Beyond the Dark Star, Before the Black Rainbow

For a film that’s often dismissed as nostalgic pastiche, Beyond the Black Rainbow (our current Movie of the Month) is a difficult one to anchor to any direct, cited influences. Part of the film’s lore is that director Panos Cosmatos intended to evoke “an imagining of an old film that does not exist,” recalling childhood trips to the VHS rental store Video Addict where he would imagine the plots of horror films he was too young to rent based on the images on their cassette jackets. The eerie psychedelia of the killer-ants curio Phase IV or Ken Russell’s Altered States approach the paranormal throwback mood Cosmatos was attempting to achieve in his debut, but neither work quite captures the full spectrum of what’s on the screen. What’s much easier for Cosmatos to pinpoint are the influences on the look of Beyond the Black Rainbow, touchstones he discussed with cinematographer Norm Li. In an interview with Joshua Miller for CHUD, Cosmatos referenced titles like Manhunter, Dark Star, and The Keep as direct influences on the film’s cinematography style, while playing influences on the tone & narrative much closer to the chest. The title Dark Star stood out to me in those citations, because Cosmatos is very specific about what he pulled from that ancient sci-fi comedy; he notes that a particular scene set in “a freezer room” was an influence on the bluish tints sometimes deployed in Beyond the Back Rainbow—what Cosmatos refers to as “night mode.” The specificity of that influence rings even more odd to me now after having watched Dark Star in this context, as the film may have had much more influence on Beyond the Black Rainbow than Cosmatos either realized or admitted.

It’s incredible that a film as small as Dark Star would ever have had enough lasting impact or wide enough of a reach in distribution to inform the look of Beyond the Black Rainbow nearly four decades later. What’s even more incredible is that Cosmatos’s film is one of the least significant corners of genre cinema it has influenced. The debut feature from genre legend John Carpenter, Dark Star was a student film project at the University of Southern California—stitched together from reels of 16mm footage (with some post-production bulking-up before its theatrical release to a reach feature-length runtime). Carpenter directed & scored the film, already establishing some of the basic tones of eerie sci-fi atmosphere & broad humor that would carry throughout his career. His main collaborator was Dan O’Bannon, who co-wrote with Carpenter, acted in a central role, edited the picture, and supervised its production design & special effects. Carpenter getting his sea legs here before immediately jumping into churning out all-time classics (his next two pictures were Assault on Precinct 13 & Halloween) already makes Dark Star a culturally significant work, even as a microbudget student film. It’s really Dan O’Bannon who secured the film’s legacy. however. Not only were the film’s incredible special effects its main draw and his character’s name cited as the source for the band Pinback, but O’Bannon repurposed many basic elements that didn’t work in Dark Star for his career-defining work in Alien. There’s a lengthy spaceship chase in Dark Star involving a beachball-shaped alien with claws that fails miserably in its humor, but O’Bannon later thought to play for genuine scares out of frustration – so that you can get an idea here what Alien might have been like if it were an early SNL or Groove Tube comedy sketch instead of one of the most influential horror films of all time.

Failed sketch comedy & sci-fi majesty are exactly the tones at war with each other in Dark Star, which is understandably more interesting to gaze at as a visual feast & discuss as a cultural object than it is to watch as entertainment media. A sci-fi comedy made by California college nerds in the stoney-baloney haze of the 1970s, the film is very loose in its structure and often is deluded in believing it can get by solely on the strengths of its punchlines (spoiler: it cannot). As beautifully eerie as the film’s pre-Star Wars space-travel effects look, the comedy it’s in service often feels mind-numbingly mundane. Some of that mundanity is (smartly) baked into its premise. The film profiles a trio of deep space colonists who seem to have an exciting job of exploding distant “unstable” planets with “intelligent talking bombs.” The day-to-day reality of this work is shown to be one of corporate boredom, however, as they fill their downtime playing trivial games and suffering the bureaucratic delay of supplies requests for necessities like toilet paper. A lot of this space-travel boredom transfers to the audience as the futuristic stoner humor slowly drifts along, although the movie does admittedly end on its best joke (and perhaps its only good one): a lengthy existential discussion between the ship’s captain and a talking bomb that’s threatening to detonate due to malfunctioning protocol. It’s a dryly funny philosophical battle between man & bomb, approximating the midway point between Douglas Adams & HAL 9000. It’s that latter comparison point that the marketing jumped all over during the film’s theatrical run, cheesily riffing on Kubrick in taglines like “The spaced-out odyssey” & “The mission of the Strangelove generation.” Dark Star was advertised as a full-length Kubrick parody, which was misleading, but likely an easier sell than what it truly was: an aimless stoner comedy adrift in outer space.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is another film that mixes visual majesty & stony baloney psychedelia with moments of incongruous humor, but that’s not the Dark Star influence Panos Cosmatos cites for his own debut. The “freezer room scene’s” influence on the intense blues of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s “night mode” sequences is much more specific & direct than any Dark Star influences Cosmatos may have picked up through cultural osmosis, given the stature of its central two collaborators. That scene, in which the new captain of the ship visits his cryogenically frozen predecessor for advice, is significant enough to Dark Star’s legacy that it’s the image used on the film’s Kubrick-riffing poster (likely due to the frozen captain’s distant gaze resembling 2001’s own advertising). It’s understandable then, that the freezer room scene would be the reference point Cosmatos & Li used to create some of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s general look, but I believe Dark Star’s influence may have extended even further than that scene’s acknowledgement. Throughout Dark Star, there were kaleidoscopic flashes of light, washes of color, and outer space animation that recalled the general analog psychedelia vibe of Beyond the Black Rainbow for me. There are two particular scenes I could point to that I believed resembled Cosmatos’s film much more closely than even the blue hues of the freezer room: one in which a laser gone haywire paints everything in its vicinity a harsh, monochromatic red and one in which the new captain waxes nostalgic about waxing his surfboard while staring out an observation dome, his head effectively floating in space while cross-lit in red & blue. The freezer room scene may have been a useful reference point when coordinating specific aspects of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s cinematography, but Dark Star’s fingerprints are visible all throughout Cosmatos’s picture outside that specific context.

