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Sunday 18 March 2018

The Strangling Fruit

I had no idea who Jeff Vandermeer was when I first saw the Annihilation trailer.

It had been suggested to me because, hey, I like my sf and my weirdness. I might see some value in it. So I watch the very first trailer that came out, then I googled the name, and then I immediately bought and devoured the book - first in the Southern Reach trilogy.

Then I had to wait the interminable gap between that point and payday to get the next TWO books, because not reading them at this point wasn't an option. They thoroughly grasped me - the writing style, the flow of the story, the mythology spun out of it, everything formed an experience that I didn't even realise I had been waiting for.

Getting to the end of that third book left me so hungry for the movie that the wait for it reminded me of when I was seven and Christmas was still two weeks ago.

And now it's here, and I have to report that the movie - which is on Netflix right now for a lot of folks but got a cinematic release in the US - is excellent.

The acting is understated, the performances all very believable - which, given the content of the movie, only adds to the feel of it - and the casting is exceptional. The five women fronting the movie all put in excellent work, including Natalie Portman, who I am not terribly fond of usually. They all have depth - they feel like real people. How they deal with each other feels real, too - and how they change, as the situation around them falls apart.

And it does fall apart. Unlike every other horror movie, though - this one isn't their fault.

That's a very common trope, amongst horror movies - in movies in general, in fact. That the thing that goes wrong, the bad situation that has to be resolved by the characters in the piece, happens because someone fucked up. Either it is incompetence, or a literal flaw in character. Slasher flicks often happen because the victims dare to exhibit lust. The xenomorph wouldn't have ever become an issue for humanity were it not for pride and greed, in that order.

None of that happens, in Annihilation - because we don't know why this happened. The setup is very similar to The Thing. The why is so much less important than the result. It's also not very important that we understand every part of it, because - oh hey, get this - the problem isn't a human one. It's very much a black swan.

What follows is a journey into a part of the world in which everything is going wrong. Actually, not wrong - just different - but to us...very wrong. It's rare that I see cinematography, prop work, sound engineering, all come together to achieve this in such a complete way. Passing into Area X, it is incontrovertible that the five women of the expedition have entered a place that is unnatural and irregular. There's some very obvious visual cues but some not-so-obvious ones too. Little things, subtle things that play on your mind after the fact.

Portman's character is a biologist, so she can explain why some of the flora and fauna they find is wrong as hell - but you feel it, just looking at this stuff. Plants that have multiple different flowers, different types of flowers, different styles of growth. It should leave you with a degree of unease - and you may not even know why. Just that what you are looking at isn't right, isn't the way it should work.

And that's before you ever meet the deer, or the bear.

I'm not going into why they are wrong. You'll find out.

I like unanswered questions. I like open endings. I like not necessarily knowing why a thing has just happened, just that this is how the characters in the movie are dealing with it. I like gorgeous shots that show you things that upset you but you don't quite know why. I like diegetic and non-diegetic sound engineering that leaves you thinking.

I like all of those things, and that's why I liked Annihilation, an awful lot.

You might, too.

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