Peter Mountain
Clark Collis
September 26, 2017 AT 10:00 AM EDT

In the science fiction film Annihilation, Natalie Portman plays a scientist named Lena, who is part of an expedition tasked with exploring an area which has been taken over by a mysterious force. “[She] finds a very strange, dream-like, surrealist landscape, and goes deeper and deeper into that world, and also into that mindset,” says writer-director Alex Garland (Ex Machina). Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez, and Tessa Thompson costar as her fellow team members, while Oscar Isaac plays Portman’s husband. 

One other character of note featured in the film? An alligator, as is revealed in EW’s exclusive first look photo, above. “It is their first tangible encounter with something strange,” says Garland. “The alligator has physical elements to it that should not belong on an alligator. They’re starting to get their heads around how weird the place is.”

Annihilation is based on JeffVanderMeer’s 2014 novel, the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, which the author continued with Authority and then wrapped up with Acceptance. “I was in post-production on Ex Machina, and one of the producers of that film, Scott Rudin, called up and said, ‘I just acquired this book, I think it’s interesting and, would you take a look,'” says Garland, whose screenwriting credits also include Dredd and 28 Days Later. “I don’t finish books, or films, or anything, really, if it isn’t grabbing me for one reason. Well, I read it in a sitting. I found the atmosphere incredibly strong and I liked the kind of dream state that it created and put me in. It had all sorts of qualities that I found really interesting. I thought immediately, Yes, I’d like to try this.”

Isaac recently promised EW that Annihilation would be “very weird and very beautiful.” “That’s what we were shooting for,” says Garland. “The beauty part of it was quite important. Even when it’s grim, and something dark is happening, there’s quite an overt beauty, and we took pains to make sure that happened.”

Although the original book is part of a trilogy, Garland says he regards his film as a standalone movie. “I did once work on a film called Dredd, which I imagined to be the first part of a trilogy,” says Garland. “But it’s not something I like doing. I’d rather work on a story that I felt was self-contained rather than one that sort of had a ‘dot-dot-dot’ at the end. I think that provokes a sort of instant, understandable, cynicism. We sense the money grab and I feel that pollutes the story. So, right from the get-go, I did not think of this as being part of a trilogy; I thought of it as being just a single, self-contained movie. If other people wanted to do that, that would be fine. That’s none of my business. But from my point of view, it’s just one.”

Annihilation — a Paramount Pictures and Skydance presentation — is in theaters Feb. 23, 2018.

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