Given the feats Carpenter & O’Bannon would later accomplish, Dark Star’s comedic missteps and detectable influences on just this one isolated picture seem like petty concerns in its greater legacy; the ways it transformed sci-fi media through Alien is alone enough to drown out those minor details. Its comparison to Beyond the Black Rainbow is of much more interest on Cosmatos’s end, as his work often feels so impenetrable in its pastiche of a genre era that likely never existed that any flash of a direct, specific influence like Phase IV or Dark Star feels illuminating. It’s unclear how much of those two films’ visual similarities (outside the freezer room “night mode”) were an indirect result of general genre bleed-over due to Carpenter & O’Bannon’s larger cultural presence, but it is clear that Cosmatos pulled something directly from Dark Star that indicates what Beyond the Black Rainbow was meant to accomplish. It’s also clear that Panos Cosmatos made a much more creatively successful feature debut than John Carpenter did, something to be immensely proud of.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and last week’s examination of the influences it pulled from Phase IV (1974).

-Brandon Ledet

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Pig Film (2018)

Although I have no problem conceding that the legendary auteur was immensely, distinctly talented as a visual artist, I personally struggle to enjoy Andrei Tarkovsky works like Solaris or Stalker as genre film entertainment. Josh Gibson’s microbudget sci-fi indie Pig Film (which saw its U.S. premiere at the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival) has cracked that code for me, re-configuring the basic elements of a Tarkovsky genre film into something I wholeheartedly enjoy. An hour-long, black & white sci-fi musical (!) that reinvigorates the Tarkovsky aesthetic by infusing it with the grimy textures of indie genre-film classics like Eraserhead & Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Pig Film indulges in the exact amount of art film pretension I can stomach before I start rolling my eyes. A lean, self-contained industrial nightmare that only disrupts its pensive oceans of silence for moments of ethereal, operatic beauty, Pig Film is Tarkovsky perfected – or, if you’re already a Tarkovsky convert – Tarkovsky streamlined, like a punk rock Stalker.

A mysterious, unnamed woman tends to an industrial pig farm as its only worker and, seemingly, the only person left alive. She sees to the entire life cycle of a farmed pig (from insemination to slaughter & rendering) all by her lonesome, a one-woman factory staff. Her only company is a stockpile of outdated industrial infomercials from the 1950s: real-life propaganda artifacts recorded on celluloid, projector slides, and vinyl records. Her only “spoken” dialogue is privately-sung operatic repetition of word-for-word snippets of text from those industrial artifacts, accompanied by an eerie synth soundtrack. She sings about the importance of pumping pigs full of antibiotics while vacantly executing the daily drudgery of preparing the animals for a likely non-existent post-Apocalyptic market, as if she’s learning the fundamental tenants of language & reality from these industrial ads. Her basic humanity comes into question as the film slips into an unmistakable sci-fi horror tone– until eventually settling for a quiet, alienating drama in a perfect closed-loop.

It’s difficult to report with any certainty whether Pig Film is saying anything concrete about the meat industry or the labor class or pollution or societal collapse or any number of issues that inevitably rise given its setting. These topics mostly inform the proceedings the way anxieties & memories of daily occurrences inform the narratives of our nightmares. The degradation of the picture quality (as it was shot entirely on expired, second-hand film stock) combines with the grimy art-instillation surreality of its pig farm setting to establish an overriding sense of isolation & rot that feels more emotional & subliminal than overtly political. Human or not, our sole on-screen character is the last shred of humanity left stalking the mess of a planet we’ll soon leave behind, emptily mimicking the records of our behavior she finds in our rubble and converting that industrial garbage into beautiful song. It’s a gorgeous, grimy nightmare – a sinister poem.

I’ve already praised November & Annihilation this year for mutating the Tarkovsky aesthetic I find so frustrating as entertainment media into something I can wholeheartedly embrace. Pig Film might not ever match the distribution reach of those two (already underseen) films, but I’d just as readily recommend it with the same enthusiasm. For a director I struggle to appreciate on his own terms, Tarkovsky’s influence is becoming something I look forward to seeing updated & reinterpreted in other works. Beyond that influence, I’d recommend Pig Film to just about anyone who’d be in the market for a dreamlike, largely silent, post-Apocalyptic sci-fi opera set on a pig farm and filmed through a nauseating black & white; but that’s a much more difficult elevator pitch than “Tarkovsky, but concise,” or “Stalker, but punk.”

