Annihilation: Movie Review

It is out of my fierce love and a bizarre loyalty to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy that I write the following response to the movie adaptation by Alex Garland.

I tend to love movie adaptations and think of them as their own artistic endeavors, free of any responsibility to follow or exactly portray the book it stemmed from. For me, adaptations add dimension, complexity, and thus, enjoyment to a book by giving me insight about how the book and it’s plot points, characters, etc. are interpreted differently by other people. Probably one of the best things about reading is the imagining that comes with trying to make sense of written words, and it’s always incredible to see how people imagine differently and how they realize that imagination for others to see. Many of my favorite books have been made into movies and I have mostly loved all of them! The Harry Potter movies (give or take a two…) East of Eden, Everything is Illuminated, and Wild, just to name a few.

This is the first adaptation I’ve ever seen that makes me understand people who passionately hate movie adaptations. If Garland hadn’t explicitly “based” this movie on the Southern Reach trilogy, I’m not sure I would have even guessed it was related. It wasn’t that names were different (or given at all), the plot was radically different, etc… but he took away so many of the things that I felt were vital to the experience of the book, the core values of the book itself, its’ very spine.

I remember reading Annihilation, the first of three book on countless subway rides and finally finishing it on a MetroNorth train, trying not to sob. It was the first time that I really felt like a male author had written from a female perspective and done so in a way that recognized what women can be… at least one of them. I loved the main character- “the biologist” in the books, Lena in the movie for her abundance of passion for her work and her lack of passion for other things in her life. Her husband disappears and comes back mysteriously in both the book and the movie and she goes to Area X in both as well, but in the book, it is out of a burning scientific curiosity and desire to explore, to be in that wild nature, whereas in the movie, we have yet again, the woman who’s life revolves around the man, and so she follows him, so she can save him. I guess it’s feminist that she goes so she can save him, but really, can’t a girl just make a decision because she wants to do something sometimes? Like in the book? Does she always have to be running to or away from or around a boy? In a flashback, Lena makes fun of her husband for thinking she might be pining for him when he goes on assignments, but in an earlier scene, we literally see her doing just that- she’s weeping while looking at a picture of her husband in her LOCKET. Who even has a locket anymore? There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, it just isn’t faithful to the book. The biologist in the book is curious about the place her husband went to… curious and passionate about the environment there, and far from sentimental and missing him, she goes almost jealously, greedy for the opportunity he had, only connecting to him in the vaguest senses when she’s there.

The visuals. Jeff VanderMeer is incredible at creating something indescribable by overdescribing. He piles words and descriptions on top of each other, heaps opposites, dualities, adjacent words, etc… using too many images and words to create unsettling, beautiful, spiritual images. Trying to see the things he wrote and to inhabit the world he created causes more imaginative exhaustion than I’ve ever encountered in my life. The things I saw and felt when pushed to my imaginative limits reading were things I’ll never forget. He trusts readers to try and when they do, what a gift they receive. Reading is one of the most incredible things because it pushes you to be creative and puts you in touch with the side of you that makes, that sees the unseen.

Garland’s take on a lot of the magical mutations, growths, unexplainable things of beauty and destruction in the movie can be summed up basically as rainbow colors washing everything, flowers on everything, and things being overgrown. The slight mutations which should be living breathing plants we’ve never seen are just flowers on the same branch that are different colors- they look like a bouquet at best, a piñata at worst. The door which is one of the most quixotic and enchanting things to read about is essentially a rainbow wall that they now call “the shimmer.” And a lot of the visuals of human skeletons overgrown with flowers and zombie bears/crocodiles are so cliche I actually rolled my eyes a couple of times.

