Wednesday 4 April 2018

The Question in Bodies #7: Annihilation (2018)

Sometimes having read the book first can be fatal for having seen the film version. I'm assuming you've seen it too, by the way. If you haven't this post will ruin it.

I'm strongly of the opinion that adaptations need to be their own thing, and to adapt the message of a story (rather than the exact details of the plot).

But sometimes, a film doesn't represent a book, or can't represent a book, and maybe it's that the book can’t even be done filmic justice. Sometimes, a film adaptation just doesn't bear much resemblance to the original. Some books arguably don't deserve filmic justice, and there's something to be said for the deliberate anti-adaptation, a film that undermines the novel. Take Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997), your opinion of which is inversely proportional to your view of Robert Heinlein’s space opera, since Verhoeven, a man whose early childhood was spent in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands and whose opinions on the subject are strong, clearly looked at the source material and thought, “This is evil” (and I'm with Verhoeven – his version of Starship Troopers is a thing of rage and humour, a brutal satire on the source material, and on Western military imperialism). Or Pasolini's Salò. Where the director identified a book that shared the undertones of fascism and used the text to demonstrate the demonic evil of fascism with spitting, righteous rage, transforming a text identified by the director as evil into a representation of evil. Pasolini arguably died for it.

But more often a nonadaptation is an accident. A particularly powerful example is David Lynch’s Dune (1985), a film which is formative to me and for which I have a perverse but abiding love, and which has among its many flaws entire subplots that come from nowhere (weirding modules?) and an ending that carries the exact opposite subtext to Frank Herbert’s novel – not different, saying a diametrically opposed thing – and not even as far as I can tell intentionally. It just seems to have wound up that way.
The epicentre, but not in the same way.
Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel Annihilation is something else again. It bears so little resemblance to the source material, it's functionally an entirely different story.

And having read – and loved – Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, my first watch through of the film Annihilation was an uncomfortable experience, since the film went nowhere even close to the sites of the novel. Right from the very first (programmatic) sentence:
The Tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp, and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.
Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation, chapter 1

There's no Tower in the film, and none of the things inside of it. There's no base camp, no trap door.

The elements common to both film and book are these: a biologist’s husband was missing, presumed dead, having gone – at the behest of an agency called the Southern Reach – on an expedition into a region where an environmental catastrophe of undefined origin is has occurred. He comes back, without any explanation of how or why or where he's been in the intervening months, oddly distant and blank. Men come and take him away. The biologist volunteers to join the next expedition. This expedition is led by a psychologist. Among the things they find are a lighthouse, which is the epicentre of the catastrophe, and the remains of a village where the protagonists find plant growths that resemble people in shape and structure. As the story progresses, we flash back frequently to moments in the relationship of the biologist with her lost husband, and in both versions, the biologist admits at some point that his going missing, and coming back, still missing, is a motivation for her joining the expedition.

Virtually no other points of commonality exist. No one in the novel has a name, with the partial exception of "Ghost Bird", the protagonist. The film's Lena (Natalie Portman) bears no other resemblance to the enigmatic Ghost Bird other than a professional interest in biology; the other members of the expedition are entirely new characters (the expedition doesn't even have the same number of personnel).
The Shimmer, or the reaction to it.
The psychologist is clearly not the person we find she is in Authority and Acceptance, the second and third books of the Southern Reach trilogy. Authority does reveal that the psychologist is, as in this film, the director of the Southern Reach, and has joined the expedition for not entirely dissimilar reasons to the character in the film. But she has a different name (sort of – the book supplies her with a Christian name; the film with a surname).

The expedition members will go to different places, do different things. They will encounter different monsters. This is more than just a different ending. The name of the facility on the border of the region has changed. The name of the region is different. Even the significance of the title has changed.

And to some extent, I can understand why, since much of that first novel is admittedly unfilmable: partly it's because it's so weird that the budget couldn't handle it, and partly it's because so much of it is internal, occupied with the self-revelation of Ghost Bird, who isn't a filmic character, frankly. The novel's ending is too abstract to put on film, and so the film requires something entirely new.