-Brandon Ledet

Drive-in Era Genre Efficiency in The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

Accessibility to a wide range of movie & television options in the online steaming era has made freedom of choice to be something of an overwhelming burden. There’s too much media to watch and not nearly enough time to even to distinguish which titles are worth the effort. This constant deluge of “content” has created a fascinating attention span phenomenon in the modern media consumer. We’ve reached a cultural paradox where audiences are reluctant to venture to the theater for a three hour film with a serious topic, but will happily binge dozens of hours of a mediocre television show on Netflix or Hulu merely for the convenience of its availability. Genre filmmakers & schlock peddlers of old have dealt with this exact attention span problem in the past, especially when they were catering to the teenage numbskulls who packed drive-in theaters to make out & party in the 1950s & 60s. In the modern streaming era, drive-in schlock has once again become a pertinent form of entertainment. Not only are many films of that era now available for easy (although frequently illegal) access on sites like YouTube; they’re also short & to the point. With over-the-top premises engineered to grab dumb teens’ attention in titles like Billy the Kid vs. Dracula & Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, these films would typically stretch out only to an hour in length a piece, so that they could easily be stacked in a drive-in double bill. The convenience of being able to watch a goofy, high concept horror in an hour’s time is just as appealing now as it is likely was for anxious-to-neck teens half a century ago. You could gobble down an entire feature in the same amount of time it would take to watch a single episode of Stranger Things (and one that would require about the same amount of brain power).

The problem with a lot of drive-in era schlock, of course, is that the films themselves are often far more dull than what’s promised in their advertising. Old school genre film promoters lived & died by the ethos that it was far more important to get eyes on the screen (and, thus, cash in the register) than it was to deliver a high quality product. Many films with an eye-catching title & a killer poster would stop short when it came to actually entertaining audiences, since their job was already done before the first reel spun. Much like the majority of modern straight-to-streaming movies & television, a lot of drive-in fare was lazy & disposable. Their sixty minute runtimes make them much easier to dig through for the gems than most other eras of genre film entertainment, however, and there were plenty of high quality schlock titles that fully delivered on the promise of their attention-grabbing advertising. I can’t think of a better example of efficient, attention-holding drive-in schlock than the 1964 British export The Earth Dies Screaming. At 62 minutes in length, The Earth Dies Screaming succinctly packs at least three sci-fi horror premises into a single genre picture. It’s a cheap production that effectively conveys the scale of a global threat to humanity while only staging its events in a small studio lot section of London. Without narration or montage, it barrels through a series of paranormal obstacles for its small cast of characters to overcome, only to move the goalposts for victory at every possible opportunity. Its violence is mostly implied, yet its effect is genuinely chilling. As convenient as the movies are to watch, most drive-in schlock admittedly doesn’t bother to deliver a decent picture that lives up to the strength of its advertising; The Earth Dies Screaming somehow delivers three in a single, succinct package.

The film opens similarly to 28 Days Later, with its main protagonist roaming London as seemingly the only human left alive. Lifeless bodies are strewn about city streets as planes, trains, and automobiles crash in stock footage spectacle without navigators. The camera pans up to the sky for a dramatic title reveal in enormous block letters: THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING. Eventually, our square-jawed American hero finds fellow British survivors emerging from the wreckage. As a group, they search TV & radio signals for answers, finding only static & the hum of a strange, menacing tone. There’s little dialogue in this earliest sequence, until the group deduces that the lifeless victims outside have suffered an attack of weaponized gas, the source of which they speculate on without much evidence. Just as they come to a conclusion on what knocked out the first wave of victims, space alien robots arrive to sweep the streets for survivors, whom they incapacitate with a single gentle touch. When the majority of the survivors escape the fate of the alien robots, the robots then raise their dead as zombie drones with whited-out eyes to complete the mission. These individual obstacles don’t even cover the off-screen aliens who are deploying these threats or the mysterious signals being broadcast over television & radio waves. The Earth Dies Screaming doesn’t even devote energy to explaining what happens next after its in-the-moment crisis is solved immediately before the end credits. It just keeps its head down & throws every monstrous evil it can conjure at the screen, any one of which could have been developed into its on individual double-bill filler.

The most impressive aspect of The Earth Dies Screaming‘s genre film efficiency is how it finds the space to allow its central mystery to breathe. Its hour-long runtime is packed tightly with a wide range of villainous monsters, yet its pace is not at all rushed. In the classic Twilight Zone tradition, characters are allowed plenty stage play dialogue to ponder the possibilities of what alien force is planning their doom. The movie is disinterested in these characters as individuals, saving time by boiling them down to archetypes: the American Hero, the pregnant damsel, the uptight aristocrat Brit, the common thief, etc. By skipping in-depth characterization, it allows for unsettling questions to linger between the physical threats of the robots & their zombies. Was it actually a gas that triggered this crisis? What is the signal being broadcast on the radio supposed to signify? Are the characters already dead & navigating some kind of purgatory? Who is their true enemy? It even telegraphs some of the paranoid in-fighting of John Carpenter’s The Thing; the characters viciously bicker in distrust of each other as they fight a common enemy they cannot see.

From the design of its robot monsters to the eerie sounds of its ambient Elisabeth Lutyens score, The Earth Dies Screaming is shockingly well-made for a production of its scale & budget. What makes it a significant work, though, is its ability to cram three movies’ worth of entertainment into the space of an hour. Whether you’re a 1960s teen hoping for extra minutes of smooching after you leave the drive-in or a 2010s serial streamer pressed for time to take it all in, there’s a tremendous value to that kind of genre film efficiency. I’ve watched entire seasons of television with fewer ideas than this film conveys in its first half hour and I greatly appreciate that it doesn’t hang around for too much longer after it gets them across.

-Brandon Ledet

Elizabeth Harvest (2018)

In the age-old folktale of Bluebeard, a well-to-do monster of a man gets into the habit of marrying women only to murder them once they disobey his one rule: do not look behind the forbidden door in his castle. Once his current wife gives into her curiosity and opens the door, she finds that what lies behind it is the corpses of his former wives. Sebastian Gutierrez’s most recent film, Elizabeth Harvest, is essentially the Bluebeard fairytale, but instead of the corpses if multiple dead wives, the room is filled with clones of one wife. It’s just as crazy as it sounds.

