It Might Be a Classic, and I Might Even Like It

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My memory of the excellent novel by Jeff Vandermeer is shaky, but not THAT shaky. ANNIHILATION really is a case of a major book “inspiring” a big-budget movie. The director/writer Alex Garland is no slouch with a pen, and he wrote a loose adaptation of the book, with little worry about being faithful.

The result is an impressive attempt to bring an adult sensibility about life and love to a story of a quasi-military mission into a distorted region that may be a case of first contact with an alien life form. It’s part of the wave of mainstream non-action SF, and would appeal to fans of CONTACT, INTERSTELLAR and THE ARRIVAL.

Natalie Portman is very good as the lead, but Jennifer Jason Leigh really holds the screen as a scientist leading the expedition into “The Shimmer,” a region affected by a meteor strike, resulting in mutation of plants and animals.

Like The Zone in Tarkovsky’s STALKER, The Shimmer is a place of wild vegetation. This being a Hollywood flick, there are also mutated animals a.k.a. monsters. The encounters with these are highlights. I can imagine people talking about movies they’ve seen bringing this up, and in less than ten seconds someone says, “And what about that BEAR thing? That was messed up!”

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“You first.”

This has a small cast for a movie with such scale. That the team is made up of women is brought up and dispensed with in probably three seconds. We get snapshots of each of these people and understand who they are and why they’re interested in The Shimmer.

Where the movie goes off for me is in the reaching of the heart of The Shimmer. STALKER dealt with this issue by not penetrating the mystery, and making the reasons why the characters choose to NOT go into the room they’ve come to see the whole point–WHY would they not go in? You can only play that card so many times, though. ANNIHILATION climaxes with an encounter with the alien life inside The Shimmer, in a kind of biological version of the 2001 Star Gate sequence. Like another Tarkovsky, SOLARIS, the alien is TRULY alien; unlike something like STAR TREK, here the alien remains totally Other and incomprehensible. After discovering what happened/is happening to those who tried to explore The Shimmer before her, Portman confronts and interacts with the alien/aliens. We’re left with an “Is she or isn’t she?” ending, but it was like Garland shrugged and said, “Whatever.”

Worth seeing? Definitely. A masterpiece I’m too slow to grasp? Probably. But there’s something missing that makes ANNIHILATION feel thin, to me.

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I like Wilson Tucker’s titles. THE LONG LOUD SILENCE is a grim post-apocalyptic story about plague victims quarantined in a ravaged America. It originally climaxed with the hero eating the heroine, but that bit didn’t make it to the published book. (Harlan Ellison’s A BOY AND HIS DOG came out over a decade later.) It was runner-up to Alfred Bester’s THE DEMOLISHED MAN for the first Hugo for Best Novel.

Tucker published twenty books and some short stories, but he never really made the big time like some other lesser writers. His biggest success was his award-winning novel of time travel and race war.

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Biblical scholar Brian Chaney takes part in a time travel project. The U.S. president insists the project go forward so Chaney can come back and tell him if he’s re-elected in 1980. Two military men go forward, but Chaney, who goes last, ends up arriving earlier in time than the other two. There he learns the president has won by using racial tensions, specifically in Chicago, which he has divided with a wall.

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Chaney and the other two go forward again. Cheney ends up in 1999, when America in the middle of a race war, a big topic in the early seventies. This was written in a time when political novels were written not about Democrat vs. Republican so much as about the actual issues parties fought about. You don’t have to think hard to figure out the positions of parties in Wilson’s imagined future, but Wilson goes beyond “Look at how bad Those Guys are!” Chaney goes into the future again and sees the further fallout from President Meek’s actions.

The major subplot involves Cheney’s love for Kathryn, the woman who recruited him to the project. It’s low-key and believable, and shows another angle on the time travel concept.

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YEAR OF THE QUIET SUN is not about action, not about spectacle. The characters are well-drawn and believable, and we learn about them gradually. The big reveal is hinted at early on but is blown by Michael Whelan’s cover for one of the reprintings. It’s as significant as the ending to Charles Willeford’s PICK UP, in its way, and makes you think about what you’ve been reading in a new way.

The tone of QUIET SUN is similar to that of the movie IDAHO TRANSFER, which you might not have seen, so I’ll have to write about that soon. Meanwhile, if you want a slow-paced novel of time travel and race, THE YEAR OF THE QUIET SUN is worth reading.


Even Minor PKD Ain’t Bad: VULCAN’S HAMMER

Surprisingly accurate cover. No, they’re not killer flashlights.

Having read some of his earliest stories recently, I’m a little more open to Philip K. Dick’s journeyman stuff, the stories he expanded into novels so he could feed his family. The pleasant surprise for me has been in watching PKD rapidly develop from a sci-fi writer into the guy who wrote PKD science fiction novels.

VULCAN’S HAMMER is from 1960. It’s a post-war world rejuvenated by giving all power to Vulcan 3, a computer that can build extra levels for itself. A bureaucracy sustains Vulcan 3, led by Dill, the only man who actually “feeds” info to Vulcan 3. There is a barely-defined opposition that’s been killing some of the bureaucracy that sustains the world government, but Vulcan 3 hasn’t been getting this intelligence.

