintendo blew the world open and Sega followed. And I just kept going and I thought it was fantastic.

It's been really kind of a beautiful thing to see how video games have exploded and become sophisticated. If there's any gamers here you will know probably the Last Of Us, which is the most amazingly sophisticated narrative -- the sort I said streaming services are doing so well. There it is happening in a video game, and I enjoyed working on it. It's probably not something I'm too well suited to in some respects. I'd love to do it again, but really I like playing them. I like experiencing them and playing them. I think they're amazing. I think their potential is spectacular.

Do you let your kids play?
Yeah for sure. I mean me and my son play Destiny in the way that me and my brother used to play Halo. We don't get stoned because he's 14, but we enjoy it.

If you could be a video game character, who would that be?
There's a game called Tempest, which is an old arcade game, and I would be the weird spider thing going along the top, shooting at the aliens.

What about tech in your life. Are you addicted to a piece of tech?
No, I'm kind of separate from it. I've never been on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook or any of that stuff. My kids do it. I come to all these things late.

I actually think I need to get up to speed with it more. It's not a judgment, but there is stuff about it that scares me. I don't like public crucifixions. And I'm really sick of hearing about it on the media. If I was on Twitter, I'd be dead. I'd be crucified. I'd be hung drawn and quartered because glancing thoughts cross my mind and I haven't thought all of them through. I make mistakes and I change my mind the next day. And I find the rush to judgment kind of sickening and also banal. Kind of banal and boring. I'm truly, truly tired of it, and I don't want to be part of it. I feel anxious about my children being part of it. But what am I gonna do, because that's the way of the world.

Self-driving cars -- good or bad?
It depends if they crash and kill someone. Let's broadly say good as long as nobody gets hurt.

What technology do you wish were invented specifically for you?
Time travel, anti-aging, longevity, new lungs -- that kinda stuff.

What tech do you wish were never invented?
Nothing. I'm not anti-technology. I'm scared of its applications but technology itself I think is neutral.

What do you think of Silicon Valley?
It scares me because I'm left wing and old-fashioned in some respects and what I see is very, very powerful corporations without much oversight. Government correctly has checks and balances built into it, and I don't see the checks and balances here. I see capitalism, and capitalism is dangerous. Capitalism is more dangerous than tech. I believe in regulation, and so it scares me. I don't trust it. It's unelected. I don't believe that purchasing a product is equivalent to election. It is a different thing. You can un-elect someone later. You can't un-elect the corporation. So, I feel wary.

With power comes responsibility. Take it seriously.

Aside from social media, is there something that stands out that you think tech has done wrong?
It's not the social media, it's the way it's used. It's people being kind of crude, acting like a mob. That's not the media, that's the behavior of the people within the media. It's people not being forgiving in the way that we are when the person is standing in front of us.

Have tech companies done stuff wrong? Yeah, of course, I'm sure they have. Every corporation, every person has. That may be the point. I'm not talking about it in those terms. I'm saying power is dangerous. Tech companies are powerful, therefore, they need some kind of regulation.

"Annihilation" is a thought-provoking movie and people are going to have expectations for it having seen "Ex Machina." What do you want people to say after they walk out?
I'd be grateful if they went in the first place. If they walked out feeling that it was a kind of visceral, thought-provoking experience, that would be ideal. I would say it's probably a film to see with an open mind and, hopefully, a film that stays with people to some extent. That's what one always hopes. 

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