When the novel is as beautifully written, compelling and transformative as Jeff VanderMeer’s original, it's a hard gravitational pull to escape. It's been striking how clean the divide is among the people I know with respect to Annihilation: those who have not read the book have been generally positive, while those who have read the book have not.

The business of adaptation is to preserve the spirit of an original, not the letter; a novel, for the screenwriter, is a law to interpret, and laws are more rarely clear-cut than we may think.

(And I've been thinking about this recently because I'm having a go at doing exactly this right now, and it's not straightforward, oh no.)

Does Annihilation preserve the spirit of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel? Not exactly But it's not incompatible with it. It's adjacent. In that sense the relation of the film to its novel is not unlike that of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) with the Strugatsky Brothers’ original novel The Roadside Picnic, which is of course one of VanderMeer’s touchstones and which has a similar basic premise. The difference of Stalker from its source material is especially interesting when you take into account it was the Strugatsky Brothers wrote the screenplay too, but that's a whole other article on its own.

Annihilation the film, then.

Lena (Natalie Portman, as I said), a veteran of seven years in the army, now teaches biology at Johns Hopkins. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), still a soldier, has been missing for a year; he turns up, mysteriously, dazed and blank, but before much can be said, he begins to cough blood. Both he and Lena are spirited from the ambulance by black clad special ops men and taken to Area X, a facility on the border of the Shimmer, an uncanny environmental catastrophe. Lena volunteers to join the next expedition, with the approval of psychologist and Director of the Southern Reach, Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who will lead the expedition. She thinks perhaps that she will find something that might save her husband, who she is told is dying of catastrophic organ failure. While the previous expedition were soldiers, the members of this all-women expedition are scientists.

Not a whole lot is made of why this expedition is all-women.

Alex Garland’s last film, Ex Machina (2014), made its stand on the commodification of artificially sexualised feminine bodies by, you know, commodifying feminine bodies, and I think that wasn't intentional, it was just an unfortunate engagement with the tropes of fembots on film. Here, it's a lot better. Women are joining the scientific expedition because they're the best scientists for the job. Anja (Gina Rodriguez) is gay, but it's only referenced because she hits on Lena, and she hits on Lena because she's off to the Shimmer in a few days and feels she's going to get in every chance she can, and that's an entirely human impulse, and a good character moment, and a natural lead in to a conversation about the expedition, and none of those things are remotely bad choices. Having said that, in the book, both Ghost Bird and the psychologist are Asian and indigenous respectively, on an expedition with two white women, whereas in the film two of the other members of the expedition are non-white while the protagonists are white. 

All-women or not, an expedition is planned. When Lena discovers that Ventress is leading it, she asks Ventress why she's going, and Ventress explains that it weighs on her, sending people out there to never come back, and that she doesn't know what's in there, and in musing on this Ventress assesses that Lena is on paper just as qualified to join.

They walk into the Shimmer. And then the scene cuts to them getting up and having breakfast; we learn that the cut is, in a neat conceit, their own experience. They have been here for days, but none of them remembers the intervening time.

(In a way, this is the experience of all fictional characters. In fact, they cease to exist between scenes; in most films they might talk as if they were conscious and doing things in the time in between, but this is a lie. In Annihilation they are aware of the fact that they have not been real in that intervening time. They have dropped out of the world. They have always been fiction's, but their dawning awareness of their status as fictions, at the mercy of an author who can transform them any way this author sees fit, and this endangers them as people.)
Returned but still missing.
Within the Shimmer, they find that living things, matter and energy are all changed, transformed, or, as physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) observes, refracted and reflected. We see mutant wildlife, and people transformed into plant matter. And people duplicated. We see video evidence of the last expedition.

With the dawning realisation that they're all beginning to transform into something else, the expedition falls apart much as the last one did – one gets dragged off by a beast and killed, one turns on the others only to fall full of the wildlife, one literally walks out of the narrative and ceases to exist as an independent being. Lena penetrates to the heart of the Shimmer, and finds what is, for want of a better descriptor, its source. Here she also finds evidence that the figure who returned to her was not in fact her husband.

Lena meets her own doppelganger, a balletic creature that reflects her movements and gradually her shape.

