Thursday, 26 April 2018

The Handmaid’s Tale - Someone will come for you.

The Handmaid’s Tale:  2x01 June.



This immediate thing, about this show: how close this horror feels. A constant tension, a constant feeling of dread, a perpetual sense that the worst is just about to happen, and how it isn’t, or at least, shouldn’t, be a relief that it happens to someone else. To be a woman in Gilead is to endure, to suffer, to wait – but also, to see others suffer, and maybe be grateful that this suffering isn’t ours. This is June, eating from a bowl of soup while other Ofglen’s hand is burned on an oven – but at least it isn’t her hand. But it could be hers. And these two feelings are everything. 
But there are other things to feel here. There is someone else’s hand, grasping yours while you make your way to the scaffold, not knowing what will await you there (when the lever falls, you should be dead, but you’re not, because this is a lesson to be learned: someone else is holding your life in their hands but has decided to spare you, and this is their power and you have nothing to yourself to respond to that). She thinks she will die, but then she doesn’t. The lever falls, but nothing happens, because this is a lesson taught by Aunt Lydia about faith and humility, and these people – all of them, collectively – can’t even conceive that you could no longer be receptive to any of that bullshit. There are two currents here – that the new generation will not remember what life used to be like, and therefore forget what you take for granted, but also that you have been so abused, so disillusioned, so far removed from any sense of normalcy, that all of this talk of god’s grace is entirely meaningless now. 
June eats her soup, because it means surviving. It is frustrating that her reason for survival is being pregnant, that the only way to have her own life respected in Gilead is being pregnant with a different life. But this is the world, and it’s been the world way before Gilead even came into existence. This is what this episode says. Days before the world fell, before a crazed gunmen gunned down Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill, before a bomb exploded in the White House, someone in Hannah’s school refused to call June by her real name, and days before the world fell, the nurse in the hospital called her by her husband’s name, repeatedly, even after being corrected, and then blamed her for not staying home with her child, for refusing to give up her career, for being one of those women who will give her child Tylenol and send her to school, even where the life of a child is sacred. In this new world, the life of a child counts for everything, and the life of the mother, once she has given birth, is measured by how many more children she will bear, not by her ambitions and dreams. 

Back in the day, before everything happened, after tying her daughter Hannah’s shoes and sending her off to school, June thought that she may want to have another child. In spite of the fact that she already needed her husband’s signature to fill her birth control medication. In spite of the fact that the world is already considering her less, incapable of making decisions about her own body, justifying taking possession of her body for the good of society. 
And now she is bearing a child, and it is giving her privilege, but it is also a burden on her shoulder, because as Aunt Lydia shows her: if she refuses to comply, Gilead has ways of truly making her nothing but a vessel for the new citizens, who will have no memory of before. This place only values the life of the mother in as much as they are carriers of new life, but not as people, not as individuals, not as persons with dreams and ambitions of their own. This is the thing, about The Handmaid’s Tale: that it is utterly rooted in the now, that it paints a picture of what would happen if all those people who think a woman is nothing more than her reproductive system, which does not belong to her, were utterly in power, with no checks and balances. 
And still, before she walks up the gallows, someone takes June’s hand. 
When Aunt Lydia says, Let This Be A Lesson To You, she doesn’t even realise that the only lesson to draw here is that the only way out is the rage and anger of all these women, caged together, made to walk together to their death, made to take part in each other’s pain and misery. 

June wanted a second child, but then Hannah got sick, and the school called her, blaming her for sending off her child sick, and the school called an ambulance, and the nurse sees fit to give her a lecture about how the fact that she refuses to give up her job endangers her child. While calling her by a name that isn’t hers, that she did not choose. And all of this is before the revolution, before Gilead happens. When the news roll in, June has to choose, literally, between comforting her sick child and following the news that will impact her life – and she chooses Hannah, because Luke won’t. Because Luke will stay in front of the TV, engrossed, with the luxury of having no care in the world, of not having been called by the school, of not having been referred to by the wrong name and lectured by a nurse. This is not a dystopian view of motherhood – it’s something that is happening, every single day, everywhere. 

Mrs Waterford and Mr Waterford inspect their new child, but then, June finds a key in her boots, and follows the rabbit hole down to a meat truck, which takes her away far enough, which saves her – a kind man says, someone will come for you, go in grace, and she hugs him. 

