Entry updated 4 July 2019. Tagged: Film.
Film (2018). Paramount Pictures in association with Netflix presents a DNA Films, Scott Rudin Productions and Skydance Media production. Directed by Alex Garland. Written by Garland, adapted from the novel Annihilation (2014) by Jeff VanderMeer, which with Authority (2014) and Acceptance (2014) forms Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (omni 2014). Cast includes David Gyasi, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Benedict Wong. 115 minutes. Colour.
Biologist Lena (Portman) finds that she must come to terms with the feelings of guilt, grief and anxiety that suffuse her Inner Space when she and four other women enter "The Shimmer", an electromagnetic field surrounding an apparently Alien series of ecosystems on a southern coast of North America.
"In Physics the truth is rarely perfectly clear, and that is certainly universally the case in human affairs," said physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1968): "Hence, what is not surrounded by uncertainty cannot be the truth."
These never-ending uncertainties and self-corrections, and the effects on human Psychology of the sometimes-disturbing nature of the Conceptual Breakthroughs communicated by scientific inquiry, have as often in Fantastika been depicted through the unsayable truths of Fabulation, the descriptive fusillades of dark Fantasy or the planetary vastations of Horror in SF as through the ordinary protocols of Genre SF – a long-standing tradition of Equipoise which has since the turn of the millennium introduced the register of the New Weird to the SF Megatext.
"There is something inside us which we don't like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains," says one of the presiding Scientists on the Space Station above the planet of Solaris (1971), adapted from the novel Solaris (1961; trans 1970) by Stanisław Lem. "... We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and when reality is revealed to us – then we don't like it anymore."
Psychologist and leader of the expedition into the shimmer Dr Ventress (Jason Leigh) recruits Lena, a cellular biologist, for her expertise in transitional environments and army background, rightly suspecting that the return of Lena's husband Kane (Isaac) from a previous mission and his subsequent descent into a coma will provide Lena with the emotional impetus to undertake what might easily be a mission of no-return. Colleagues Anya Thorensen (Rodriguez), a paramedic, physicist Josie Radek (Thompson) and geologist Cass Sheppard (Novotny) each have their own life-altering reasons for entering the zone of exclusion. Jeff VanderMeer's novel begins in media res with the group's hesitant and evocative exploration of the uncanny tower-cum-tunnel at the heart of Area X and it seems incongruous that here, in Alex Garland's film adaptation, that we begin with the cinematic Clichés of a getting-to-know-you session in the canteen of the Southern Reach government agency, some all-too-obvious and lachrymose interplay between Lena and Kane, and each of the women telegraphing their innermost feelings through dialogue. Where the novel demonstrated an acute grasp of the psychological interplay between introspection and estrangement, and of the suitability of the form of the Planetary Romance to the gradual revelation of its theme – the contrast-intermingle-transubstantiate techniques of the New Wave of sf amplify the means by which Lena is as irrevocably changed by her entry and egress of Area X as Area X is by her input – the film all too often resorts to Monster Movie tropes and to the sudden irruptions of violence characteristic of Garland's screenplays for Sunshine (2007) and Ex Machina (2015). These (perfectly understandable) attempts to make Annihilation more commercially viable in the age of franchise Cinema failed to forestall attempts by Paramount financiers to force Garland and producer Scott Rudin to make Portman's character more sympathetic – her extramarital liaison with colleague Daniel (Gyasi) is a desultory and guilt-ridden affair – and amend the numinous crescendo of the film's ending. Rudin's refusal to comply meant that Annihilation received only a limited theatrical release in the United States and none at all in Europe and much of the rest of the world, where online Television service Netflix paid $25 million for international distribution rights. Garland said in interviews that he was glad more people would see Annihilation due to its sale to Netflix but admitted that he would have preferred the film to be seen on the big screen.