Soon after an agent is killed by a mob (in the opening scene), the predecessor to Vulcan 3, Vulcan 2, is blown up. How? Who…or what…could’ve done that–and why? Why not just blow up the controlling model?

The plot follows Dill and one of his subordinates, a regional director named Barris who is being set up as a traitor. The paranoia stuff is a little cursory–yeah, I don’t trust you, well I don’t trust YOU–but this is kind of a kiddie version of PKD. I could see the young me reading it and wanting to read more of this guy’s stuff. (One of the leaders of the opposition has a child who seems to be a major character at first, then disappears into the re-education wing of the government…)

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The best cover for this book. I like that it proudly pushes the tape reel-level tech.

I’ll level with you: this ain’t great. Other books have dealt with these ideas in much more fluent, informed ways. PKD’s is clearly an expanded SF story, more about plot than the ideas. That’s too bad; I’d have liked the PKD of fifteen years later to take on what is admittedly one of those ‘power chords’ of science fiction ala Rudy Rucker.

Two books that handled the all-powerful computer running everything idea:

(Also, COLOSSUS, but I’ve only seen the movie, not read the book.)

But if you want a PKD fix and you’ve read everything else with 4-5 stars, it’s a fun way to kill a few hours (it’s only @160 pages).

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Not a great cover for this, but a nice generic PKD visual


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I Just Don’t Care About…

…musical scores for thrillers with piano. I didn’t say I’d have an explanation.

…the Olympics, or Olympiads spending their time talking politics. Yes, they have the right, but when you spout an opinion it should be based on facts.

…football. I watch the Superbowl when the hometown team plays, get really worked up, and then don’t think about it again until the next time they play the Superbowl. Unfortunately for me that team is the Patriots.

…what J.J. Abrams thinks about people who like a stupid space movie. Eff him and his sneering dwarf mug.

…that stupid space movie. A series that has been running on fumes since I was 14 is still of interest to people my age. That’s embarrassing.

…Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and other popcorn movies I’m supposed to like to signal I’m one of The Good People.

(Not Good GUYS, of course.)

…awesome fight scenes. My measure for fight scenes is believability. NOT realism. The action scenes with the slo-mo 300 shit make me laugh. They show off the star’s ability to follow their instructors. They look like they’re dancing.

(The Wild Bunch, Heat, various others)

…”Awesome CGI!”

Can you tell I’m still sick, and am sick of being sick?

…horror that involves knives/blades. That’s not horror to me. It has no connection to supernatural horror, which is what horror used to be. The movie Dracula was advertised as a ‘thriller’ in 1931, and the horror label as a commercial category has gone through its ups and downs over the years. Now it seems to mean “blood flowing as the result of attack by sharp object.”

God damn I’m in a bad mood. I’m coughing like an asthmatic.

…action scenes backed with songs. Even old ones.

…who am I kidding? I don’t like current movies. With foreign films, seventies films, 40’s, experimental, weird little horror things, there’s enough to keep me going without selling bottles of fresh blood to see some comic book movie.

…adults who see comic book movies.

I have the flu. Pity me.

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A Few Things I Like About ALIEN 3

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It is unapologetically about dying. There are ‘horror movies’ (ALIENS) and then there are horror movies that genuinely try to horrify (ALIEN). Someone involved–might’ve been the producers–claimed the movie follows Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of dying (grief, anger, depression, acceptance, getting the catering bill for the funeral after-party).

Horror movies put the audience stand-in under great stress, but in the end he or she often escapes after enduring shocks for two hours. ALIEN 3 is about a woman who, unfairly, has lost much to the alien, and COULD lose the last thing she has left, her life–and then she does. The movie is a messy, uncomfortable stumble towards the grave. Besides the inconsistencies in the script and execution, it has a great deal of misery, and very little in the way of comfort or hope, just like life ultimately is for all of us. In the end, Ripley manages a Pyrrhic victory in that she takes the alien down with her. But she doesn’t get much chance to savor that success, and she certainly doesn’t get away.

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The art direction. I have issues with some of it. Much of it is unique. Again, the movie goes all the way with its dour vision.


Elliot Goldenthal’s score is a noisy requiem mass, very prominent in the sound mix, not hiding as ‘background music.’ The score was LOUD in the theater, something mentioned in reviews at the time. On the Blu-ray extras the sound effects guys and Goldenthal disagree on some of the sound choices, not surprisingly. In an interview in Film Score Monthly, Goldenthal said that one consideration was to have ONLY music during the violent scenes, and I seem to remember hearing having NO score was also considered. The music is complex and oppressive, with the only moments of heroic, soaring release being scenes involving bodies being obliterated in fire. The music is brutal and fascinating, and it works beautifully with the imagery.


Sigourney Weaver’s performance is her best of the series. Ripley spends the movie suffering the worst case of morning sickness in the history of the galaxy. She is reeling from the despair of Newt’s death (Hicks not so much) and the horrors of prison life (another Hollywood prison inmate who’s innocent). THEN she finds out she’s carrying an alien queen and has hours to live. How she faces this could strike a viewer as too heroic, too unbelievably valiant. Weaver convinces us that she’s in shock, just trying to hold on until she can do this one last thing. That she’s tempted at the very end to let the company take over is a nice bit of writing–she’s got her head shaved Joan-of-Arc-style but she’s no saint, just saintly. If she could trust these people, she’d gladly pass this cup.