Nick says, take off your clothes, and cut your hair, and June cuts the tag from her ear, and bleeds profusely, because the price of freedom is blood and suffering. 

Random notes: 

Not enough has been, or ever will be written, about how utterly this show depends on Elisabeth Moss’ ability to say everything without ever raising her voice. 

I distinctly remember a twitter thread recently about how women are always the first to be called by their schools, even when the fathers of their children are listed as the first emergency contacts. This dystopia is very much rooted in reality – what happens when women are told that their bodies aren’t truly theirs, but belong to society? How far does it go? 

Links 26/4/18

Politics: 

More about the Gibsonian combination of cutting edge technology in an authoritarian polity willing to use it to its advantage: China is developing a "Social Credit System" that assigns a rating to each of its citizens. 
"It includes everything from rankings calculated by online payment providers to scores doled out by neighborhoods or companies. High-flyers receive perks such as discounts on heating bills and favorable bank loans, while bad debtors cannot buy high-speed train or plane tickets." 
Foreign Policy: Life Inside China’s Social Credit Laboratory, April 3, 2018
This is possible in a country where companies like SenseTime provide both surveillance and social media companies with its facial recognition software. 

Elsewhere, Peter Thiel's Palantir provides some of the massive data it collects and mines to law enforcement - and things could get worse in the future: 
As Palantir tries to court corporate customers as a more conventional software company, fewer forward-deployed engineers will mean fewer human decisions. Sensitive questions, such as how deeply to pry into people’s lives, will be answered increasingly by artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms. The small team of Privacy and Civil Liberties engineers could find themselves even less influential, as the urge for omnipotence among clients overwhelms any self-imposed restraints. 
Bloomberg: Palantir Knows Everything About You, April 19, 2018

Pop Culture: 

Amazon will be adapting William Gibson's The Peripheral into a television series (attached to the project are Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, who've worked with similar subject matter in Person of Interest and Westworld). 

An essay about how East Asian narratives differ from Western narratives with regards to content and style. 

Not really sure yet how I feel about this essay about how the rise of algorithms to provide us with suggestions for future purchases affect our relationship to style and taste (and if we should just surrender both to AIs and free up space for loftier goals), but there are some interesting ideas here

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Westworld - I have one last role to play: myself.

Westworld - 2x01 Journey Into Night.


Dreams don't mean anything, Dolores. They're just noise. They're not real. 
What is real? 
That which is... irreplaceable. That answer doesn't seem to satisfy you. 
Because it's not completely honest. 
The debates before the beginning of the second season of Westworld, which were a continuation of one that happened during its first season, raged about the value of the show beyond the titillation of the mysteries it poses. Beyond being a riddle, or, in more contemporary terms, beyond being a collection of spoilers that could be revealed to people not entirely caught up, what would remain of this show if the creators should reveal all of its secrets in advance of the episodes airing? 
Or, in other words, what would be the purpose of telling this story in three different timelines - openly, this time, rather than cloaked - if it isn't to disguise what the point is, and to reveal it slowly, as to keep people guessing? For no other reason than that something gets lost if the only reason to watch attentively and fully engaged is to find all the clues that lead to the resolution first. I think the ferocity with which the creators reacted to how specifically the season was discussed as it revealed itself means that their intention isn't a riddle for the sake of a series of clues, or for the sake of being smarter than the viewers, or creating a foxhunt for only the smartest of us the figure out before the lights go on, but to tell a story about human and non-human consciousness, a story about selfishness and empathy, about having a purpose and how that fits in with having free will (and many other things). 