Much of the bi-associative strangeness of the book's descriptions of Area X is, however, preserved: blossoming branches act as antlers on deer, human limbs are melded into the root systems of trees, concentric rows of teeth occur inside the crocodile-like Monster that attacks the women as they explore an orchard of humanoid bushes. "A religious event? An extra-terrestrial event? A higher Dimension? We have many theories and few facts," admits Ventress. "When you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you," says VanderMeer's protagonist in the novel. "Desolation tries to colonize you." This is, perhaps, the most important attribute of the New Weird – that it replaces human delusions of self-importance with deeper and more mysterious truths. From the Space Opera scope of M John Harrison's Kefahuchi Tract trilogy with its pointless repetitions of people and the monstrous haunting of humanity from the Time Abyss to the Drugs and crime (see Crime and Punishment) and photography sequence of the Cass Neary novels by Elizabeth Hand – both series of novels display their authors' facility at counterbalancing Postmodernism with a deep comprehension of genre – the form must go beyond its delivery mechanisms to achieve its emotional payload. More often than not the weird does this by combining the real and the uncanny and making the uncanny seem more real than the everyday delusions of human assumption. Symbolism and surrealism is very often important to this process, as is a central scientific metaphor. In the case of Annihilation, this is cellular activity and its connotative capacity for communicating the implications of Evolution, Climate Change and Medicine. Lena tells her colleagues that the Mutations and duplications of form inside the shimmer are growing more extreme as they draw close to a lighthouse on its shoreline; the phenomenology of the group is by this time so degraded by their experience of Area X – and, indeed, by the use of Hypnosis by Dr Ventress on the members of the expedition – that teleology and cause and effect cease to convey meaning, and almost every Perception of events occurs through a veneer of Paranoia and Time Out of Sequence. "The shimmer is a prism but it refracts everything ... all DNA," says physicist Josie. "It's inside me now," says Ventress in the final act of the film: "I don't know what it wants or if it wants ... annihilation." The idea that processes of Entropy suffuse every aspect of life on earth and, increasingly, the prospects of survival for many of its species, pervades every aspect of Annihilation; that our collective refusal as a species to face this basic fact renders our natural environment as unknowable and threatening also underpins Lena's debrief by colleague Lomax (Wong):
"Can you describe its form?"
"Was it carbon-based?"
"I don't know."
"What did it want?"
"I don't think it wanted anything ... It wasn't destroying, it was changing everything, making something new."
Processes of life become a threat to a species that will not admit that it is part of them: those humans that survive the story of Annihilation are stripped of those parts of their Identity that distinguish them from other members of their species, the result, it would seem, of biological duplication. "You aren't Kane, are you?" Lena says as she embraces her husband at the end of the film. "I don't think so," he replies. "Are you Lena?" Aristotle (384-322 BCE) argued in Book II of Physics (written 350 BCE) that the world we inhabit is orderly and therefore disposed toward producing objects that behave in a predictable fashion, from an essence or material cause, to a formal cause based on their material arrangement, to an efficient cause – the "agent of change" in Aristotle's phrase – and then to a final cause, or reason they were brought into existence. If, however, human beings do not react logically to the data we have collected (we do not), nor reorder our global Politics to respond to the planetary threat we have created (we have not), nor even reconstitute the relationship of the Cities that underpin our civilizations to the natural world (we have not, as yet, done so), then how can we claim to be part of the natural order of things?
"Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim-lit halls of other places forms that never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who have never seen or been seen ..." reads the biologically-constituted writing on the walls of the tower-cum-tunnel (actually a subterranean echo or mirror of the symbolic truth of the lighthouse) at the heart of Area X in VanderMeer's novel, calling to mind the allegorical register of the writings of the Rosicrucian Johann Valentin Andreae, or that of the natural philosophers that predated him, or indeed the frenzied sexual metaphors of the surrealists. We know what empirical science tells us and we feel at the level of the soul or the subconscious what we are doing to our planet but we have not yet performed the alchemical connection between these two truths. If we are not the agents of change then we are the agency of destruction: the central message of Annihilation is that humanity must renew itself and its relationship to the natural world in order to achieve this.
Alex Garland's screenplay for this film was published as Annihilation (2018). [MD]
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