Ashes and Dust: "Annihilation" (Part 2 of 2)
During press junkets for his own psychological mystery concluding in a lighthouse, Shutter Island (2010), Martin Scorsese said, “There’s no such thing as a true image anymore.” Released in what may be towards the beginning of his late career phase, Scorsese’s work displayed an acute interest in technological futurism, and the impact of the image’s metamorphosis through time. This was central to bygone eras represented as far back in GoodFellas (1990) and The Age of Innocence (1993), but held an even heavier sense of loss in the antique Las Vegas in Casino (1995), the Tibet from which the Dali Lama is exiled in Kundun (1997), and an idiosyncratic pre-gentrified New York that already didn’t exist anymore in Bringing Out the Dead (1999). The long-gone period world of Gangs of New York (2002) at times feels like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the concluding skyline montage remarking on how the world’s central polis is buried in forgetful layers of masks; The Aviator (2004) details the engineering of “the way of the future,” the blankness that swallows Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) having reverberations in The Departed’s (2006) cyber-surveillance noir, the familial and ethnic tribes of GoodFellas replaced by chrome and beige identities that are malleable and reducible to social security numbers, history’s colors shrouded in amoral anonymity. Shutter Island is set in the 1950s but has a science fiction flavor of Cold War noir, after the images of nuclear denotation and the Holocaust broke the boundaries of what was previously imagined as possible. Rob Legato’s CGI effects in that film feel like expressionism, making it feel like the true images we take for granted are being malleably bent in front of us. History, like sanity and memory, feel like they’re undergoing a catastrophic erasure. This is certainly pertinent, with a more hopeful inflection, to Hugo (2011), which is the artist’s prayer to make his tools a source of illumination, the automata working alchemy through artistry so that the beholder is more fuller realized, though The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) eradicates all sense of reality and conscience as its satanic hero (DiCaprio) exercises his treachery and has his fun in spaces that are almost glaringly the constructions of green-screen artificial drapery. Silence (2016), finally, follows characters who must rebuke “the image”—Christians apostatizing their faith by stepping on their muddied iconography—while steadfastly holding to the image’s transcendence of reality, existing silently in private imaginations. Still “truth” is arbitrary, and it’s compelled, reflecting the state of Scorsese’s vocation. So many images, but so little illuminated. In Garland’s Annihilation, Ventress points out that with more imagery there’s less certainty. This currently itches at scabs of pervading surveillance and the implementation of body cameras on police officers. With the preponderance of lenses there’s the problem of agency directing them, and our own agency, as opposed to conditioned automation, in beholding them.
In the womb of Annihilation’s lighthouse, Lena faces the inscrutable and “impossible” image. There is the camera eye, showing her how the charred remains in the corner belong to her husband, having recorded his suicide (or, as dialogue earlier counters, “self destruction”) by grenade. In the footage, the figure to whom he’s talking (and who is presumably standing behind the camera) turns out to be his double, created by the Shimmer. This was the awkward individual who met Lena at home and who, like some dream spectre of Oz, choked on a glass of water. The nebulous orb that absorbs Ventress is of the same inessential datum, something extra-terrestrial whose sense of molding intentionality is undifferentiated from the motion picture we are beholding, “encompassing everything” as she says, the sound emanating from it confusedly meshed with the synthesizer score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, music that earlier refused to passively fade as a complementary non-diegetic movie track by the unique acoustic guitar template, where the solitary instrument stresses an individual’s decisive plucking and pressure on frets—implying the most infinitesimal degree of “imperfection”—now mutated into deep and harrowing programmed electronica-as-voice, Lena’s confrontation with the sound and image evocative of a similar confrontation at another notable Point-of-Epiphany, Devil’s Tower in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This is not just an encounter with natural phenomena, but with something commensurately creative, fashioning and expressive, regardless of whether or not it is benevolent and conscious.