So we begin this season with a debate about what is real and what isn't between, what we have to assume at this point, Arnold, and Dolores. It is a conversation that ties in well with a lot of other stories that have dealt with the question of human and non-human consciousness. Arnold (or Bernard, still thinking himself to be human, either of these work) speaks for human consciousness, which is defined by the fact that it ends in death, and is therefore irreplaceable. A sidenote to this is how the park works - that it permits hosts to be killed, but contains safeguards which hold human life sacred. How easily this programmed dichotomy can fall apart with a few little tweaks is one of the main visual cues in this episode - there are literal heaps of dead bodies, and there isn't much that distinguishes dead hosts from dead board members and guests once they've been reduced to corpses (in fact we see the minor difference between the current host models and humans when someone removes the data core from a host later in the episode). 
The person Arnold is having this argument with is bound to have a different perspective on his definition of reality. The hosts aren't human, and their consciousness isn't human, mainly because it isn't bound to a physical body. The hosts memories, experiences, thoughts and feelings can be assigned to different bodies, they can be adjusted willingly, they are manufactured rather than lived, but that doesn't make much of a difference when the result is the same - an identity that shapes actions. The only reason why Arnold can make this argument is because the rules of the park still work, because nothing has gone fundamentally wrong yet. Dolores knows that being irreplaceable isn't a complete definition of what is real because the hosts are by design replaceable. 

This brings us to the current moment in time, where Dolores roams the lands of the park with her army of misfits, delivering speeches to guests in which she points out how little distinguishes them from the hosts now that the park is no longer programmed to protect their lives. Now that everything has changed, she still possess the memories of her past roles, but she is also developing into something new - herself. She refers to this as playing a role too (and aren't we all, to some extent), but we don't quite know yet what the point of that role is, and what exactly Dolores is looking for. 
There's Maeve, who changed her mind just before she was about to leave for the outside, who came back to the command centre to locate her daughter. Her daughter, who maybe doesn't even exist (because maybe all that Maeve has is memories of her, so that the trauma of losing her could become one of her cornerstones). To her, this distinction between real and not real, between replaceable and irreplaceable, is just as pointless, and she is now the only (as far as we know) person remaining who is capable of giving commands to other hosts. The park is sheer chaos and rotting bodies, and the command centre is exactly the same, torn apart by sentient hosts and animals, with nobody left to press the buttons. 

Bernard guides as through two different places in time here - on the one hand, he wakes up after Dolores' massacre of Westworld's remaining creator and the board members and runs off with surviving Charlotte Hale, who turns out to be quite well-equipped for the post-apocalypse (for example, at some point, she replaces her heels with boots, presumably stolen from a dead body). Charlotte doesn't realise who Bernard is, and while he is damaged, and glitching, one of his main missions becomes hiding his identity from her, which becomes increasingly difficult, although being presumed to be weak and traumatised seems to help. Charlotte knows her way to a place within the park in which "drones" extract all the possible IP-protected information from hosts, which, if we remember back to season one, was her assignment - to smuggle the IP out of the park. It failed, because Dolores' father never made it out of the park, which is why whoever hired her is now not sending in an extraction team to save her (or any of the remaining board members in the park). We already know that two weeks later, an extraction team will arrive in the park, to find Bernard by himself, and just as unaware of his identity. At that point, Charlotte has disappeared - and more than that, once the team track down the location of the remaining hosts, they find a whole new ocean that can't really be explained by Robert's terraforming, in which - at least a lot, if not all - the remaining hosts has drowned. 

Of course, a lot more happens in this episode. The Man in Black, since revealed to be William, receives a new mission from boy Robert - and given the introduction to this episode, and Dolores' argument that the argument made was incomplete, we can perhaps assume that Robert, before dying (and his physical body is clearly dead), managed to upload himself into the park. This would be an interesting thought in particular considering how eager someone on the outside is to obtain the intellectual property behind how the hosts work - there are applications for this technology far beyond a theme park for rich people, and one of them may just be a form of immortality that truly undermines Arnold's argument about what makes humans more real than hosts. 
All of this comes down to a question that has never been explicitly asked on the show: what lies beyond the shores of Westworld? We know now that there are other theme worlds like Westworld, but we still have no clue where, geographically, Westworld is, even if it is on Earth. There are hints here of borders breaking apart and the outside moving in, like the wildcat on the shore that belongs to a different environment, and the soldiers arguing with the response team about who has sovereignty over this territory. The easiest explanation is the most mundane, that this is a landmass a corporate entity bought from some government for this purpose, but there are more interesting solutions that are possible, like - is this still Earth, and, what if all this debate about the distinction between hosts and humans is an ironic repetition of something that has already happened in the world that Westworld inhabits, and everyone is a host, but also not aware of it exactly because of how much at the core of human identity the idea of irreplaceability is? 
Robert's new game for William is the opposite of the maze - it's finding a door. It is also, in contrast to finding the centre of the maze, meant for William - who is dissatisfied not only because he has raising the stakes within the games by making death possible hasn't given him any kind of relief or purpose (he always must seek new thrills), but also because that game he had been chasing for so many years of his life was never meant for him. This one is. "The game begins where you end and ends where you began". 
It's an interesting game to play in a world that seems so devoid of an outside. We know that things come into Westworld - the photo that caused Dolores' father to glitch, the train that brings in guests, the board members and workers at the command central - but we have never seen that place. Presumably, William comes from that place as well. Could the door be a literal door, a way to escape the mayhem that has broken out now that Maeve and Dolores rule over this place? Is it a symbolic door, connected to how William only became who he is in Westworld, and lost parts of the person that he was before (he has already ended and begun here)? 