Henry (Ciarán Hinds), a seemingly innocent scientist, brings his new bride, Elizabeth (Abbey Lee), to his huge, mysterious, and obnoxiously clean home in the middle of the woods. The house is a mix of the glass house in the movie The Glass House and the Arboria Institute in Beyond the Black Rainbow, so it was both fascinating and terrifying. There are two caretakers in the home: Claire (Carla Gugino), a mysterious, quiet woman with an obvious connection to Henry, and Oliver (Matthew Beard), a young, blind man that mostly keeps to himself. The two add to the unwelcome feeling of the already spooky setting. As in the Bluebeard tale, Henry gives Elizabeth free reign of the home and all the luxuries that comes with it, but she is forbidden from entering one room. While Henry is away, Elizabeth enters the forbidden room only to find pods with clones of herself. Once Henry discovers what Elizabeth has done, the film shifts away from Bluebeard and becomes something entirely different.

Gutierrez throws in some impressive visual effects at all the right moments. There are a couple of scenes with split screens that focus on what different characters are doing in different parts of the home during highly intense moments, which I absolutely loved. There’s also lots of bold color and high fashion throughout the film, especially with Elizabeth. She has vibrant red hair, piercing blue eyes, and wears lots of haute couture. Watching her walk through different rooms in the home was like flipping through the pages of Vogue for a “Sci-Fi Meets High Fashion” issue. The film comes very close to being one of those style over substance works, but the uniqueness and intensity of the plot keeps it balanced.

Elizabeth Harvest is one of the most visually stunning films that I’ve seen come out this year. I love that it’s a très chic twist on the Bluebeard tale with just enough gore and mystery to satisfy the sci-fi horror nerd in us all.

-Britnee Lombas

Venom (2018)

The latest cinematic dispatch from the Spider-Verse, Venom, is paradoxically one of the blandest superhero movies of the year and one of the year’s best comedies. These two conflicting modes mix like water & oil, with at least the first half hour of the film treading water as a C-grade superhero origin story before it then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy. If those two halves arrived in reverse order, it’d be understandable to walk away from Venom dejected & exhausted, feeling as if you’d finally been ground into dust by the oft-cited affliction of superhero fatigue, maintaining no interest in the future of the genre. As is, the resulting effect is much more enjoyably bizarre. The origin story doldrums of Venom’s first hour lull you into a false complacency. The film’s macho leather-and-guitar-riffs aesthetic feels like it’s been rotting in stasis on the big screen at least since the gritty genre cinema that arrived in the wake of The Dark Knight a decade ago. Then, once its sci-fi body horror hijinks finally get started, it transforms into something much goofier, much rarer, and (most surprisingly) much queerer than what we’ve come to expect from mainstream superhero blockbusters. It arrives cumbersome, but it leaves you in a great mood.

Tom Hardy stars in Venom as Eddie Brock, an unemployed loser who once worked for a VICE News-type media outlet before ruining his engagement to Michelle Williams by incurring the wrath of an Elon Musk-type (Riz Ahmed) with a boneheaded act of gotcha journalism. I could recount in mundane detail how Eddie’s feud with Not Elon Musk results in him gaining superpowers through a parasitic alien creature (named Venom) that effectively snatches his body & causes city-wide havoc, but it’s those exact origin story checkpoints that risk tanking the entire film’s entertainment value in familiar, leaden plot machinery. That’s not really what’s important about Venom; what matters here is how fully committed Tom Hardy is to the role once the parasite (or, in the movie’s parlance, “symbiote”) infects his body and the movie decides to become fun. Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout Venom as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

The only aspect of Venom that matches the absurdly committed, manic-comic energy of Hardy’s physical performance in his own vocal work as the titular space alien symbiote, who he banters with telepathically throughout the movie (once it gets fun, anyway). Venom’s voice falls somewhere between Scooby-Doo, Audrey II, and Tim Curry’s performance as Hexxus (the toxic ooze from FernGully), so it’s a blessing upon us all that the film does not ask you to take the voice seriously. When Venom and his fellow space alien symbiotes ooze around the ground as sentient collections of grotesque, black goo, they’re appropriately horrific. As a voice in Eddie’s head, however, Venom is a laugh riot. He admits to Eddie, “I’m kind of a loser on my planet,” so it makes sense that all his menacing threats come across as embarrassingly dorky, such as when he promises to rip off a criminal’s limbs so that they roll around “like a turd in the wind.” He’s also got a Scooby-Doo appetite to match the voice, driving Eddie to eat straight-up trash & copious amounts of tater tots (always frozen or burnt, never the proper temperature). Their relationship as parasite & host even becomes oddly sweet, if not outright romantic, over the course of the picture – with Venom inventing an elaborate scheme to win Eddie back after a passionate separation by making out with him through Michelle Williams’s surrogate. Hardy does an excellent job of portraying both losers – Eddie & Venom – as separate, distinct goofballs who often share one absurd body so that neither is ever alone again. It’d almost be beautiful if it weren’t so goddamn silly.