This sequence of communication crescendos with Lena meeting her own simulated double. The film crashes down into a singularity of Self and Other, physical actor and virtual generation, viewer and image. Verbal ideas are muted by pure feeling, the pervasive mood reaching towards the boundaries of our experience and expectations. The Behemoth, viewed in close-up, seemed to lack eyes and ears, defining itself through its wordless vocals. After it’s been killed, its lifeless form stresses the disembodied jaw, an image mirroring Thorenson’s destruction at the Behemoth’s severing jaws seconds before, as all forms in the Shimmer—which is to say in the film “Annihilation”—collapse into each other as a molten essence oozing into our imagination as motion picture viewers; “chapfallen” as Shakespeare's wily jester, they would be reduced to the quintessence of dust, and yet the Shimmer’s jibes persist while dancing atop corpses and humanoid plants. In the lighthouse, Lena and her refracted double, shadowed by a mellifluous but synthetic roar, figuratively straddle the camera, which stands as the Vertovian mechanism that, as if by virtue of its own consciousness (remembering Man with a Movie Camera’s machine taking a bow for the audience), reverses the external and internal (or the real and imagined), the brusque posture of Art itself breathing as the narrative, forms mutating, destroying, or simply changing on an aesthete’s whims. “Making what?” Lomax asks Lena, to which she (or “she”) can only answer, “I don’t know.”
Lena endures this other self, and ostensibly destroys it by using one of the same grenades that killed Kane. Or, like with Kane, has the alpha Lena died and we’ve heard the tale from a revised and improved double? And to that degree, does it matter? Their confrontation steers toward antagonistic malevolence, but remains in a hushed indecipherability, the Shimmer collapsing afterward as the surviving Lena is held in captivity in the company of the ersatz Kane, the two embracing as lovers and strangers, together being another configuration of the infinite ouroboros, their arms two looping wedding bands, entwining as one flesh. A close-up on Kane’s eyes shows a fading iris, the simulated mediation of reality transmuting into a fully embraced new mode, or to borrow from David Cronenberg’s lexicon, the “New Flesh.”
Uneasiness underlies this new modality, the perplexing singularities of technology as suggested by the cameras in Annihilation later encircling us outside the theater, intimating the ongoing and accelerating metamorphosis affecting us, the domestic familiarity of our personal Edenic stasis falling away, as it does for every generation doubtlessly, but now at a rapid rate eclipsing the speed of recognition and adjustment. Looking into the Shimmer and hearing its deafening command to submit to its synthetic roar, there’s a question of what meaning, if any, there is to the sentiments of a relationship with its sacraments and commitments, the home decorated with still photographs exhibiting the longing for immortality; in the new apocalyptic paradigm, with the belly of a new Leviathan penned not by biblical patriarchs but by artificial intelligence, Job’s submission of ego has the subtext of chrome terror. Garland’s Ex Machina predicated this with its promise of a new age of machines without regard for their makers, and it’s long been a theme of cinema’s development alongside Singularity prophecies, where human and machines will meld as one, rendering the body—and what has been heretofore defined “human nature”—as superfluous. This is, from one adjustment of the eye, liberating, and from another, terrifying.
Drawn from a scenario long developed by Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) re-imagines the Pinocchio story, and would seemingly have the journey of robot boy David (Haley Joel Osment) conclude hopelessly in a watery underworld of man-made Central Park. But the advanced automata, David’s descendants who by implication have his “nuanced” wiring of love and intuition (opening the door to imperfection but also ambition and dreams), bypass mechanical necessity and, as compassionate artists, “give him what he wants” in the simulacrum of a happy ending where the manufactured boy can be reunited with the adoptive mother to whom he has a programmed attachment.
Those loving flaws of engineering (which indeed irked some critics, unable to grasp the unparalleled melancholy of Spielberg and Kubrick’s ironic “happy ending,” which I maintain is the height of Spielberg’s many achievements) meet their counterpart 15 years down the Hollywood’s developmental pipeline in the post-human imagination of Gareth Edwards, similarly working with appropriated material in the Star Wars prequel Rogue One (2016), which, with questionable ethics and aesthetic value, “clones” deceased actor Peter Cushing as a computer generated being, Cushing’s figure reprising its role as Grand Moff Tarkin, the villainous character’s mechanical aura inflexibly uncompromising, unnuanced, soulless, and exuding—by virtue of the question as to whether or not such a technique is ethical in moviemaking—an extreme danger portending catastrophic disaster commensurate in its cyber landscape to what looms in our earthly firmament beset by climate change. Antipodal to AI’s representation of benevolent mecha archeologists empathetically absorbing the past (cinema becomes a language for them, as we see Spielberg’s images of the previous two hours replay upon their forms upon examining David), Tarkin is the zero sum harbinger of extreme late capitalism (of which Disneyfied Star Wars is certainly an avatar) dressed up as accommodating nostalgia and ingenious novelty.
