Annihilation (2018)

More than once in the past week, my roommate has asked me what I was going to be doing this past weekend, and I said I was going to see Annihilation, and each time he asked “What’s that?”, to which I replied “The adaptation of the book that your sister gave me for Christmas in 2016.” Which she did! And I loved it! So much so that I couldn’t stop talking about it, and another friend got me the follow up novel Authority for my birthday a few months later, and I bought my own copy of Acceptance almost immediately after and finished that too. I was so excited when I heard that Alex Garland of Ex Machina fame would be directing the film of the book, and that the person I cast in my head as the biologist, Natalie Portman, would be playing the lead. Of course, there are valid concerns about the whitewashing of her character given that she’s part Asian (no specific nation of origin is given), but it’s also a piece of information that the reader doesn’t get until the second book, which had not been published at the time that Garland read Annihilation and started working on his script. If you’re curious, I imagined Angela Bassett as the psychologist, Michelle Rodriguez as the surveyor (a character who’s aggression and distrust was put on the paramedic character in the film but had a role on the team that was more like Novotny’s character’s) and Battlestar Galactica‘s Grace Park as the anthropologist (a character that is, for all intents and purposes, absent from the film). Those absences, changes, and additions should give you some indication of how far this film strays from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, but does that matter?

What makes a good adaptation? Is it a strict, lockstep adherence to the source material, ignoring the differences between the languages of film and prose? Can an adaptation’s value be measured as a quantifiable variable of pragmatism in the choices of what to include and exclude when translating to the screen? Is it the ability of the film to evoke the same emotional resonance or invoke the same themes as the original text, even if it has to take a different route to bring the viewer to the same place as the reader? Films that try to maintain a one-to-one textual match often don’t work; for all its other faults, David Lynch’s Dune adaptation, for instance, attempted to translate the internal monologues of multiple characters to film, which creates a muddled mess in the movie despite this being a common element of prose fiction. With regards to pragmatism, something like Watchmen (at least the director’s cut, although I know not everyone agrees) makes good choices with what it chooses to include while excising some subplots from the text that would interfere with the pacing of the film (like the extended pirate comic storyline) and updating other plot elements to remove the need for plot lines that can be easily removed without changing the overall tone (such as changing the psychic squid monster in the finale to something more grounded and closely related to the characters). And with regards to adaptations that are more loose but occupy the same rhetorical space, something like Wolfgang Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story would be a strong example, at least for me personally. I read the book no fewer than 30 times in my childhood and a dozen more since then, and I’ve seen the film innumerable times. Author Michael Ende hated the film version; it essentially adapts only the first half of the book, removes one of the challenges that Atreyu must face in order to get to the Southern Oracle, reuses the first “gate” as the Southern Oracle itself, and makes other changes. But they are both ultimately perfect fantasy stories for little bullied bookworms, creating a place for them to expand the horizons of their imaginations, regardless of the differences between the two texts.

Let’s get this out of the way as quickly as possible: if you’re looking for a close adaptation of the novel, you’re not going to find that here. This is A+ science fiction that also happens to be a D+ translation of the source material, if your qualifications for a good adaptation revolve solely around how closely the film version adheres to the novel. Garland has admitted that he thumbed through the novel and took only the most noteworthy elements and concepts—a government-backed all-woman expedition makes its way beyond an incomprehensible barrier into Area X, a place of strange mutations of both flora and fauna stemming back to an unknown catastrophic event—and made a standalone film without the intention of revisitation in future films. In a way, this is noteworthy in that it acts as the antithesis of current studio mandates, which prioritize franchise building over creating complete and whole narratives within a single film, even going so far as to split individual books (like The Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay) into multiple films. It’s for the viewer to decide if this is to the detriment of the film and its source material or not, but those of you hoping for an adaptation of the entire Southern Reach trilogy should manage your expectations now. And hey—that’s okay. The narrative conceit in the novel that all of the characters are nameless and identified only by their occupations, which works so well on the page both as a method for giving the reader the space to imagine each character in the way they see fit and as part of a larger theme about the absence not only of knowledge but perhaps even the possibility of comprehension, simply wouldn’t work on film. That’s not a fault of the film so much as a fact that must be accepted about the difference between different forms of media, and as such I can’t detract from the film because of it.