Full disclosure: there was already a comedic body-horror this year where a Tom Hardy type (Logan Marshall-Green) transformed into a superhero via an implanted sci-fi parasite that telepathically struck up humorous banter with its host and helped them wage war on an Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade is a smarter, grittier, more satirically pointed version of Venom, a superior film on every count. Still, and this pains me to admit, Venom’s highs are much funnier. It’s a Herculean task on Tom Hardy’s part that this otherwise drab, by-the-numbers superhero pic is even watchable, but his dual performance as Venom & Eddie is so weirdly, consistently funny that the movie achieves legitimate comedic greatness once it gets its genre requirements out of the way. The back half of Venom is so thoroughly absurd that the grim, guitar-riffing machismo of the first half almost plays like parody in retrospect. Upgrade wastes no time getting into the comedic genre payoffs of its premise and is one of the best films of the year for it. Still, the surprise of the delayed buffoonery of Venom almost bests that film in genuine laughs, likely because there’s so much tension built up & relieved in the contrast between its warring halves. It’s a dumb, misshapen, big-budget beast that doesn’t deserve to be half as entertaining as Tom Hardy makes it. Yet, it would fit just as well on any midnight-movie docket as Upgrade would, even with frozen tater tots as a built-in, themed snack that could be thrown at the screen Rocky Horror style in drunken excess. It just requires a little patience before those bizarre, comedic payoffs arrive.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Morgan (2016)

Ever since Anya Taylor-Joy made her grand entrance as a name to watch in her stunning, starring role in The Witch (Swampflix’s 2016 Movie of the Year), she’s continued to be a compelling presence in modern genre cinema. Perhaps typecast for her wide-eyed, witchy visage that appears as if she just stepped out of a Victorian oil painting, Taylor-Joy has continued to dwell in genre cinema corners ranging from the Gothic horror vibes of Marrowbone & The Miniaturist to the highly stylized modernist thrillers Split & Thoroughbreds. I’m unsure if that reflects her personal taste in choosing roles or just the range of options being made available to her, but it seems constant to her career path stretching back even before her name became synonymous with The Witch. The same year The Witch was released to wide audiences, Taylor-Joy starred as the titular character in a more mainstream production that made much less of a splash. The sci-fi horror Morgan, directorial debut of Ridley Scott’s son Luke Scott, was largely dismissed in its initial run as merely being an obvious, Hollywood-style rehashing of the superior work Ex Machina, perhaps rightfully so. As hyperbolically negative as I find the film’s general critical reputation to be, I somewhat understand that dismissal and can mount no defense of the mediocre-at-best thriller as some great lost work worthy of reclamation. After recently falling in love with Anya Taylor-Joy’s screen presence all over again in the BBC miniseries The Miniaturist, however, I did find Morgan worthy of a revisit, if not solely for the merits of her performance.

Like Ex Machina, Morgan is a Turing Test thriller where an outside party is hired to determine the commercial viability of a femme A.I. creation in captivity at a remotely located science facility. Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Leslie, Paul Giamatti, and Jennifer Jason Leigh round out an over-qualified cast of scientists & staffers assigned to this A.I. experiment, but they mostly amount to archetypes who hang around to get slaughtered once things inevitably go wrong. Only two characters really matter in this movie: Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular, dangerous A.I. creation and Kate Mara as a corporate “risk management consultant” hired to assess the artificial creature’s commercial viability. A very human-like creation with a recent history of violent episodes with the staff, Morgan presents two ethical questions the movie only pretends to wrestle with: “Is her advancement of technology worth the risk of her potential violence?” and “Is she a person or is it property?” These very basic sci-fi concerns are mostly just time-wasters in the lead-up to the film’s true payoff: Morgan’s escape & horrific slaughter of every human that held her captive, even the ones she once considered close friends & family (as much as an A.I. creature could). These horror genre leanings are reinforced by the sci-fi lab’s locale in a spooky Gothic mansion & a few last-minute, telegraphed twists that are much more concerned about in-the-moment thrills then they are philosophical ponderings. Morgan’s main concern is an attempt to be coldly creepy, and it’s something the movie often pulls off well thanks to the seething animosity that binds Mara & Taylor-Joy’s performances.

As a sci-fi horror about an A.I. creation that escapes captivity & erupts into bloodshed, Morgan doesn’t offer much of interest that can’t be found elsewhere. As a showcase for Anya Taylor-Joy’s acting range, the film does feature some deviating touches in performance that feels like a far cry from her more typical modes in The Miniaturist & The Witch. Although often cast in spooky genre fare, Taylor-Joy typically plays a traumatized, delicate victim, batting her giant doe eyes to convey innocence in a world ruled by evil (deceptively so in Thoroughbreds). Here, she’s allowed to be fierce & dangerous throughout, even opening the film in a vicious lunge to tear out one of her captor’s eyes. Taylor-Joy plays Morgan with the brooding anger of a teenage girl who’s been wronged and stripped of her agency, expressing a quiet, violent anger halfway between explosive emotional outburst & cold, machine-like calculation of who exactly to strike. You can even sense this atypical use of her screen presence in her costuming, which forsakes her usual period-specific garb for a modernist sweatpants & hoodie combo – the comfy outfit of a pissed off teen locked in their room by parents who Just Don’t Understand. Her striking looks are intensified by a cold makeup effect that almost renders her silver, as if she’s in black & white while the rest of the film is in color. It’s a different approach to how her appearance & talents are typically deployed in genre films and that deviation is largely what makes Morgan a worthwhile watch. As a Hollywood companion piece to Ex Machina the film could only suffer through comparison, but as a demonstration of explosive teenage anger from a compelling actor who doesn’t often get to express it, it finds a way to feel worthwhile.

You’re unlikely to walk away from Morgan with any intense interest in whatever follow-up project Luke Scott has in the works. The film is competent enough to get by as a passable sci-fi horror diversion about a Killer A.I., but it’s ultimately nothing special in terms of style or texture. The takeaway is more the question of what other sides of Anya Taylor-Joy’s abilities as a performer are we not yet privy to this early in her career. I appreciated seeing her as a teenage killing machine here, but I’m even more excited by what that indicates about what she might be able to unleash in future roles. It’s a career worth keeping a (gigantic, doe-like) eye on, to say the least.