Let’s see, what were some other weird inconsistencies… When her husband suddenly gets a Southern accent in the middle of the movie or when the soundtrack suddenly gets very 80’s at the end when someone in a full body rainbow leotard is suddenly birthed and starts mirroring all her movements… oh, and the end of the movie. She solved Area X like it was a thing to be solved and destroyed it. “Was it alien?” Yep. “A group just made it there a few hours ago, everything is ash.” I loved that it wasn’t clear for such a long time- could even still be argued that it isn’t clear in the books if the occurrence is from extra-terrestrials, or some kind of ecological mutation or accident. This whole trilogy seemed to play with our need as humans to narrate, understand, and unify everything. This need becomes so apparent when it meets things that refuse to be understood, unified, narrated. So for the ending to be so easy and even kind of “happy” …her husband’s double gets better and she’s secretly the double too- (it’s never mentioned but you know from the huge tattoo that’s obviously only on one character) the movie ends with them hugging, both of their eyes glowing because they’re changed from Area X… just seems like such a slap in the face to the books’ very intentional avoidance of closure and classification.

Most disappointing for me was a difference in how Garland and I interpreted what drives the characters in the trilogy. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character of the psychologist, given the name Ventress for the movie (has there ever been a name that tries harder to be formidably and importantly sci-if?) gives a whole monologue in the middle of the movie about how it’s in our DNA to be self-destructive and that’s what has driven them all to Area X. I interpreted the characters drive, human biology to be one that constantly chooses to learn…to be curious, to assimilate, and to explore, even in the face of destruction. It wasn’t that they wanted the suicide part of the mission, they wanted the mission so much they couldn’t let the suicide part of it stop them. Even Area X itself seemed to me a metaphor, a place that was learning and assimilating and not self-destructing, but self-making in the most stunning ways. For Garland to walk away with such a negative and doomed and honestly …kind of immature interpretation makes me imagine that he wrote the whole script while listening to Evanescence and drinking Mountain Dew.

Ok…the lighthouse was beautiful…I’ll give you that… there were a couple beautiful mutations, and some of the acting was really fantastic- especially by Gina Rodriguez. And of course, I’ll watch Natalie Portman in anything… but overall, I think I would have been disappointed in this movie, even if I hadn’t read and loved the books. I could almost forgive the lack of imagination in the visuals if it weren’t also for the lack of imagination when it came to women. He fails to understand that women can be passionately, emotionally intellectual, and instead reimagines every character as someone driven by emotional reasons instead of intellectual.

Last thing… am I excited there was a cast of 5 females and they were all playing scientists? Yes absolutely, of course. But it’s insulting when there are often movies with 5 men for there to be articles and acclaim talking about how “ambitious” it is for so many women to be onscreen. Sometimes, as a woman, I’m just so tired of having to be grateful for every little scrap of equality. This wasn’t enough, the director should have been a woman. There’s a chance it would have been a much better movie with a female at the helm… not because she’s female but because she could could understand and portray the subtleties of being female better. It doesn’t just matter the quantity of women in your movie, it matters the quality. The women were somehow such stereotypes. I wanted to see complex women. Not a longish episode of Sex in the Science City.

#Annihilation #Authority #Acceptance #SouthernReach #SouthernReachTrilogy #AreaX #AreaXTrilogy #JeffVanderMeer #AlexGarland #ExMachina #NataliePortman #JanetheVirgin #GinaRodriguez #scifi #WomeninScience #TheLighthouse


I lower myself

carefully into the space your body left, trying not to disturb the edges. Trying to fit perfectly within the boundary my love for you has made for me. How is it that before I met you, all I wanted was to be free and now I know you, I can only think about how to shrink and shrink and shrink so as to be small enough to be with you at all times, small enough to be your breath moving in and out of you, but always with and within you

lost is found

I’ve been roving a long time, searching and sleepless, entrails and gown emitting weak light. Everything a puzzle or punishment, an opportunity to sink deeper, stumble farther, hoping to find some mud or muck to glom onto my pulse, deaden it. When I saw you, I wanted to be seen by you, and that was important, because it was the first time in a long time I wanted to exist. I don’t mean to be dramatic, this is the truth. I thought when I met love, it would be a certain way. Would light me up and look at me a specific way. But it wasn’t the way you looked at me, it was the way you looked away from me, into the world. And you don’t light my brain on fire, or contain the flames which always threaten to drown me. There is no fire… no low singe or steady burn. Rather, when I see you looking at your computer or studying an item of interest, when your hands are on my body and we lay in bed looking at each other, I achieve that beautiful blankness, that total rest, the moment of cease-fire in a Kusama infinity room of synapses firing and instead of searching, I find.