In the interest of full disclosure (and as a point of solidarity with my fellow book readers), I’ll attempt to describe the biggest changes. Spoilers for the film and the book series through the end of this paragraph. In addition to surface changes, like making the biologist (herein named Lena) ex-military and her husband (who is given the name Kaine) an active duty sergeant while removing this characteristic from the surveyor or increasing the number of explorers (there is a fifth member of the expedition in the novel, but she chickens out before they breach the barrier’s perimeter and never makes it into Area X), there are some pretty major changes. The nature of Area X is made much more explicit; throughout the trilogy, there is much discussion about whether or not Area X is mystical, extradimensional, or extraterrestrial in origin, and Acceptance strongly implies that the catalyst was at least somewhat supernatural in nature, given the role played by the two members of the Seance and Science Brigade and their experiments in the lighthouse. Again, the need for a more explicit explanation for the events is a consequence of the nature of film language, and isn’t a de facto negative. When a filmmaker sets out to make a single narrative out of the first book in a series with no intention to adapt the sequels, this is the more sensible tack, even if it runs the risk of alienating readers. But it is quite a shock to see the lighthouse consumed in flame at the end of the film if you’ve read Authority or Acceptance, in which the lighthouse and the revelations therein are pretty vital to understanding the overall mystery (insofar as it can be understood). By its very nature, this removes the significance of the fact that the psychologist grew up around the lighthouse and knew the keeper (who was mutated/duplicated into the Crawler, an important figure in the Annihilation novel) as a child, as well as her personal connection to Area X. The Crawler and its writing, which could rightly be called the most important part of the novel, is completely excised, removing the religiosity of the novel through the erasure of his sermon-like screeds. The fact that the biologist’s husband (‘s duplicate) lives through the end of the narrative, and that Area X is “defeated” instead of continuing to expand (so much so that the point of view characters in Acceptance end the novel attempting to find their way back out without knowing if there even is an “out” anymore, or if Area X has consumed the whole world) are also major changes. These omissions will likely be the most contentious issues with the film for readers of the books, but this still works for me as a “broad strokes” approach. Also gone are the hypnotic suggestion elements from the novel (in which all the expedition members submitted to psychological preparation for their journey, including post-hypnotic triggers to ensure that they make it through the barrier without being driven to madness, but which also makes the presence of the psychologist more sinister, as she exercises other psychic controls over the expedition, to which the biologist’s mutations make her immune). For me, the strangest change was making the biologist more likable and personable, but this is again a concession for the medium, as the original character and her motivations would be harder to communicate in a visual form.

But enough digital ink spent on those who are already familiar with the source material. Annihilation tells the story of Lena (Portman), an ex-military biologist now working for Johns Hopkins, whose active military husband Kaine (Oscar Isaac) disappeared one year prior on a classified mission. When he suddenly reappears one afternoon with no explanation of his whereabouts or even how he made his way home, their reunion is cut short when his organs fail. En route to the hospital, both Lena and her husband are taken by black ops military personnel; she wakes up in the headquarters of the Southern Reach, a clandestine government organization set up to investigate the nature of Area X, a location bounded by a shimmering barrier that is expanding and consuming more of the surrounding climes bit by bit, and within which bizarre mutations occur at an accelerated pace and from which no survivor other than Kaine has ever returned (at least according to the Reach itself; the post-expedition lives of survivors and “survivors” is an integral part of the later novels). The next expedition is set to breach the boundary soon, led by psychologist Gloria Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and staffed by physicist Josie Radik (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and geologist Cass Shepherd (Tuva Novotny). Lena joins the expedition in order to find out the truth about what happened to her husband. Inside Area X, all five women are confronted by threats that are existential to them as individuals and members of a species that will not survive if Area X continues to expand.

The book’s unnamed protagonist, identified only as “the biologist,” has different motivations in the novel. Herein we learn that she cheated on her husband and she sets out to make things right by investigating the nature of Area X, but in the novel she is a withdrawn scientist whose oddities make it impossible for her to maintain employment that requires frequent interaction with other people; her fascination with Area X is piqued by her husband’s bizarre return and the apparent changes to his personality (which unfold over several months before he dies, as do all the other members of his expedition, all of which occur before the events of the novel), but which grow because of her fixation on ecosystems in miniature. This change makes her more relatable (with allowance for your mileage to vary) but also less interesting; her motivations are, for lack of a better term, pretty basic.

Since seeing the movie, I’ve had discussions with a few friends who also read the books and saw the movie. One agrees with me, that the film is less interesting than the books on a couple of levels, but allowances made for the language of film mean that it would have to be different, and the differences work for him as they do for me; another friend is annoyed that what he considers to be more “weird fiction” has been reduced to a pretty standard sci-fi story. I think that this is where the difference lies for me: although I wouldn’t call this movie “brave” like many reviewers have, especially given the above-mentioned reduction-to-baseness of both themes and character motivations, I would also never call it “standard” anything, despite the simplifications and changes to the plot. I’m not put out that we’re given an explanation of what Area X is or how life is changed within it, despite the fact that I’m usually annoyed or upset when existential Lovecraftian horror is reduced to something so banal that it is essentially devoid of everything that made it distinct (ahem). I guess why Annihilation still works for me while other works were diminished by being brought closer to earth is that this allows for greater characterization and a different kind of emotional investment.

