Four women walk through tall grass towards an eerie, shimmering wall stretching to the sky. They're unsure what they'll find on the other side, as none of the many military teams who have gone through have ever come back. This area between the known earth and an unknown, quickly growing world mutating it beyond recognition is the focus of Annihilation, a new science fiction film coming out Feb. 23. While special effects play a large part in making the movie's setting so stunning and unique, the cast and crew shot on location. But just where was Annihilation filmed to capture such an unusual landscape? The answer is a surprising one, even to fans of the novel the film was based on.
Author Jeff VanderMeer has written three books in his "Southern Reach" trilogy, of which Annihilation is the first. He's been very open about his inspiration for the book, citing a lifelong fascination with biology and humanity's relationship to nature as starting points. With Annihilation, he even had a specific ecosystem in mind for Area X, the bizarre zone that's expanding to envelop the known world. In an article for Weird Fiction, VanderMeer sayid that Area X is a transformed version of the hike he's taken for almost 20 years through North Florida's St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. "It is a landscape and a series of transitional ecosystems that have enchanted me, fascinated me, and at times scared me," the author explained, adding that "the more we find out about our world, the stranger it appears to be, and more complex. Someday, perhaps, we’ll normalize that strangeness in our heads — and cherish it."
In the world of Annihilation, Area X is monitored by an Army base not so keen on cherishing it as figuring out what it is and how to limit it. Biologist Lena (played by Natalie Portman) is the closest to VanderMeer's point of view, as scientifically interested by what she finds beyond The Shimmer (as Area X's rainbow-hued boundary is called) as she is terrified of it killing her and her companions. Its an environment where the difference between flora and fauna is being eroded, where the rules of normal evolution are twisted and sped up, and yet still resembles the North Florida swamplands they originally were.
Seems a clear-cut job for the location scout, right? Off to Northern Florida! Well, not quite. In a Collider interview with producer Andrew McDonald and writer/director Alex Garland, McDonald explained that he spoke to another producer with experience filming in swampy jungle lands. Besides the obvious negatives of adverse weather conditions like heat and humidity, McDonald said he learned, "when you’re shooting at something so dense, all you’re getting is a green curtain so you can’t really see beyond anything...So that section of the film has massively benefited from not being shot in the jungle.” Instead, the area that's a dead ringer for the swamps of Louisiana was shot at Windsor Great Park, just outside of major metropolis London.
The empty beach with a lone lighthouse, absolutely identical to the famous lighthouse at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, was actually shot at Holkham Beach off the coast of Norwich, England. The remainder of the fields and swamps were shot at England's famous Pinewood Studios, also the go-to location for other sci fi films with strange locations, including The Chronicles of Riddick and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The website Atlas Of Wonders has an updated list of all of Annihilation's shooting locations, all of which are currently in England.
In the same Collider article, director Garland noted that despite being shot across the pond, the locations were absolutely inspired by crew visits to the American south, even inspiring deviations from the novel and script. "We came upon a half sunken trailer by the edge of a swamp. It was such a great visual delight… Originally the alligator attack sequence was outside and happened in the open, but now we put the [characters] in a more dangerous place. It’s dark. It’s enclosed. It’s harder to escape.”
While casual viewers would never guess the film was shot outside of America, it almost doesn't matter in the end. After all, once the team crosses the boundary of Area X, they've left the America we know for one beyond current human understanding, a world that exists only on paper and film.