Using explosives left behind by her husband’s expedition, Lena destroys the doppelganger and blows up the lighthouse, and this apparently causes a chain reaction that causes the Shimmer to dissipate.

Lena returns to the Southern Reach. She is interrogated by men in hazmat suits and reunited with her husband, actually her husband’s doppelganger, who is miraculously healed of his condition. She goes to him and embraces him.

And the sudden healing of Kane’s supposedly mortal organ collapse – and Lena’s return to the outside world, or the inside world, even though it has already been declared that she has become a creature of the Shimmer – in fact suggests that things might not be as they seem.

The most logical implication is that the doppelganger Kane’s body collapsed in on itself because he is a creature of the Shimmer, and he has left the Shimmer, and without the glassy oil-on-a-puddle distortion the Shimmer, he cannot survive.

But if he's disconnected entirely from the alien forces that have made the Shimmer happen, by their removal from the earth, what will happen?

Perhaps without the otherworldly influence of the place, he must become a creature of the earth, and Lena too must be pulled back by the gravity of an unrefracted world into an unrefracted self.

But why then does Lena, who cheated on her husband with a colleague while he was away, and resisted being replaced in the Shimmer, go to this being who is not her husband and so tightly embrace him?

To what extent is this her husband?

I think that the idea that you could destroy this phenomenon with a couple of phosphorus grenades, deployed in an area where they have already been used, doesn't make much sense. Granted, the Uncanny doesn't make sense by definition but the Uncanny also doesn't tend to disintegrate when you hand it a grenade. That's not an uncanny thing to do.

The Shimmer reflects and refracts matter; it refracts the forms of life and self; it refracts energy. And I wonder if perhaps this energy and light deployed in the centre of the Uncanny might in fact not have destroyed the Shimmer but has in fact upended it, created in it a lens through which the whole world is passed.
The border.
Lena, then, in returning to the facility, does not cross the border, because the border is gone. Everything is inside the Shimmer. And so the second Kane is no longer separated from it, he is cured. Lena, now a creature of this place, remains whole. The apparent stand of humanity has become the first site of the Apocalypse.

In the moment where Lena discovers the central site of the Shimmer, and finds that Ventress is already there, colonised by it, Ventress describes a vision of the future.
Ventress: I needed to know what was inside the lighthouse. That moment has passed. It's inside of me now.
Lena: What's inside you?
Ventress: It's not like us. It's unlike us. I don't know what it wants. Or if it wants. But it will grow, until it encompasses everything. Our bodies and our minds will be fragmented into their smallest parts, until not one part remains. Annihilation.

But human identity, in a sense, tends to this state anyway.

I can't help thinking of Dylan Thomas’s poem “And death shall have no dominion”, which posits an atheist spirituality, where the persistence of matter assumes that in some way we shall persist, our identities lost, and that our bodies shall return to the universe:
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Thomas' poem is Lucretian, takes this as hopeful. Ventress sees it as a horror. It amounts to the same thing, though, doesn't it?
Though they go mad, they shall be sane/though they sink through the sea, they shall rise again.
What happens to us if a cataclysmic event, like so many of the events promised and threatened in the last few decades, alters the state of the world and brings an end to human consciousness? What of us shall remain?

The Uncanny is a shorthand here, a metaphor for a future that, with the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight, seems all too plausible.

Lena recognises that, I think. I don't think she averts the end. I think she's brought it to bear, and, a creature of the Shimmer, returns to the other creature of the Shimmer, one that came to her because she was “recognised”. Which again suggests, what consciousness remains?

While the body and identity horror of Garland’s film is more muted and easily comprehensible than VanderMeer’s book, the question remains, who are we in the face of the unknowable? And what will the unknowable do to us?

Does something of Sergeant Kane survive in the man who came into Lena’s house from nowhere? Has he been preserved by the Shimmer? Has Lena’s dark enlightenment made her aware of that? Does she know that she has brought the end to everything?

Does she care? It doesn't matter. There is no Shimmer, because the transformation of the entire world is underway in that fictional world, as it is in the real world.

In that respect, perhaps Annihilation is closer in spirit to Jeff VanderMeer’s original text than I initially thought.

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