I mentioned before that the lack of identifying names or characteristics in the source material thematically mirrored Area X itself: Area X and its interior are described in detail, but we’re never told anything about what the women in the expedition look like. Above and beyond the lack of names being enforced by the agency coordinating the breaches into the “shimmer,” this also puts us more firmly in the mind of the biologist, as she is completely disinterested in her compatriots and is invested only in the science of the region. As a reader, the currency of your imagination is to be spent on giving life to Area X and its beautifully deadly terrain and inhabitants, and using any iota of that brainspace on the members of Expedition 12 is wasted; in this way, the reader becomes the biologist, with a professional detachment that grows more clinical and distant as the plot unfolds (or unravels). Again, that’s something that simply wouldn’t work on screen, and by giving the biologist and her fellow explorers more depth (this one’s a recovering alcoholic, that one lost her daughter to leukemia, this one’s a cutter, that one’s dying of cancer), Garland changes the theme from that of emotional distance and disconnection, and perhaps the innateness to humanity of that feeling, into a focus on the (perhaps innate) tendency toward self destruction. That compulsion may, and sometimes does, overtake us while in the guise of something more clinically defined, but rebirth requires the complete destruction, the annihilation, of the self that existed before, down to the cellular level. It’s a change, but one that works to create a great piece of media in spite of its distance from VanderMeer’s novel(s).

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

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fourhalfstar

I can’t tell if J.J. Abrams’ current career status would be a nerd’s wildest dream or their worst nightmare. Both? Simultaneously tasked with commanding sci-fi nerdom’s two most beloved properties, Star Wars & Star Trek, I’m sure he’s giddy with the power of adapting two franchises he surely grew up loving. Nerds are a tough bunch to please, though, so there’s an absurd amount of external pressure to not muck up their sacred texts, a pressure even Star Wars creator George Lucas wasn’t protected from (after he admittedly mucked them up spectacularly). One of the most delightful things I have to report about Abrams’ first Star Wars feature (of presumably many to come), The Force Awakens, is simply that it is by no means a misstep or a failure. I’m in a nice sweet spot of expectation where I grew up loving the original Star Wars trilogy, but not to a rabid, detail-obsessed degree that would leave me nitpicking whatever Abrams delivered. Coming from that perspective, I can’t exactly speak on behalf of Star Wars fanatics, but as a movie lover it’s hard to imagine that they’d be anything but pleased by The Force Awakens as a finished product. A great balance of enthusiastic fan service & promising new ideas/story threads, the latest entry in the Star Wars universe is far from the muted, just-good-enough, tragedy-averted compromise of 2015’s The Peanuts Movie (or Abrams’ own Star Trek work, for that matter). It’s an actually-great, entirely successful new birth for the franchise, sometimes feeling like it could be in contention as being nearly just as good as Episodes IV or V. The overall feeling I got while watching The Force Awakens is “What more could you ask for?” Abrams has successfully walked the Star Wars tightrope & delivered something sure to please both newcomers & skeptics and, more importantly, something that’s deliriously fun to watch when divorced from the burden of expectation.

Of course, because the film is so fresh & so highly anticipated, there’s an intense fear over the possibility of spoilers among some viewers, so I’ll try to tread lightly in this review. Even a simple roll call feels like a small betrayal, but it’s a somewhat necessary one. On the fan service end of Abrams’ well-calculated formula, the film could’ve just as easily been titled Star Wars Episode VII: The Gang’s All Here. Luke Skywalker’s importance to the universe has escalated to mythical proportions as he’s reported to be “the last Jedi.” His sister Leia has graduated from princess to general, establishing herself as the figurehead of The Resistance. Speaking of which, The Resistance is an obvious stand-in/update for The Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy, just as its The First Order big bad is a stand-in/update for the older films’ Galactic Empire. The only figure that seems to not have changed a lick is swashbuckling smuggler Han Solo, who remains as steadfast in his personality as a droid would, just as unable to evolve in his demeanour as the same-as-ever C-3PO. The characters are far from the only elements re-purposed from the franchise’s origins, though. A quest to locate Luke & the wisdom of Jedi knowledge is very much reminiscent of Luke’s quest to train with Yoda. There’s also some major theme callbacks like struggling with identity in the context of parentage and, of course, the eternal struggle of Good vs. Evil (in the succinctly-framed balance of The Force) mixed among much smaller tips of the hat to details like space chess & the infamous Cantina scene. I also had a lot of fun with the way it indulged in recreations of the older films’ exact screen wipes & Force-manipulation battles (which are essentially 100% sound cues & intense trembling). The greatest trick The Force Awakens pulls off, though, is when it finds a metaphor for its own existence in the callbacks. For instance, an almost exact replica of The Death Star is represented here, except that it’s 20 times larger, much like Abrams’ budget vs. what Lucas was originally working with. And then, of course, there’s the BB-8 “ball droid”, which is essentially a cuter, more technically impressive, surprisingly versatile version of R2-D2. It’s a modern update to a classic model, much like the film itself.

