Imagine you’re about to release a brand new trailer for a movie you’ve worked on for three years, and days before, a story is released that says the team behind your movie... may not actually be behind your movie.
That happened to writer-director Alex Garland this week for his new movie, Annihilation. The film, which stars Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez, and others, is an adaptation of a heady, difficult scifi novel by Jeff VanderMeer about a group of scientists exploring a mysterious phenomenon. However, reports came out that producers clashed over the whether the film had enough mainstream appeal. Now, in an effort to mediate the dispute, Paramount will only release the movie theatrically in the U.S., Canada and China. Everywhere else, it will be on Netflix .
“It’s disappointing,” Garland told io9 on the phone from the UK. “I’ve got nothing against [streaming] as a medium. The Handmaid’s Tale was not made for the big screen and I think it was absolutely stunning. It’s more that we made this film for the big screen... Then I have to tell really good friends and colleagues, ‘Hey, this is what’s happening’ and they’re disappointed, so that kind of sucks.”
On the other hand, Garland also knows that his movie isn’t an easy sell—like, at all. This is a fact you can see quite clearly in the new trailer, which is filled with mysterious, unique visuals that stem from a scary place called Area X and an even scarier phenomenon the movie calls the Shimmer.
“Within this space, things are colliding with each other that don’t normally collide. Human, plant, animal, light, all things that are within the space that are colliding with each other that’s at times kind of horrifying and other times, sort of beautiful,” Garland said. “And that will mix with psychology, as well. So, it’s like a sort of holistic collision of lots of different things. Physical, psychological, emotional, and so on.”
Descriptions like that make the trepidation toward his film easy to understand, if not actually expected. But, mostly, Garland is struck by the timing.
“A large group of people worked flat out on something that’s difficult and unusual and trying to sort of step outside the mainstream in some kind of way,” Garland said. “And it’s like, just as you’re about to reach the start of the race, somebody gives you a hard push and knocks you off balance. And you think, ‘Oh, fuck.’ That’s not what you hoped for. It would be nice to be starting the race on a more even footing.”
The feeling was similar way back at the beginning of the process. Garland read the book before it was released and loved it, but had no idea how an adaptation was possible.
“Reading the book is sort of like having a dream,” he said. “So, I took a very kind of... liberal interpretation in how I approached the adaptation.”
He checked with VanderMeer to make sure that was okay and the author gave him “creative permission” to move ahead. “I think that people who love the book, and I understand why they love the book, too, will have things they love about the book and they won’t be in the film,” Garland said. “In some ways, I’m worried that [the adaptation] will disappoint people. But what can I say? I did the best I could.”
One of the biggest changes is that the characters have names in the movie. In the book, they’re only referred to by their job title.
“That was something people loved about the book and I actually also loved about the book,” he said. “But then we made this film, and we’ve got people talking to each other. And in the normal rhythm of conversation, people often use each other’s names. So some of the changes were really just for that really kind of functional book-to-film reasons.”
That also goes for the simple fact that, in a book, an author can leave something open to interpretation and the reader fills in the blanks. But a movie has to show things. So Garland and his team had to define what the Shimmer and the creatures and things within it look and sound like, which always risks alienating readers who envisioned something else. No matter what, Annihilation was never going to be for everyone.
“It’s a privilege to get to make a film, and so, I’m not exactly complaining,” Garland said. “And when you see it, you’ll be even more surprised [that it got made].”
Annihilation is out February 23, 2018. Watch the new trailer below.
*Correction: An earlier version of the story said that the film was on going to Netflix everywhere internationally. In fact, it will get theatrical distribution in Canada and China, as well as the U.S.