So I finally did it- the one thing I only ever do when there’s someone consistently important to me and I wanted to wait until a Sunday or a Monday because it’s just easier to keep track of everything that way and then it can be the “beginning” in a way that adds to all the beginningness of everything about you and about me and about us, but instead, the days just kept passing and I got confused and CVS was closed one time even though they promised! they would stay open for me. Anyways, for a million tiny different reasons, I was only able to start on Wednesday and that makes sense because it’s a small example of how my world has changed with you now in it. How even time has shifted since I met you. And not just time, but space- the way my mouth now opens to expel sounds of laughter- the way my body isn’t afraid of openness. Yes, in a way, it makes perfect sense that the beginning of a week would now be Wednesday in the same way that maybe the beginning of living began the day I met you.



625 6th Ave, New York, NY 10011

I heard you knocking from a great distance, in my resin coated barrier pushed against the world, beached in a darkness of my own making. The sadness formed an armor of mucus which allowed me to stay inside, to keep shrinking, hollowing myself out, scooping myself out the way I scoop out jelloid face masks for others to sample. The cash register rings and another customer walks in, and still nothing registers, all the tears crystallized in an orb hung delicately between my breasts, spun from shattered shards. Still, you kept knocking and the me that lives in me, guardian of the orb saw a bright green light. I can’t look away, magnetized by the fierceness and puzzlement in this light, caught in a web of its subtle changes. A simpler way of putting this would be that when I met you for the first time, you were looking into the distance, and I realized I wanted to be there, where you were looking.

Being good

I think I’m getting to a kind of understanding with the you I have in my mind. There are lilacs on a wall and I can’t tell if they are real or netted fabric or if anything is real or just netted fabric and I stroke them a few times and try to feel the grids that fasten the earth together. I am my most me when I am curious in this way and alone, and I wonder if what you needed was just the ability to see something like lilacs on a wall and to be interested in it enough for the roar of the rest of the world to quiet down. But you are too permeable, the world and its desires passing through you, you aren’t a consumer, just consumed and it ravaged you to not have a center. Your changing shapes directed themselves at me but I can only see the netted grids of lilacs and that can help me, but it won’t help you the way you wanted, and anyway, you’re just an entitled male who is incapable of seeing how your obsession with being a good person is keeping you the worst, so self-interested in your goal to lack self-interest. We are all pawns for your performance of empathy in which you confuse being good for being better than being yourself.

Gabriel Kahane: 1890 Book of Travelers, thoughts

Two nights ago, I saw one of the most beautiful and thoughtful performances I have seen in a long time and I wanted to write about the experience and how it spoke to me as a musician and human existing in this time of political and societal unrest.

The story goes (from the BAM website): The morning after the 2016 presidential election, singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane packed a suitcase and set out for a two-week train trip across the US with no phone or internet, embracing 8,980 miles of a reclusive Amtrak existence.”

 (Kahane also wrote a beautiful article for the nytimes about the experience of writing this album which I recommend- certainly more than reading the rest of my post! You can find it-
This album is perhaps one of my favorites in the recent trend of reinterpreting what albums can be. It is to music what Sarah Silverman’s I Love You America is to comedy in its attempt to start a personal dialogue with those we consider other. It is an ode to slowness and the experience of time as necessity for deeper enjoyment and understanding of music, landscapes, and people. There is almost nothing more like any music album and its many tangents than the equally fluid wandering of transitioning landscapes on a train. As a culture, we have begun to lose a sensitivity to the unfamiliar, both in thought and in place. With this album, Kahane continues his work in breaking apart the compartmentalizations of “genre”… the ones that hold classical music and other kinds of music apart from each other. It is only fitting that he uses his unique melding if genres to also break apart ideas, expectations, and limitations (his and ours.) And while different traditions and kinds of music speak to each other in his compositions and songwriting, so do different cultures and people in this particular project.