She can’t, so she doesn’t.

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Charles S. Dutton’s performance is the best supporting work of the series. Not as much fun as some of the supporting characters in the previous two, but heavy as sin. The members of the Nostromo crew are from a very different universe than this guy, and the Sulaco gang are like kids compared to this brutal rapist who’s found God. Dutton makes what could’ve been a caricature interesting and believable–I think there are a lot of men like this.

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The monster suit work is impressive. The suits in ALIENS look like Styrofoam forms glued on to performers; they lack the threatening, alive quality of the original. Here, the alien suit looks to be ridged with bones and sharp to the touch. The alien’s skin looks like it belongs to a frog that’s soaked in formaldehyde, or is off something coiled under an old board. It looks rotten.

The rod puppet is a different story, but the alien suit is the best of the sequels. The on-set effects are decent. The dog’s death and the alien’s yukky birth are effective. The alien hiding in the air duct is the equal of anything in THE THING for the look of something truly non-human.


Damaged Bishop‘s brief appearance makes me wish he had more screen time. He sets Ripley straight on her suspicions, and would be a welcome ally if he were in good condition. But he’s on his deathbed, and in keeping with the joy-packed story, Ripley performs euthenasia on him.

In the theater when I saw this you could tell the audience LIKED him (it) and felt a twinge when Ripley shuts him down. Then we’re stuck with glum bald English people.

The assembly cut is more of a dark science fiction movie about end time believers confronting an actual devil. Religious believers vs. a monster of science.

The Company people showing up add a curve ball to the climax. Just when Ripley’s accepting that she has to die, someone tries to tempt her with (false) hope from doing what she has to do. We’ve seen the silly Paul Reiser character and the brutal droid Ash, but this is the first time we’ve really seen what the company can do when they’re threatened. We know they’ve come to take an alien and kill witnesses. But since there’s just one they take him along so they’ve got something to show for all that mileage traveled.

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I don’t find many horror/SF movie fans who share my view of ALIEN 3. It has major problems that can impede appreciation of the great things in it. Most people either love its pessimism and edge or just hate it.

I’d love to read what other people liked about it. I’ll write about it again, because I find it fascinating. There are many movies I think are better that aren’t nearly as thought-provoking.



That’s me on the cover, trying to remember if I wrote about this movie already.

A movie so amber-hued it looks like it was shot through PISS CHRIST, Lars Von Trier’s THE ELEMENT OF CRIME is a very wet movie. The crime and the search are the armature on which Von Trier hangs his true interests: Scandinavians droning on in an apocalyptic orange glow. It swept the big Danish film awards, and it’s a unique neo-noir/dystopian meditation on the wetness that is existence. Or something.

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Blue? Someone probably got fired for that.

Detective Fisher tells his story in flashback to his Egyptian psychiatrist. In a waterlogged Germany, Fisher is on the cold trail of Harry Grey, a suspect in a string of child murders. He consults his mentor, Osborne, the writer of a book called The Element of Crime, who insists that Harry Grey is dead. Fisher goes searching for Grey because more murders are occurring. All the trails lead back to Osbourne, but Fisher keeps looking. Osborne is looking for Grey, even though he claims to think he’s dead, and is being threatened by Grey. Or is he? In order to find the killer, Fisher must risk–No! Yes!–entering the mind of the killer, thinking like the killer. You get the idea.

At least she’s dry.

The crime story is an excuse for some heavy spiritual navel gazing. The world is sinking into the rising waters, everyone’s a crook or a liar, and who really cares if some kids who sell lottery tickets are being killed when the whole world seems to exist in a state of perpetual, rainy night? The movie floats on a sound design of distant, vaguely Indian music and bursts of awkward lines (Actual line from the film: “I want you to screw god into me.”) while the characters float through the German dread. The standout scene of Fisher having sex on the hood of a Volkswagen while his partner holds onto the wipers (it’s raining of course) can’t break the film out of its weird emotional monotony. You either like this thing, or you hate it.

A respite from all the action.

David Fincher mentioned ELEMENT in connection to his visual style on ALIEN 3. I like Lars Von Trier’s earlier movies (I think ANTICHRIST might have put me off him forever), but I acknowledge this one is probably hard to take unless you like getting high in front of the tube at midnight. It has a druggy, narcotic quality, not something to see if you’re looking for a thriller. Tom Elling’s photography keeps the near-monochromatic from getting dull. Fisher, played by Michael Elphick, narrates in a gravelly drone that makes Harrison Ford’s BLADE RUNNER narration sound vividly alive.

Lars Von Trier. Kind of a dick.

If you love BR and ALIEN 3, you might dig this. It lulled me into a state of boozy melancholy. If the solution to the crime surprises anyone I’ll be shocked, but this is Von Trier at his artiest; any entertainment gotten by an audience of non-misanthropes is probably accidental.

More water! More water!