A still from Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' music video.

For several hours every night, I find myself living in what history may record as a remarkable side-alleyway of our present layered crises: the memetic plague of amateur fireworks that first gripped cities across the United States several weeks ago, and which remain in full force as I write this. My own neighborhood appears to be a local focus of this activity, surrounding me in window-rattling airbursts every night from just before sunset to sometime after 2 AM, night after night.

As I also find myself between jobs at the moment, I have shifted my sleep-schedule forward by a few hours to accomodate this unexpected symptom of the lockdown. (Not to enjoy it better, but to disallow the exploding shells, which often fly screaming from a neighboring rooftop or alleyway, from continuing to slap me awake.) I don’t feel like sitting at my desk during these unasked-for wee hours, so I wash dishes, browse my bookshelves — and I watch movies, with a circumstantial penchant towards the negatively enegetic, dark or creepy or angry. Thus my backdrop last night for seeing Annihilation, Alex Garland’s 2018 adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy of horror novels.

And here, by the way, we find a Fogknife first: returning to comment on the film adaptation of novels whose reading I recorded here years ago. (The film takes its title, setting, and characters mostly from the first book, but mixes in concepts from all three.) The closest I’d come before involved a post about Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which I watched immediately after reading its own source-novel. The thought occurred to me, while watching Annihilation, that if I hadn’t read the novels and you told me it was actually an American remake of Stalker, I’d have believed you. This binds up all these works into one common mass of writhing, damp-smelling, spore-sprouting tendrils: delightful.

I recall critical reaction to this film that praised its unusual setting and characters but felt let down by its inscrutably dreamlike final act. I assert that they got it all backwards. The best parts of Annihilation, which mostly come in the final act, make for an amazing music video featuring the otherworldly electronic squirms of Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. The whole work should have contained itself within twenty minutes, compressing its storytelling down to exist entirely within in the interstices of the music. I would note that The video for Ladytron’s “The Animals” contains the first “Based on the novel…” credit I’ve noticed in that medium, implying room for plenty more novel-to-music-video adaptations.

Alas, Annihilation’s filmmakers felt the need to stretch its runtime to a full two-hour length, and the movie suffers for it. I found the first act a particular slog, slow-walking its setup of the protagonist’s background and motivations that neither requires nor achieves any real complexity. Where the novels get to the weird stuff very quickly, the movie’s lengthy sequence leading up to the doomed party finally mounting its venture into the alien-scarred wetlands feels wholly unnecessary.

Once it finds its boot-sucking footing in its true setting, the movie gets a lot more comfortable with itself, becoming stranger and scarier by rapid degrees. At last it rises to a truly delightful crescendo I’d never have predicted, including the introduction of what may become one of my all-time favorite movie-monsters, who grabs the soundtrack and pulls it around itself as the movie reveals its true form.

I’d love to see a cut of Annihilation that reduces it down to the true quarter-hour or so of its essence, keeping all its characterization intact while letting the alien horror of its soundtrack shine its terrible light throughout. While not at all a literal retelling of the VanderMeer novels, this movie recasts its concepts into a sensual delight whose flavors I’ll well recall despite its unfortunate dilution.

This article was also posted to the “movies” section of Indieweb.xyz.

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