I think if I could have done something similarly after the election, I would have. But I know my desire would have been for escape- Kahane and I would have the same actions, but towards very different ends. He had dozens of conversations with people of vastly differing backgrounds and beliefs from his own. He became homeless for a couple weeks to find the greater shared American home. This was a project about rejuvenating our ability as a society to communicate; a project about connection, the kind deeper than our media allow us to have. I still haven’t recovered from this election in many ways- I check my Facebook at a maximum of one time a day, usually just logging on to post a haiku, afraid of what I’ll see, what I’ll believe. Afraid of the further polarization of our world, and the subsequent diminishing of understanding between disagreeing parties. There are many inspiring, wonderful, and hilarious things on the internet to be sure, but since the election, there has also been the constant unearthing of apathy and negligence for truth, lack of desire to understand, quick and often misdirected anger, and a troubling virtuous stench from both sides. Instead, I spend most of my time with things I don’t understand- be it reading books I deem too difficult for my understanding, or listening to music which has no prescribed way of listening. Classical music, with it’s (often) lack of words and thus, openness to interpretation is at least one certain antidote to the binary thinking Kahane tries to eschew with his project of meeting and listening to people from other cultures and societies. What better than the slowness of a train and the slowness of really getting to know someone to express the slowness of music which has been described as time unfolding? Because certain things depend on you to an extent- you can read faster or walk faster, but to enter an experience of music, and any kind of public transportation, is to surrender your control of, arguably the most important thing we have in this life… time.  

Not to say this album is all wonderful connective tissue for the broken belief sys-limbs of Americans solely in a warm and fuzzy way. There is also much sadness and frustration about what it means to be an American now and in the context of history. One song in particular, “William Eggleston’s Sky” which used electronic loops and voice distortion started quirky, became beautiful, hilarious, and subsequently terrifying. Lights were slowly turning on throughout the song and by the end, the audience was suffused in a mass of different colored lights, lit up together. It was simple, but effective staging… I was, by the end overwhelmed by the music and the slowness of the attention of the lights. I found myself crying and felt so connected to my fellow citizens in the audience- all of us in this shared numinous experience. MASSMoCA wrote that this album is “A meditation on the beautiful terror of getting lost in an unfamiliar landscape” I would disagree and say it’s almost the opposite- a meditation on the beautiful terror of finding yourself and the others who are with you and creating a community in an unfamiliar and fractured societal and political landscape. In this way, it was almost a spiritual experience. The album has reinterpreted hymns with simple, devastating, and often very unexpected harmonies, infusing the experience with a deep spiritual and secular love for our shared humanity.

Kahane created a shrine to one of the most quintessentially American things, the train being a spine that historically shaped our country as much as it helped us navigate it. Nostalgia has been under fire for being one of the reasons we are in our current predicament, with phrases such as “Make America Great Again” at the center of that accusation. Kahane radically redeems nostalgia by using arguably the most nostalgic elements of American to show us the real greatness of America- this album is a survey and map of the American people as they exist now, in all their beautiful contradictions, complexity, and inability to be reduced.

I’m always looking for how art and public discourse can intersect better. Seeing this performance convinced me more than ever that Arts’ place is with the people. It is the job of the artist to meet people where they are and to talk about the things that are happening in the world, affecting everyone a massive scale. And as I cried and laughed and traveled everything in between, I realized that what I most value in Art is the balance between irreverence and sincerity. My favorite artists tend to be the ones who are their own biggest skeptics, be it Franzen finding his way in China as a way out of his prejudice, or Kahane finding his way in nostalgia as a way out of desperation. What I really learned is-

real musicians listen,
Ling Ling

#brooklynacademyofmusic #gabrielkahane #bookoftravelers #MASSMoCA