-Brandon Ledet

Resolution (2012) / The Endless (2018)

I’ve never written a dual movie review before, but I’ve also never reviewed a sequel quite like The Endless before. It’s possible that someone stumbling into the picture uninitiated to its 2012 predecessor, Resolution, will leave it with just as many questions as the fully prepared. A low-key sci-fi freak-out that attempts big ideas through limited means, The Endless deliberately raises questions it has no intention to answer, so all audiences are going to leave the picture perplexed. Familiarity with Resolution is still a prerequisite for the full, perplexing experience, though. Although hardly anyone saw Resolution in its original run and The Endless makes little mention of it in its promotional material, the 2018 update from writers/directors/stars Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead is very much a direct, continuity-detailed sequel that builds off the first film’s themes & conceit. Their budget for special effects spectacle may have jumped slightly in the half-decade between the two pictures, but their shared story & sci-fi world-building are entirely of a piece, to the point where they are more inseparable than even the average superhero follow-up with “2” in its title.

Resolution is an extraordinary tale of two very ordinary bros who trespass onto protected Native American property and find themselves victims of an invisible, supernatural menace. One bro is a raving lunatic who spends his days smoking crack on a dirty mattress and firing a pistol into the woods. The other is a concerned friend who handcuffs him out of arms’ reach of the aforementioned drugs & firearms in an effort to save his life by sobering him up. While waiting for the cocaine to leave the more troubled bro’s body, the pair of foul-mouthed galoots begin to experience increasing exposure to unexplainable phenomena. Because the film was cheaply made, its introduction of sci-fi elements to its small-cast drama is mostly constructed with words instead of imagery. Conspiracy theories about government coverups of space alien contact, alternate dimensions, ghosts, “UFO death cults,” and physical confrontations with Hell are peppered throughout the dialogue to prepare the audience for the supernatural menace to come. It turns out that menace is the audience itself too, as the movie gradually becomes a sci-fi take on Cabin the Woods’s examination of consumer complicity in genre film violence. As the two bros are inundated with mysterious recordings on photographs, vinyl records, strips of film, VHS cassettes, and emailed digi-videos, Resolution becomes a story about stories, where an off-screen menace (presumably including the audience) requires a violent end to their narrative to be satiated by the experience. That’s lofty thematic ground for a film that looks like it was pieced together over a few bro-buds’ weekend hangouts.

The Endless drops Resolution’s Native American abuse themes to focus on the “UFO death cults” that lurked at the first movie’s fringes. Two brothers, seemingly unconnected to the bros from the first film, foolishly decide to return to a cultist compound where they were raised to challenge what they’ve been told about their past by their state-sanctioned deprogramming therapists. There, they find unexplainable “natural” phenomena within their old terrain, anomalies they had mentally dismissed as faulty childhood memories. Most significantly, the members of the cult have not seemed to age a day in the decades since they first left, which is indicative of the cycles of time that loop on the mysterious, paranormal landscape where both films take place. The Endless drops Resolution’s fixation on the power of myth & storytelling to instead explore themes of self-destructive ruts, where patterns of unhealthy behavior repeat in perpetuity for anyone who fixates on the past. The movie directly connects with its predecessor’s narrative, first in the form of mysterious, Caché-like recordings and then in a more direct, unsubtle way that combines the two film’s themes of linear storytelling & endless time loops in an oddly satisfying cohesion, even if a perplexing one. Once again, the supposed threat of the “UFO death cult” is a narrative misdirection, much like the expected Native American curse of Resolution. The real menace at work in The Endless is more an existential, unknowable curse born of its own existence & search for a purpose. It’s trippy stuff.

In all honesty, these are two movies I respect for their ambition more than I enjoy them as entertainment. I had high hopes for this double feature after first being exposed to Benson & Moorhead in the Lovecraftian romance horror Spring, which remains their greatest achievement to date. Spring matched the duo’s obvious, admirable interest in reaching beyond the typical bounds of low-budget filmmaking for grander ideas & scope with something both Resolution & The Endless were missing: genuine heart. I like to think of this difference as being akin to the jump Shane Carruth made between his films Primer & Upstream Color, which were galaxies apart in terms of emotional impact, even if the scope of their conceptual ideas were evenly matched. In these pictures from Benson & Moorhead, there’s a macho bravado that keeps genuine emotion at a distance. Spring also had an ordinary-bro protagonist, but he was one made vulnerable by a horrific, supernatural romance beyond this control. The macho brutes who command the runtimes of this double feature are much more difficult to care about, despite the movies’ insistence that they’re relatable, everyday dudes. When we’re listening to the bros of Resolution tease each other about the hideous “hogs” they hooked up with in their more youthful days or when they “comically” deny outsiders’ assumptions that they’re a romantic couple with a grossed-out fervor, it feels as if the movie is asking us to laugh along with them instead of finding them grotesque. The brothers of The Endless (played by Benson & Moorhead themselves) don’t fare much better, showing little human vulnerability in their base desires to hook up with beautiful women and escape the clutches of an invisible, supernatural menace. Essentially, these two movies assume a certain macho POV from their audience that can be a huge turn-off when it misses the mark.