Random notes: 

I think maybe Dolores is very calculating in how she approaches Teddy, knowing precisely how much hope she needs to give him to keep him on board, unless there is a part of her that does want that impossible happy ending after all.  

Dolores here is starting to remind me of Echo in Dollhouse (I know, nobody ever talks about Dollhouse anymore except to mention what Dichen Lachman and Amy Acker accomplish in it, but there are plenty of parallels) - she remembers her old roles but she is also now someone different, a composite with its own identity. 

I don't want to speculate about the timelines too much, because it doesn't interest me a whole lot at this point, but obviously, Bernard awoke after the massacre without a watch and then, in the water, with one, and at some point in-between, he lost Charlotte Hale and somehow made an ocean appear where there was previously none (and wouldn't the only person able to bring all the hosts to that spot be Maeve, unless something changed in-between?). 

Really glad that in this year 2018, there was no way in hell Tessa Thompson wouldn't play a big role in this. 

Saturday, 21 April 2018

The Good Fight

We're living in a time of farce, not tragedy.


I came into this season with two distinctive conversations in mind. One started with a question about singular, outstanding performances. In my mind, I answered it immediately with examples of singular performances by actresses in films where they were, for the most part, entirely alone, not grounded in an ensemble. Maybe that is just the result of a lazy mind finding an answer to a hard to answer question – it is much easier to recognise the accomplishment of Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy, or Adepero Oduye in Pariah, or the protagonists in most of Olivier Assayas’, Christian Petzold’s and Claire Denis’ films (or Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, or Maren Eggert in Marseille), than to pick out someone in an ensemble doing something truly outstanding that elevates them beyond their surroundings. On the other hand, it is probably more a personal preference for films where such singular performances come from actors and actresses playing characters that are, on some deep and profound level, alone. 
The context of this is also that I’ve been watching both Jane the Virgin and One Day at a Time over the past few months, which are both shows that stand on the opposite side of this. Where the characters in the aforementioned films are profoundly alone and within themselves, the characters in these two shows constantly evolve and develop in the context of family. When conflicts arise and threaten to tear individual characters apart, the solution always brings them back into the fold. The source of meaning, and to an extent, identity, for the main characters in these shows, is always family. It’ the exact opposite of Six Feet Under, where characters develop, if anything, in opposition to their family, where they develop identities in a struggle against someone else, where the answer to the question of whether “everybody dies alone” always hovered, threatening to be resolved either way (in the end, I think, the answer was “no”, but the path there isn’t easy). 

So how does that connect to this season The Good Fight, an ensemble show, defined by brilliant individual performances that come together beautifully? I think that in spite of being an ensemble show, and in spite of the friendships that exist on the show, the characters are on some profound level, alone. And in this season much more than the previous one, the show finds moments to showcase that loneliness, and weaves it into the fabric of the story. 
The most obvious example of this is Diane’s tentative relationship with reality. There are so many scenes where she sits in a dark room, staring at a television screen in disbelief, losing the ability to tell apart actual news and fake news that her mind comes up with. It’s one of the main points this season makes, that in a world where it becomes impossible to apply logic and reason the question of whether a particular headline sounds real or fake, it also becomes very hard to make judgements about your own state of mind. Without Kurt, or anyone else anchoring her, Diane seems to lose her grip on reality. She changes her opinion that the law is, or at least should be, a stable column. She sometimes comes close to asking the question of whether she is suffering from an illness, if there is something literally breaking down in her body, but she never really shares that with anyone else, because as so many seasons of The Good Wife have taught us, any sign of weakness will usually be used against you. In a very real way, the news cycle, and the absurdity of politics in 2018, have uprooted and destabilised her, and there is nothing she can cling to. Lawyers are being murdered (Marissa finds a deck of cards on sale on an “Alt-Right” website that puts targets on each of the name partners’ backs), the news that President Trump is keeping a pig in the Map Room in the White House sounds plausible, a couple opposite her apartment keep dancing around and fucking in Trump masks. Which parts of this are real and fake has become impossible to distinguish, especially because we, the viewers, are trapped in Diane’s perception in those moments. There is no way of fact-checking reality anymore. The one thing to cling to is Diane’s laughter – a counterpoint, an admission that the only way of dealing with this four-year-situation that is reprogramming the body politic like a virus is admitting to the hilarity and absurdity of it all. And maybe keeping a gun in your desk drawer. 

