are you me? am I you? – thoughts on ANNIHILATION

(major spoilers for the film adaptation of ANNIHILATION, and minor spoilers for the book. if you haven’t seen or read either, I’d recommend them — they are not for everyone and challenging in their own ways, but unsettling and thought-provoking at a minimum)

“The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.”

captions and quotes from ANNIHILATION by jeff vandermeer.

the Southern Reach trilogy is a confused, feverish meditation on entropy and organic decay as applied to the human mind. ANNIHILATION, the film adaptation of the trilogy’s first book, condenses a lot of this into a really compelling, horrific, unsettling and weird little movie.

it’s not really anything at all like the books, after you get past the similarity in premise and initial plot details. and if all you did was run through what’s added and removed from the book, you’d have built a pretty thorough list of stuff I would have thought would sink a film adaptation:

  • characters who are never named in the books are given names and far more coherent humanity in the film
  • a relationship that is mostly incidental in the book becomes more explicitly romantic and central
  • essential places and ideas from the first book (most notably the tower and the words found within) are removed

so let’s look for a second at some of those words from the book, as they come up a lot and are the closest thing the book presents in terms of Area X’s mission statement or purpose:

Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dimlit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been. In the black water with the sun shining at midnight, those fruit shall come ripe and in the darkness of that which is golden shall split open to reveal the revelation of the fatal softness in the earth.

unsettling shit, right? vaguely religious, written in a fervent babbling run-on style that raises both the urgency and the sense of disorientation; the more you try to dig into them, the more lost you become, unable to parse what’s meant but feeling dread rise in the back of your throat.

that’s what vandermeer wants. his book is full of language that ostensibly describes but instead obscures, moments of perspective narration that cloud or confuse the perspective being portrayed, simple things made unknowable (I read somewhere recently that the book never actually uses the word “alligator” despite describing them more than once). there’s a sense of being told clearly what’s being seen, yet being totally unable to see or understand it. this is something only a book can do, really, utilizing its position between the reader and the idea to blockade and obfuscate.

The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what is a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?

the reason the book does this is to deconstruct the coherency of the narrative and the characters and to place us inside that deconstruction. the whole book is about collapse and decay, a story told by a biologist obsessed with growth about growth that pushes beyond into entropy, about a completely inscrutable alien force (alien here only meaning non-human; the “force” behind Area X is never really given direct form in the way you might expect from that word) doing something to our world that is simply an acceleration or amplification of forces already acting upon us all the time.

because really the book (and trilogy) is not about its sci-fi premise so much as it is about the fragility of identity and self. and this is what the new movie captures, necessarily in a whole different way than the book: it is a sci-fi horror film about losing yourself slowly and being unable to catch up to the loss, until you’re watching yourself and your own actions as if in a distorted mirror, no longer sure whether you’re the one who’s moving or the one who’s mirroring.

There is no one with me. I am all by myself. The trees are not trees the birds are not birds and I am not me but just something that has been walking for a very long time…

I want to see the movie again (and again, and again) because so many visual details synchronize with this in ways that you catch peripherally, that unnerve you in small ways even as very little is “happening” on screen. there are some that read more like easter eggs or theory-bait (the ouroboros tattoo, for one) but I’m more interested in the ways that the cinematography adds to the disintegration of coherent visual ideas in a visual medium. small example: there is a camera shot involving two hands seen from behind a full glass of water — the hands bleed into each other, it’s not clear where one person’s fingers begin and the other’s end. a lovely, quiet moment of subtle visual unease. people watch small camera screens and then those screens become what we’re watching, putting us too close to action ostensibly being seen at a remove. the vibrance inside the Shimmer is deliberately heightened to unreality; light bounces off of objects and backgrounds at too-powerful extremes.

the most horrifying scene in the movie creates an overwhelmingly extreme dissonance between what we see (some kind of skeletal bear) and what we hear (the distorted screams of a dead character). it’s important that so much of this scene happens in otherwise relative quiet; the monster stalks around the others, its motives ambiguous, its connection to its voice impossible to make in our heads. honestly I don’t even know what else to say about that scene except that it’s the most horrifying thing I’ve ever had a movie throw at me and I’m still staggered a bit by it

Ventress notes in the movie that suicide is not the same as self-destruction, and that’s the angle at which the movie explores its title. the characters inside the Shimmer have self-destructive tendencies that the Shimmer refracts: the plant growth inside Josie’s arms comes out through her old wounds of self-harm; Ventress is consumed at blinding speed from the inside, her terminal cancer transformed into a desiccating light. Lena is not ultimately self-destructive in the same sense — her motivations for entering and reasons for being at the Southern Reach are crucially distinct from the others — but as a witness to and victim of loss, she exits the Shimmer changed so fundamentally as to perhaps not be herself at all.

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.

the movie attempts to capture the spirit of the book in a way that is unique to its medium; this is the alchemy necessary for any good adaptation. the book deals with inscrutability via the written word because it is structured as literal memoir; the movie has a vaguely similar frame with Lena in the sterile room, but it uses cinematography and audiovisual cues in place of language.

assorted smaller thoughts:

  • the score is spare, weird, and haunting. I loved it
  • the ending and the look of the half-formed doppelgänger edges right up to absurdity, but that’s exactly where it needs to go to pay off the accumulating weirdness of the scenario
  • the dialogue in this movie can feel like it’s over-explaining, particularly some of Ventress’s lines but to me what it really does is get viewers right up to the edge of understanding. Josie’s prism explanation for what Area X is and does is simple and elegant and also incomplete enough to make unsettling questions linger in your mind; Ventress’s explanation of “annihilation” seems to be movie’s ultimate mission statement until you watch what happens after her death and understand that the Shimmer builds and rebuilds as much as it disintegrates, an engine stuck in a loop like the universe beyond it

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