Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Shimmer Me Timbers: Annihilation Reconsidered

Well, in the grand Secret Sun tradition I am finally getting around to posting my thoughts on Annihilation, the recent(ish) sci-fi film starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tessa Thompson. 

The TL;DR? I liked the film quite a bit. But I probably would have liked it quite a bit more if it were fiction.


So first off, I got all kinds of problems with this film. 

I was never a huge Natalie Portman fan, and she still comes across as rather jejeune even if she’s rocking the Ritalin-poppin’ soccer-mom look these days. The rest of the cast is perfectly fine but not exactly bursting with matinee-idol charisma.

Now, I really wanted to see this film on the silver screen but my schedule didn’t allow so we watched it on the big-screen TV. And the sound level on the Amazon rental was abominably low, which didn’t help a picture in which the cast seems to spend most of their time whispering.

Moreover, the b-plot with Portman’s affair with a colleague seemed forced and undercooked and it was never fully apparent — to me at least — how her husband was actually dealing with it. 

The film backloads all the chills, which is fine, but did make it all feel a bit of a slog for the first hour. But hot diggity damn, once the action kicks in? Katy-bar-the-fucking-door.

The plot is disarmingly simple— a college professor’s Special Forces husband disappears for a year during a covert assignment only to mysteriously return. He seems a bit squirrelly, ends up coughing up jugs of blood and ultimately ends up in a secret intensive care ward in a military base in Florida. 

Natalie Portman’s character Lena (“Mary Magdalene”) wakes up in the same base and has some weird conversations with Dr. Ventress, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. 

The Shimmer isn't a Cocteau Twins 
album cover but it plays one on TV

Ventress (literally “Adventurous”) is assembling a team to reconnoiter the “Shimmer,” an area in a national park in Florida that seems to be under the influence of some unknown power which is turning the swamp into a Cocteau Twins vid... er, I mean a bizarre alien landscape.

And here’s where I have problems with the premise— we find out all kinds of Special Forces units— by definition bareknuckled professional killers— have disappeared into the Shimmer. So the last thing you’d imagine military authorities doing is sending in a team of wispy waifs-- most of whom are civilians and none exactly in the vigorous flower of their youth-- into that meat-grinder. 

And hate me if you must, but the sight of a bunch of rail-thin, five-foot-two-in-heels women marching around with machine guns and infantry gear didn’t actually inspire me to get lost in the narrative. 

I know it’s meant to empowering but it just gives it all a LARPy vibe. Maybe it would have been better off with some actresses who have a bit of meat on the bone.

If haven’t seen the film you’ve probably seen the trailers so you know in advance that the Shimmer is ass-raping Mother Nature sideways and cooking up all kinds of alien freakiness, both wondrous and horrifying. The wondrous stuff is pretty, whimsical and psychedelic and the horrible stuff is really friggin’ horrifying. 

Small wonder this film was written and directed by a Garland. If you get my meaning.

So yeah, the plot isn’t exactly Byzantine. But the climax— which has Ventress and Lena enter into the belly of the alien beast (as it were) will probably get under your skin and stay there for a spell. 

Iceblink Bad-Luck

Suffice it to say their encounter with the Shimmer intelligence really, really looks like a Cocteau Twin video. Hell, there’s even a Twin involved.

You’ll get all kinds of flashbacks here— Aliens, The X-Files movie, Stranger Things— but the sequence has its own unique energy and feels sickeningly plausible. The ending is lifted straight out of Soderbergh’s Solaris remake but I love that movie so it didn’t grate on me. 

Though I did chuckle at bit at the eyes gag. That was the best they could do?  

And as a lot of other wags have pointed out Annihilation is essentially an adaption of Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space," which is fine by me because that's one of my favorite stories of his. I'm not exactly sure it has a Lovecraft vibe-- there are actually women in it, for example-- but I think fans will grok it all nevertheless.

And interesting that Annihilation takes place in northern Florida, where Lovecraft's, um, protege RH Barlow lived. 

So where does this leave us? Well, like I said I kinda see this movie as nonfiction. It’s kind of a fairly-accurate representation of what the world is going through now, only with a few macguffins thrown in and the boring parts taken out (more or less). 

I realize a lot of you out there see everything going on in the world as essentially ordinary but I keep asking myself that if this planet was in fact being colonized by an alien force with a different biology (if it had a biology at all) and a different scale of time how would it all be any different? 

I'm having one hell of a time trying to answer that.

As I’ve explained here the technological explosion of the past 70 years has absolutely no precedent whatsoever in history and as such there is absolutely no reason to believe it’s actually natural and indigenous. 

I’m sure a lot of folks out there may have trouble with that but I’m not here to hold your hand and tell you everything is going to be OK. 

Science and technology is fucking with absolutely everything everywhere with not one clue of what the long-term effects of that may be. Major chains in the ecosystem are under unprecedented assault and that includes the food chain. 

Birth rates and sperm counts are plummeting everywhere, fish and amphibian populations, as well as pollinating insects, are endangered. And we still haven’t seen what 5G radiation is going to do to us. 

Depression, mental illness and substance abuse are inarguably pandemic and the dumptruck loads of chemicals we’re exposed to everywhere all the time are changing our genetic structure.

The thing I keep thinking about is our wheat. Wheat was once the mystery of the Mysteries, the staff of life, the world's staple. Now it’s been so hybridized and manipulated that at least one prominent scientist has called it the “perfect chronic poison.”

Not a still from the next Ghostbusters movie

I’ve brought this up before but I need you to realize this; the level of technology in say 1718 CE was not considerably different from that of 1718 BCE or 3018 BCE, for that matter. Technology and science ebbed and flowed. Some prowess was gained, some was lost. But overall, it was pretty steady.

But in this century, we went from biplanes made of wooden sticks and duck canvas to the SR71-Blackbird, which is still the fastest conveyance ever created by a wide margin.  We’re talking a period of six decades to go from a minnow to Moby Dick, technologically speaking. From the abacus to AI. From the telegram to the iPhone. 

That's not a leap, it's a Millennium Falcon-hyperspace Kessel-run. In three parsecs.

The real-world Shimmer?

Some think this was all part of normal human evolution. Or claim to, at least. I think by this point, with the techno-honeymoon over and the Cylons now rising from the Abyss, that most intelligent people know in their hearts there’s simply no way. No way in Hell.

So far the war between us and these unknown archons is a rout. But that doesn’t mean it will always be. Human beings have seen off far worse in the past. We’re devilishly clever and resourceful creatures.

But until we realize it’s no longer science fiction, it’s no longer speculation, it’s no longer a game, I doubt humanity as we know it will make it to the end of the century. And a lot of people a lot effin' smarter than I’ll ever be believe the very same thing.



So, you want to keep the Sun shining? Here's how you can do your part: buy yourself a copy of He Will Live Up in the Sky at these fine book-mongers. 

Buy early and often!