Diane is becoming unstable because she is losing the certainty of the law (after also losing her life’s savings, her old partner Will, and Kurt, for now) – Maia’s struggle this season is figuring out how to live after the scandal of her father deciding to flee the law, and leaving her to deal with the fallout. Her mother is in prison, the FBI is investigating her (and until the trial she is under house arrest, wearing a leg bracelet). Her new life barely resembles the old one, now that all the luxuries of having a rich family have disappeared. There are two terrible moments in the first half of the season for her that determine her actions going forward. The first happens when Amy is called to the stand during her trial, without warning her first, and publicly shares her uncertainty about Maia’s motives regarding her father’s fund, stating that she thinks Maia confirmed that the fund was in trouble when she didn’t allow Amy’s father to invest, and that Maia’s marriage proposal may have been an opportunistic ruse to keep Amy from having to testify. This is someone she has lived with for – three or four years – someone she goes home to every night. The way the betrayal and the uncertainty creep into their intimate life resembles how Diane loses her grip on reality when she watches TV alone – all of a sudden, there is no clear distinction between real and fake anymore. Something that should be certain, and stable, has crumbled, and there is no way of fixing it. The show doesn’t give Amy any space to explain herself, and she isn’t exactly a fully fleshed out character here, but the impact on Maia is massive. She won’t clearly state that this is what happened  - a sense of betrayal – and instead, it just leads to more moments where the two of them seem ill-matched. Maia develops a friendship with Marissa that Amy, because of Marissa’s impulsive boyfriend, disagrees with. Maia becomes hyper-aware of every time that she makes a decision because of Amy, and then begins making her own decisions. And, in the end (of the seventh episode), she cheats on her, because “Sometimes I want stability, and sometimes I don’t”. It’s the culmination of the other drama in her life, her father betraying her so profoundly that he would choose his own freedom over that of his wife and his daughter, living with Maia’s old tennis teacher (who, to make things even more complicated, she used to have a crush on). With every certain thing breaking down, the only thing remaining for Maia is to try and redefine herself in the new situation, and reconfigure her life. 

And just as an aside here that doesn’t really fit in well, but one of my favourite examples, because she is maybe my favourite character, is stoic Lucca Quinn, who realises she is pregnant from a one-time fling with previous boyfriend Colin, and refuses to share this with anyone, even when her pregnancy is already obvious to everyone, not even with friend Maia (which is significant because the tentative way in which their friendship came into existence was such an important part of the first season). Family is definitely not a way in which Lucca finds her identity, if anything, Colin’s family attempting to take ownership of that pregnancy is an awkward and terrifying burden that she refuses to bear. 

In both these story lines, the greater political point the show makes about old certainties falling apart, boundaries between real and fake breaking down, and trust becoming a concept that no longer applies, fit in with what happens in characters’ personal lives. The firm itself deals with the fall out of the election constantly, explicitly when the Democratic Party requests that they develop a strategy for impeachment for the hypothetical situation that the Democrats win majorities in both Houses in 2018. Diane and Adrian start arguing the point that they have to rely on the law and precedent, but then the new partner – Liz – realises that the only way to win against other firms is to present a point that nobody would argue, which is that the reality of politics has changed so radically that none of the old principles apply, and that the only way to win this game is play it according to these new rules. She is opportunistic, and maybe a realist, but the main point here is that Diane comes to share her views. 