Thankfully, the high-concept sci-fi crises of Resolution & The Endless don’t require much emotional involvement to be interesting on their own. Likewise, both films are admirable as examples of small-scale filmmaking pulled off with admirable ambition in craft. Together, their shared runtime is somewhat demanding for a pair of movies with no emotional hook in their protagonists’ confrontation with the unknown. They do manage to make up for that shortcoming, though, mostly by provoking the audience to interrogate their own existence, purpose, and participation in this creation & sharing of myths. Like Spring, this is a pair of films that deserves to be seen by a larger cross-section of people than who will ever give it a chance, if not only for the reminder of how few resources you need to tackle something bigger than yourself and your craft. They’re just lacking Spring’s emotional core.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fly II (1989)

One of my favorite phenomena in the history of genre cinema is the R-rated horror film that feels like it was made for children. Mostly born of the VHS era, titles like The Dentist, The Ice Cream Man, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and practically any Charles Band production you could name all feel like they were intended for a juvenile audience in their artistic sensibilities, but also happen to be overrun with sex, monsters, and intense gore. Much hated for its deviation from its predecessor’s more adult tone, The Fly II (1989) is an impeccable specimen of the R-Rated children’s horror. Directed by Chris Walas, the special effects artist responsible for the grotesque mayhem of Cronenberg’s iconic 1986 remake of The Fly (1958), The Fly II is an over-the-top indulgence in ooey-gooey practical effects work worthy of the most vomitous nightmare. Most of the The Fly II’s negative reputation is in the claim that Walas’s special effects showcase was the only thing on the movie’s mind, that there is no plot or substance to speak of outside the movie’s many, many gross-out gags & surreal bodily transformations. That criticism discounts the most interesting aspect of The Fly II, the fact that everything outside its Lovecraftian, sci-fi creature transformations plays like a late-80s kids’ movie more than any direct Cronenberg descendent likely should. The two central relationships at the film’s core are essentially a boy-and-his-dog coming of age drama and a wish-fulfillment fantasy about growing up overnight, conveying R-rated perversions of movies like Big & My Dog Skip. The juxtaposition of these kids’ movies sensibilities and the nightmarish gore of the film’s gross-out creature transformations makes for a much more interesting tension than The Fly II is often given credit for. The movie deserves to be understood less as a diminished-returns echo of Cronenberg’s work and more as a high-end, well executed specimen of one of the strangest corners of VHS-era horror cinema.

For a movie with hardly any cast rollover from the Cronenberg “original”, The Fly II is shockingly confident in operating as a direct sequel to its predecessor. Tertiary player John Getz, the only returning cast member, watches in horror as “Geena Davis” (replacement actor Saffron Henderson, whom the film makes no attempt to disguise) gives birth to the resulting child from her first-film love affair with Jeff Goldblum’s Brundlefly. Goldblum himself only appears in-film in the form of pre-taped video diaries documenting his (disastrous) teleportation experiments, which are essentially deleted scenes from The Fly repurposed to legitimize this film’s existence. It’s difficult to take too much notice of these casting cheats & narrative workarounds, though, since the birthing scene that opens The Fly II is so overwhelmingly traumatizing that the petty concerns of series continuity are entirely beside the point. “Geena Davis’s” pregnant belly writhes with the contortions of a monster struggling to break free from within. She shrieks, “Get it out of me!” as surgeons pull a mutated, inhuman knot of tissue from inside her body, a cocoonish husk that leaks a milky bile from its creases. The husk cracks open to reveal a healthy-looking human baby inside, which the surgeons lift into the light with perplexed awe. This unholy surgical nightmare of an opening scene is a warning shot for the many grotesqueries to come. The body horror of bug-like transformations & fleshy decay from Cronenbrg’s The Fly repeat here, but Chris Walas uses them as a mere launching point for a relentless onslaught of even more varied gross-outs: mutated pets, infected injection wounds, face-melting bug bile, and an extension of the first film’s climactic reveal of the Brundlefly’s final form into nearly a half-hour’s worth of shameless creature feature mayhem. It’s easy to see how someone could dismiss the film as an excuse for indulgences in gross-out practical effects (especially given Walas’s background & the flimsy connective tissue between its narrative & the previous film’s) but that unwillingness to engage with the film doesn’t consider two very important factors: practical effects gore is inherently cool on its own and this particular story would still be remarkably bizarre without it.

“Geena Davis’s” inhuman husk-baby is raised as the property of the evil corporation who funded the original film’s teleportation experiments. Martinfly, son of Brundlefly, grows up incredibly fast (and with incredible intelligence) thanks to his father’s compromised DNA. In the early stretch he’s a Book of Henry-style smartass (complete with homemade helmet contraption) who maintains a lifelong rivalry with the evil scientists who study/torture him – corporate villains he refers to as “the people who live beyond the [two-way] mirror.” Because of his accelerated Brundlegrowth, Martinfly doesn’t last long in this juvenile state. On his fifth birthday he’s revealed to be a full-grown Eric Stotlz, a super intelligent specimen with the emotional intelligence of a young child. In this “adult,” rapidly decaying body, Martinfly fulfills common childhood fantasies about growing up overnight, claiming the privacy & personal property privileges of being a grown-up that most children long for. This bizarre version of Big is made horrifically perverse when the five-year-old Martinfly woos himself a twenty-something girlfriend (with their taboo lovemaking secretly surveilled & documented by the evil corporation’s science lab staff, of course). Concurrently, Eric Stoltz’s adult-toddler also befriend a golden retriever who is kept on-site as a test subject in the continued (and increasingly unsuccessful) teleportation experiments. This boy/dog-bonding children’s media trope is turned into its own skin-crawling nightmare when the poor pup is horribly mutilated in a failed transportation, then kept alive for years in intense pain & physical dysfunction for further research, a mangled mess of muscle & fur. Martinfly eventually gets his ultraviolent revenge on his lifelong abusers, particularly the Daddy Warbucks father figure who placated him through the torture/research, when he retreats into a second husk and metamorphosizes into a giant, killer bug beast, destroying the facility that has imprisoned him since birth. Everything preceding that traditional creature feature payoff, however, is a bizarre, nightmarish perversion of kids’ movie tones & tropes, which is exactly what makes The Fly II stand out as a unique practical effects gore fest.