Speaking of BB-8, that little bugger has got to be the most exciting new addition to the Star Wars canon right? It’s at least the film’s breakout star, a kind of acknowledgement to the merchandising end of the franchise (in that it’s super cute & palatable for children), but also a ruthless, shrewd, determined, even dangerous character in its own right (possibly in a conscious effort to distance its cuteness from the heavily debated, somewhat purposeless existence of Ewoks). For the full year of advertising we all survived in order to get to this point, all I could think about in relation to this film was BB-8. Comedian Paul F. Tompkins’ four second delivery of “I’m Ball Droid. I gotta roll on out of here,” got me more hyped on watching The Force Awakens more than any particular ad did (and, of course, that clip continuously played through my head once I actually got to watch it). There are a lot of of other great, new characters introduced to the Star Wars universe in The Force Awakens, including a new possible future for the Jedi tradition, a rage-filled Sith-in-training prone to on-brand temper tantrums, and a Storm Trooper With a Heart of Gold, but in a lot of ways they feel like echoes of characters we’ve seen in the past films (well, except maybe for that Storm Trooper dude). There’s just something really special about the BB-8, whether or not it’s taking up the baton from a still-beloved R2-D2. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement in character design as well as exploitation of body language & subtle vocal manipulation. For new viewers entering the Star Wars universe for the first time with The Force Awakens (and they do exist) a lot of old, well-established familial ties & big concepts like The Force are going to be somewhat off-putting, since the film is not going to be able to hold their hands through the catch-up process, but BB-8 is such a great encapsulation of what makes the franchise work for so many people that it might not be a problem. It’s the perfect little tour guide for a space-set soap opera that’s only going to get more tangled & complex as these films continue to be produced (which will probably be for eternity, considering how much money this one will make at the box office). It’s instantly loveable & accessible.

I’m not going to pretend that The Force Awakens is perfect. I was a little off-put by some of the CGI reliance, particularly when it came to intimate interactions with alien faces. A lot of the CGI is nicely restrained & deftly employed, but it gets tiresome to look at (and is guaranteed to age poorly) whenever it’s used on a green-screened character with more than a line or two of dialogue. I also felt that the action sequences could sometimes go a bit long in a way that softened their impact, but that’s a small quibble, especially considering just how visceral & vicious things get in the climactic lightsaber battle. For the most part, though, it’s a remarkably difficult film to complain about. Even with lines like the racially-tinged throwaway gag “Droid, please”, which should fall flat in a very uncomfortable way, the film somehow makes it work. It’s easy to tell that Abrams & his collaborators were huge fans of the franchise doing their best to deliver a film that most people could love. He finds an immensely satisfying balance here of recreating past successes from the original trilogy, but with entirely new purpose. Much like the universe it inhabits, The Force Awakens feels old, beat up, lived in, the exact kind of world-building last year’s The Guardians of the Galaxy strained to establish in just one film, but this time with an extensive back catalog of content for support. The film’s ragtag group of heroes more or less winging it in their quest to overthrow The First Order may be very reminiscent of a similar motley crew who tried to overthrow The Galactic Empire (for instance, a female lead most certainly not in need of constantly being saved shouts “Stop taking my hand!”, which could have very easily been an old-school Leia moment), but they’re more of a refreshing evolution than a shameless retread. Sure, The Force Awakens can rely on work already put in by past films for lines like “Without the Jedi there can be no balance in the Force” to actually mean something, but it also finds its own touching moments, like in the question of when is running from a threat a form courage & when is it a submission to fear or in finding the simple goodness of people in exchanges like “Why are you helping me?” “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Most importantly, it feels like all of the ground work of pleasing fans through callbacks & establishing its own competence as a unique property are now out of the way, which is in a lot of ways a burden lifted. When the film ends, you’re genuinely excited to see where the story goes next because the future of the franchise is promised to be less self-reflective, more open-ended, uncharted territory. I’m already getting amped about Episode VIII‘s release in Spring 2017 as I type this, which I guess is a sign that Abrams did something exactly right in The Force Awakens.

Bonus points: There are a lot of great new-to-the-scene actors in this film – Adam Driver, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, etc. What really made me giddy, though, is that both Domhnall Gleeson & Oscar Isaac made the cast, which makes for just about the most unexpected Ex Machina reuninon I could possibly imagine. Those two films are so far from one another on the opposite ends of the sci-fi spectrum that it’s difficult to justify that they’re billed as being in the same genre at all.

-Brandon Ledet