This second season of The Good Fight asks how to navigate a world that has become unrecognisable, absurdly terrible, a farce – and for now, there is no togetherness or unity in the answers that the characters find for themselves.

2016-, created by Michelle and Robert King, starring Christine Baranski, Rose Leslie, Cush Jumbo, Delroy Lindo, Sarah Steele, Nyambi Nyambi, Erica Tazel, Audra McDonald.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Link 11/4/18

Politics: 

An interview with Chris Wylie, one of the founders of Cambridge Analytica who leaked about the firm's usage of Facebook data to target users in the 2016 US Presidential election. 
Another proxy for culture is fashion, right? Politics and fashion are both about identity. They are both highly cyclical. There are lots of different aesthetics in both politics and fashion. And more broadly, fashion and politics are both products of our culture.  You can think about political movements like a fashion trend – lots of people suddenly adopting a new idea or concept. And since how we engage fashion and politics are both influenced by who we are, our personality, for me they are just displays of ourselves in different contexts. What is it that we are yelling about in the public square, and on the flip side, what is it we’re adorning our bodies with?
[...] My research in fashion was on two things. First, what causes different people to like different aesthetics. And second, if we can understand that, (whether) we can use data to predict what someone will like to wear. I looked at personality traits because we often use the same kinds of words to describe our style as we would our personality, and I wanted to unpack that and see if there was anything to that. 
Dazed: The whistleblower: Chris Wylie on fashion, culture wars & the alt-right, March 29, 2018

Could this read any more like a William Gibson novel? 

Music: 

Two essays: Soleil Ho (her Racist Sandwich podcast is highly recommended) on "assimilation food", and Omar Sakr on surviving the marriage equality debate in Australia

Great music by Melbourne band MOD CON

The Thermals have split after 15 years and I remember watching one of their first videos on Fast Forward back in the day. 

Das Lied zum Mittwoch

Janelle MonĂ¡e feat. Grimes - PYNK



Getting lost in the dark is my favourite part
Let's count the ways we could make this last forever

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Annihilation


This is the most beautiful piece that will be written about Alex Garland's adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's novel. 

The way this film now reverberates through me is the realisation that it relates to the book it is based on the same way in which its central premise works: the five women go through the Shimmer into Area X to find themselves transformed by what the meteor caused, their DNA becoming the starting point for violent and beautiful transfiguration and improvisation. It feels like the same thing is happening to the novel Annihilation as it becomes this film: Garland transfigures and improvises with the genetic material that has been provided to him, and the outcome is radically different from that of the novel. In a stunning way, form and content match. 

Some of the changes between book and novel are the result of the demands of the film. It was fairly clear from the beginning that there would need to be a different narrative perspective, considering how impossible it would have been to translate the way the readers are bound to the biologist in the novel to the film, regardless of Natalie Portman's talent. Her biologist, named Lena (everyone has names here), has a different backstory, and maybe that was the loss I felt the keenest. Lena used to be in the army, where she met her husband, Kane, who returns from the secret mission after a year - and terrifyingly changed, empty - until he starts haemorrhaging. The way that we find out more about Lena is flashbacks to the weeks before Kane started the mission that he couldn't talk about - and the most revealing moment in those flashbacks is when Lena laughs in Kane's face about the idea of pining for him while he is gone. It's the only sign left of the utterly solitary woman in VanderMeer's novels, whose backstory revealed her to be incapable of connecting with other people, and happiest when she was studying animals by herself. There was a sense in the novel that the biologist was driven by the mystery of her husband's disappearance and the return of a person she did not quite recognise, but at the same time, the way she settled into the terroir of Area X was as much connected to her history as a person who performed the best when she was left to herself, with only a very tentative link to humanity. 

I'm not quite sure if the same is true for Lena. Like the other four women on her mission, she identifies with the geologist's notion that they are all "damaged goods", but it seems to be grief for the (ambiguous) loss of her husband more than anything else, and as much as he dominates the flashbacks, his presence in her mind decides the way she relates to the other team members. Nobody except for Dr. Ventress (the psychologist, never revealed as the Director here, but played with the same stoic distance and control by Jennifer Jason Leigh, even though she is robbed of her powers here) knows about her connection to the previous mission, and Lena's decision to keep it a secret causes one of the many catastrophes that befall them as they make their way towards the lighthouse. 