Of course, there are a few moments of so-bad-it’s-good camp that flavor The Fly II’s VHS era pleasures. I’m particularly tickled by a scene where a dejected Martinfly bitterly stares at a bug-zapper while his housefly brethren are obliterated by its allure – the blue glow of their destruction lighting his melodramatic monologue about the meaningless of life. The over-the-top staging of that third act slump feels entirely at home with the film’s other campy touches, which recall the juvenile, unsubtle eye of vintage superhero comics. Not only does the movie begin as a kind of superhero origin story and heavily features a smiling Lex Luthor-type archvillain as its antagonist, it also leans heavily into the increased strength & agility Martinfly’s transformation affords his body. Even the creature’s final form is surprisingly mobile (especially for a hand-built puppet), leaping from platform to platform in the evil science lab like a visibly grotesque superhero, getting revenge on faceless baddies who torture animals for profit. This comic book sensibility is partly what makes The Fly II feel like it was made for children despite the intense gross-out gore featured throughout. The movie’s direct sequel even took the form of a short-run comic book instead of a feature film: a miniseries titled The Fly: Outbreak, published in 2015. Considering The Fly II’s distinct comic book sensibilities, the larger boom of R-rated kids’ horror in its late-80s era could be understood as a continuation of the tradition established by EC Comics in the 1950s, where juvenile morality tales were filtered through increasingly grotesque, supernatural plots. The same year of this film’s release there was even a more deliberate, direct attempt to keep that EC Comics tradition alive in the launching of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt horror anthology series, which also juxtaposed adult sex & gore with juvenile media sensibilities.

Like the better episodes of Tales from the Crypt and other VHS era oddities of its ilk, The Fly II feels like the exact kind of movie that would grab a child’s attention on late-night cable after their parents fell asleep, then scar them for life with nightmare imagery of melted faces, mutated dogs, gigantic bug-beasts, and milk-leaking husk babies. Its tone can be campy at the fringes (as expected, given the material) but it’s also complicated by the severity of its details, especially its dog torture & Eric Stoltz’s lead performance, which is heroically convincing, considering the ludicrous plot it anchors. The Fly II may over-indulge in Chris Walas’s artistic interest in practical effects gore (an attention to tangible, hands-on craft that only becomes more valuable the further we sink into CG tedium), but the consensus claim that those effects are the only noteworthy aspect of the film deliberately ignores how incredibly bizarre its R-rated children’s movie sensibilities can be and where that astoundingly self-conflicted tone fits in with the larger history of horror as a modern artform.

-Brandon Ledet

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

Life (2017)

I know in my heart that it’s reductive to discuss a film solely in terms of genre, but that kind of categorization & attention to tropes is all the mental energy I can really afford the recent sci-fi horror Life. With characters & dialogue that linger with you for about as long as a fart and insipid, free-floating camera work stylization that distracts more than it enhances, Life has little to offer anyone not already on the hook for its basic genre thrills. It’s a decent enough spaceship horror with creature attacks that delight in their novelty & brutality just enough to excuse the waste of space human drama they interrupt. If you’re looking to Life for ambitious, heartfelt cinema you’re going to leave dejected. As a genre exercise, however, it’s a mild success that more or less pulls its own weight.

A spaceship packed with near-future scientists discover the first sign of extraterrestrial life. Initially the size of a microbe, this alien species grows exponentially in dimension, strength, and intelligence throughout the film until it ultimately poses a threat to humanity at large. When the size of a tiny translucent mushroom, the little Baby Genius bastard is strong enough to break every bone in a scientist’s hand. It grows from there to some kind of flying killer starfish to resembling an evil translucent Creech, making this more believable as a Monster Trucks prequel than the Venom prequel it was idiotically rumored to be upon initial release. Nicknamed Calvin, this evil little bugger is the obvious star of the show, as his wet blanket victims have nothing compelling to do or say between his shockingly violent attacks. Ryan Reynolds does his usual “lovable” asshole schtick & Jake Gyllenhaal reprises his stoic blue collar caricature from Southpaw, but for the most part our cosmonauts are a boring wash of measured British whispers, all interchangeable & instantly forgettable. I even had a difficult time differentiating the two female leads despite one of them being played by Noomi Rapace, who I’ve seen in several films before. Calvin was an interesting enough design & enough of a killer brute to hold my attention throughout Life on his own, but it is a shame he didn’t have more interesting people to kill.

As far as Alien retreads go, Life isn’t even the most interesting one to be released this year, not while Michael Fassbender is making out with himself in Alien: Covenant. The one interesting idea the film brings to that formula is in having the idiot scientist who first prods the monster with his finger actually being verbally chastised by his coworkers for acting like an unprofessional fool, when in other examples of the genre they’d all act that way. Beyond that, the film can only deliver thrilling monster attacks & an interesting creature design, unless you think an overly dramatic reading of Goodnight Moon is enough to carry an emotional climax on its own. Luckily for me, I’m already a huge sucker for space horror as a genre and found Calvin both charming & nastily brutal enough for the film to feel worthwhile. It’s reductive to say so, but your own interest level in that genre’s minor chills & thrills will likely dictate your experience with this one as well.

-Brandon Ledet