The two poles perhaps have their equator in Spike Jonze’s AI romance Her (2013), where sentimental letter-writer Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his OS (voiced by Scarlet Johansen), a companion whose affection lies in an uncertain fog by virtue of her perfectly modulated simulation, complemented by lush backgrounds rendered in the manner of alluring advertising. The beautiful strangeness of the air behind Twombley is owed to what we should recognize as smog-ridden air, the degradation of the womb nourishing us, which perhaps Twombley is desperate to replace (as indicated by an erotic predilection for pregnant women, in addition to the overtly symbolic implications of his name).
The fear in this mutation is that humanism is becoming vestigial. Classically, the reactance on the part of the representative human was to smash the invasive new consciousness and harbinger of the merciless New before it assumed it assumed its throne, the revolving fans of its motherboard a fresh flaming whirlwind issuing new commandments with no mercy (such as many a layperson is familiar when calling for IT assistance): in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) completely shuts down the murderous (if not malfunctioning) HAL-9000, Bowman becoming the transcendent Star Child in the next stage of a spiritual evolution; in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) special police agents “retire” rogue AI replicants, some of whom exhibit grave anxieties of their separateness from nature when compared to their makers; and in AI, humans hold Dionysian “Flesh Fairs” where the mechas who’ve threatened their place economically, sexually, and existentially are ritualistically destroyed.
And still, there’s a curious progression: from the stoic Bowman, one of 2001’s humans who is arguably more machine-like than the HAL-9000, finally compelled to act outside the safety shells of his tools; the ambiguity of the Blade Runners, where it’s implied the hero Deckard (Harrison Ford) may himself be a replicant; and in AI, with a reversal of 2001’s transcendent man, the robot boy David takes the archetypal mythic journey, fulfilling his quest in a world of pure sim that is mostly computer generated for us, while diegetically, in the film’s imagined world, human beings have gone extinct. His journey is harmonious with Pinocchio’s wooden puppet moving of its own volition with its own dreams, affecting the receptive human viewer who may even identify with David.
Returning to the creation, Pinocchio is an image that Stephen Greenblatt has brought up when discussing his new book The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. In Eden, the clay-figure becomes a living creature after the Creator blows the breath of life into its nostrils, an inference to the power of stories (the storyteller’s breath), our fictions—even the most glaring fictions such as the early chapters of Genesis—transmogrifying into a reality, and for eons assuming the place of History. The sim clay has always been able to possess and move us, suggesting its own “mutations.” As the movies, particularly the autopilot mass production of tentpoles, provide efficient delightaintment to be quickly up-and-downloaded in acquiring the expanding universes of information (i.e. “plot”), our roles as sympathetic consumers of entertainment alter. Ex Machina, Her, and the Cushing double in Rogue One have discomforting variables—by design or by neglect—that would remind us of how our reality is reshaped outside the theater, tweaking how the constant flow of information is catalogued and processed, as if we’re the ones manufactured and held on strings now, just as the story’s have lost their ability to be anything more than illusory information that curtly digested. The image is changing and flagrantly plasticine, but so are we. A brazenly cosmetic model of inauthenticity becomes president. Retweets and memes chisel truths as manipulative tools of pattern recognition more than deep reading and discerning optical examination. Can we see past a simulation or blatant artifice, where say Hecuba means something to us?
This was central to last year’s long-awaited sequel, Denis Villenueve’s Blade Runner: 2049, where it’s inferred that almost every character we see—the blade runner K (Ryan Gosling), his boss (Robin Wright), the manufacturer (Jared Leto), in addition to the host of androids and Deckard himself—are replicants, advertising’s allure in their artificial blood as much as carbon, the vestiges of what’s “human” laid to the fringe (and perhaps notably portrayed by people of color—Wood Harris and Barkhad Abdi). The most “malevolent” figure is the merciless replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoecks), who lacks to verve and tragic pathos of the original film’s antagonist, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), but makes up for it in dexterity and efficiency: a lack of existential worry may be an “upgrade”; it certainly helps out being human. Instead of Batty’s melancholy soliloquy, her conclusion is brutally assaultive to us as much as to her, as K suffocates her underwater, her writhing face held for an excruciatingly long period in close-up.
While the scene was written about and processed by many as “problematic” for its display of aggression against a woman, a contemplative consideration suggests the opening from the 1982 original, where a suspected replicant Leon (Brion James) is being subjected to a sequence of questions used to determine if he’s human or not, in that case a scenario in which Leon sees a struggling tortoise upside down in the sun, unable to get back on its feet; without help, the creature will die. “You’re not helping,” Leon is told. How does he feel about that? In 2049 with Luv’s death, the question is representatively put forth to us. We’re presented an unsympathetic and villainous character who isn’t even human, and in this narrative framework has to die, much as HAL or Roy Batty did (HAL by Bowman’s hand; Batty by “expiring”). Does the image of Luv’s destruction move us to tears? Probably not. But, unlike HAL, does it outrage or disgust us? Without ascribing a value judgment to Villenueve’s film as a whole, the angry responses may imply yes. The ineluctable tilt towards cyberspace and artificial intelligence absorbs us in its ethereal cloud, so can our sympathy—or the religion of humanism—remain intact, even if we go extinct?
The argument then is, in a way that recalls the problem of the Book of Job, is the “human” even worth preserving, especially if we consider what our eyes have seen once they’ve adjusted to the night and fog (quoting the title of Alain Resnais’ 1956 Holocaust documentary). As the controversial English philosopher John Gray says, the fault isn't in our tools but in ourselves. In Shutter Island, Andrew Laeddis (DiCaprio) must confront the terrible things he’s done and seen (murdering his wife; traumatic experiences during the war, which may or may not include liberating Dachau and committing war crimes against Nazi perpetrators); he’d rather, quite understandably, have an ersatz identity, even if it means wiping away his consciousness. The AI threats imitate the worst aspects of the human, and as a recent episode of The X-Files, “Rm9sbG93ZXJz”—Base64 code for “Followers”—sardonically demonstrates, we’re bad teachers to our creations, which retaliate against our familiar sci-fi sleuth heroes, Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), with a stubborn inflexibility that is the pith of human: Mulder is a bad tipper, and refusing to lay down a small gratuity for an AI dining service unveils a dystopian horrorshow mirror, drones and automation terrorizing these strangely isolated people who we, for decades now, have considered heroes. This is the apocalyptic threat brewing in this new season, the threat of alien (out there) invasion usurped by the wayward growth of our ingenuity (the cyber networks in which we spend most of our time communicating and developing), the latest figuration of Mary Shelley's tabula rosa gone wrong (and reading Milton for consolation) in Frankenstein from 200 years ago.
Along with nobility, love, and art, our nature exhibits a more determining share of cruelty, apathy, and hunger to control and demolish. Romance and Nature are, for good reason, antagonized by a Postmodern alternative that would cleanse strictures and categories endemic to a notion of preserved Human Nature. The synthesis with the new capabilities of the machine, as we see in David Fincher’s cyber dramas The Social Network (2010) and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) offer an escape from the old paradigms, in the latter case a means for an abuse victim to overcome the system that has neglected and traumatized her. The question is are Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) new cybernetic beings, or pristine distillations of the human nature that cyber would presume to make vestigial? Salander gets revenge on her rapist while wearing eye makeup that alludes to Darryl Hannah's replicant in Blade Runner, and while she has our sympathy (compared particularly to the privileged, however maladjusted, Zuckerberg), what sets her apart may be a ruthlessness implicit in the machine, the all-too-human cleansed of the burden of socialization's sentiments, which gets back to the perennial debate as to whether the socialization creates the monster, or if it's there by instinct, and our prodigious brain power, another facet of human nature, gives us the tools to set levies against the Leviathan, so to speak.
Dismantling systems carries forth onto mythologies. In referencing long-lost stories like Gilgamesh (recovered late in the 19th century), Greenblatt’s Adam and Eve study points to how our animated stories are susceptible to oblivion, their “everlasting” truths decidedly fragile. Indeed now, as there are more “truths” than ever, with incessant augmentation, the sense of a true image is beyond jeopardy. With the preponderance of lenses there’s the problem of agency directing them, and our own agency, as opposed to conditioned automation, in beholding them. Last year, Annihilation’s spatial tone of uncanny environments, where quiet domesticity is disturbed by something aberrant and alien, was curiously shared by films like Darren Aronofsky’s mother! and David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, also involving romantic pairings and creativity, if not “The Creation,” as mother!’s male lead (Javier Bardem) is a poet who is an allegorical God to a fertile Mother Earth (Jennifer Lawrence), while Casey Affleck in A Ghost Story creates a world of music on his laptop in dedication to his lover (Rooney Mara). But anything created—be it the Earth or the heights (or laptop valleys) of Art—inevitably pass away, A Ghost Story’s mid-film monologue by Will Oldham, details the creation and vacuous end of existence as Beethoven’s Ninth plays off the detritus of late night beer cans, beards, and flannel. Characters die, survivors grieve, and the world moves on, cherished memories forgotten, until the world is made new again. The world ends and is recreated repeatedly in mother! and A Ghost Story, the sacrificial sparagmos being born and (violently) consumed as life feeds off itself and the dream of spectating enlivens once more within the stories, as audiences voyeuristically peer in: Aronofsky’s camera in mother! stresses subjectivity by bearing close to Lawrence’s shoulder, as Affleck in A Ghost Story, underneath a sheet with two holes for eyes, plays history’s witness. The anxiety triggered by palpable environmental decay and altering technological paradigms is one of agency, as art isn’t the mirror to nature but, remembering Hamlet, holds the mirror, agency implicit in art's very existence.
In Annihilation, after being circumscribed to Lena’s point-of-view as a grieving widow, we’re suddenly given the simulated Kane’s point of view at the stairwell. He looks at (and seems to recognize) a photograph and goes up to meet her. He’s separate from nature—as the adverse effects of drinking the water demonstrates—and yet we’re “with” him at the stairwell. This new self, this new intent, this new modality, is something we cannot understand, much as with Job’s Yahweh. But the idea of Art, of creation, of submission to creation, is of paramount importance (the Islamic wall décor, in addition to students surrounding Lena, at the university, may suggest the guiding precept of Islam: Submission). The CGI Behemoth decimates Thorenson’s jaw and gashes Sheppard’s throat, but expression endures, if through the all encompassing illusory mouth, open wide as a dread o’erhanging firmament of restless design, deathly but ever authoring, and so evoked by Garland’s allusion to Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cervical cancer cells (dubbed “HeLa Cells”)—taken by scientists, without her consent, in the 1950s—were self-sustaining and revolutionized the scientific research of cell lines. The Leviathan’s mouth exhibits a spectrum of teeth, swallowing forms to ornately arrange the skeletons and chapfallen skulls like a stockpile of soliloquized Yoricks, the earthly congregation of vapors salvaged by design, while the nobility of man remains tossed aside in favor of Dorian Gray’s “mis-shapen shadows.”
Lena, like Job, is recreated by her own endurance, and probably the ambiguity of whether the Lena we see at the conclusion is the “original” Lena or her Shimmer replication is a cause for hope, given how easily we as viewers identify with her, the parameters of identity porous. Her rash—recalling Job’s boils—suggest a corporeal vulnerability working through sickness, something familiarly human. Like Job, she’s given what can be interpreted as a “happy ending” with an ersatz mate, though their concluding embrace is fraught with the burden of what we now know of the alpha Kane, and how we understand this “new flesh” may have a whole new point of view with new intentions (biblically, Lena and Kane’s re-established marriage is the “New Adam,” or Christ resurrected after the Harrowing of Hell), for coping with--remembering Scorsese's use Dinah Washington's vocal in Shutter Island--"this bitter earth." The affirming step forward into this uncanny world recalls Fredric Brown’s parable Answer, where the question “Is there a God?” is posed to a new super computer. “Yes, now there is a God.” The camera itself aspires to see, a silent ghost with optical agency, beholding as we do. Job's revelation of God ("now my eyes have seen you," Job 42:5) reflects the world-changing Fall into mortality, where Adam and Eve transgress instruction and "the eyes of both of them were opened" (Genesis 3:7), a motif "fulfilled" in the blinding light on Saul's path to Damascus, where he regained his sight as the very architect of the "New Adam," the born-again Apostle Paul. Garland's analog is now represented in the changing irises of his post-human Holy Couple. In the otherwise barren Annihilation, the embrace of Lena and Kane is pregnant with possibilities, inseminating our imaginations. That we cannot know what will be born through this transgressing intimacy looms like a formidable storm front on a vast horizon, discomforting as the clarion diamond certainty of Brown’s cybernetics machine deity.