This is another departure from the novel, which was so much more concerned with the subtle changes in the fabric of the character's identities, especially the biologist's. This is a horror film with a classical set-up, a cast of very different characters thrown into a situation that the audience already knows will bring out the worst in them. It's even spoken out loud at the beginning of the mission - there are two ways in which the previous missions could have come to their disastrous end, either they were killed by something in Area X, or they killed each other. It becomes an inescapable prediction regarding their own fate. Someone will snap and become a danger to the other crew members. Someone will be very willing to sacrifice everyone else for her own goals. Someone will give up. 

None of that takes away from the power of the film, and the way all of those things are realised are what makes it so horrifyingly beautiful. The Shimmer, which the mission crosses, acts like a border between the rational and a dream world in which rules still exist, but not in the way in which all of these women expect (and one of the points is that their combined attempts at comprehending what they find adds up - the biologist, psychologist, geologist, physicist and the paramedic all use what they know and they all come close, in a way). The biologist studies cells, and finds them changed, and perpetuating their change into future generations. The psychologist studies how Area X degrades the mental cohesiveness of her unit, but does nothing to combat does changes, or try to save (it's not what she's here for, and she has no intention of returning). The geologist is the first to go, but somehow manages to be the only character who breaches the quietness, who offers up theories about the human condition and the specific ways in which the team works to Lena (after she dies in the most horrible way, the main thing left behind is silence). 

Quietly and secretly, in this version of events, the person that will stay with me might be Tessa Thompson's Josie Radek, who is so very quiet, who is mainly seen through the eyes of the geologist and the paramedic, who both offer interpretations of her character to the group and Lena. She seems to be the first to truly comprehend what is happening in Area X, how whatever has landed here is transforming DNA, maybe even playing with it. She understands that the goal may not be destruction, as much as the set-up for the mission is a fear of the other, of Area X expanding to eventually encompass all of the world. She engages with it, maybe even with the surface beauty of flowers growing in new forms, reinterpretation human DNA into something else. She is more horrified than anyone by the violent part of it - when the geologist's last moment becomes forever trapped inside the bear, that part of her that was most scared surviving inside the creature that killed her, forever screaming for her life. Josie then goes on to refuse the dichotomy between the two explanations and the two choices - it's no longer either being killed by Area X (Gina Rodriguez' Anya Thorensen's death becoming the oddest visualisation of "Man is wolf to man", except with bears), or killing each other. It's not longer running back to where they entered or running towards the lighthouse, where they may leave. Instead, Josie wanders off into the beautiful vegetation, slowly becoming a part of Area X, the self-inflicted wounds on her arms transformed into fertile ground for new growth. 

There is no tunnel/tower here, no Crawler writing words on the wall in fungi, as much as that would have been such a beautiful translation of the idea that this other takes what it finds and then transforms it. Instead of asking a why, a reason, or even a motive of what has happened, and as an explanation moves further away the more the horror pervades and transforms, Annihilation becomes about the individual adapting to radical change within itself. The true horror doesn't start with the creatures attacking the group, but with a video they come across of the previous mission, of Kane and another soldier gutting one of their team mates to find his insides turned into snakes, moving on their own. This alienation from the self is what breaks Anya, once she realises that these changes are happening in her own body. At the same time it almost feels like the psychologist is safe from it until the very end because her cancer is already doing that to her, the process started before she even entered Area X and since she knows how all of this will end for her in any case, it doesn't affect her as much as it does the others. 

In the end, we are left with Lena, who has traced her husband Kane to the lighthouse. She finds a horrible set up, a dead body against a wall with a video camera pointing, promising truth. When she plays the video, she watches her husband self-immolate, brought to kill himself by a copy that has the same empty, strange eyes that the man who returned to her had. Once Lena enters the underworld created by the meteor, any remnants of a recognisable reality disappear, and what remains is a visually overwhelming sequence - a dance, the birth of a creature that seeks to become, set to music that may as well come from that place. We cannot be sure who returns from that place, and we already know that even if it were Lena, she would have been changed so much that the person returning wouldn't be Lena at all, the same way in which Kane spoke about his error in thinking he was still a man. 

directed by Alex Garland, starring Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny.