Prophecy Riddles, Survival Horror, and the Brilliance of The Battle of Winterfell

“Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born.”

“A child will be born from the Force and will bring balance to it.”

Prophecies. They’re at the heart of a plethora of classic stories. The genre makes no difference, be it science fiction,fantasy, horror or Biblical canon, a prophecy can be a great MacGuffin to propel a narrative. It’s typically focused on a “Chosen One,” a Christ figure ala Anakin Skywalker or King Arthur. But not always. Sometimes they spell doom. Take this literary prophecy, for example:

All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!

All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!

All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!”

As told to the aforementioned Scottish warlord by the Three Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s epic tale of war, murder and betrayal. It’s these words that propel him and Lady Macbeth to make murder. It’s also not the only meeting the future King has with the Witches. That’s reserved for the fourth act’s pinnacle moment, telling all involved where the story is going. This meeting may very well be the play’s most iconic scene, after all, it’s quoted on Halloween by children and adults alike (“Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”). But it’s the prophecy they deliver which is most important.

Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn. The power of man, for none of woman born Shall harm Macbeth.

It’s laid out on the table, the end of the play is spoiled midway through. And yet, audiences still gasp when MacDuff runs Macbeth through and chops off his head at the battle of Dunsinane. The seed was laid for this early at the first meeting. Much like the classic riddle of Sphinx in the myth of Oedipus (“Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” MAN, of course!). The prophecy was a true riddle, designed to swerve the antagonist and the reader alike.The prophecy didn’t lie to you, not once. MacDuff was a breech birth, taken from his mother’s belly. He wasn’t born of woman. He was taken from her.

Hold on to that thought. We’ll get back to it in a minute. I need to address something else before we movie on.

The last stand is another trope used in storytelling. The underdog is a the fan favorite protagonist.

The 300 Spartans. Zulu Dawn. The Siege of Bastogne. The rounding of the wagon train or the isolated fort surrounded by the enemy. These are the stories heroes are made from. I could give you examples all day. But placing the characters in a position where they may be overwhelmed and perish at any moment creates tension. Now, if you’ve established anything can happen in your narrative, you can increase the emotional response from your reader or viewer. How do you do this?

One way is to kill a child in your opening. This means all bets are off. Another way is to wantonly kill off characters the consumer of your product has built emotional attachment with. You do this without warning. Survival horror does this with the deftness of a skilled dancer. Night of the Living Dead is perhaps the best example here. The human survivors holed up in a house, fending off the horde of zombies.

Now, when you establish a last stand trope within a survival horror setting on an epic scale, what do you get?

The Battle of Winterfell.

Game of Thrones has entered its eighth and final televised season. Episode 3 brought us THE LONG NIGHT, the much anticipated showdown with the Night King and his undead army of wights (aka zombies). In spite of the production’s dark palette (we’ll talk about this in a minute), it was brilliant. In my opinion, the best zombie war movie ever made. But it’s getting hate from the part of Middle America who doesn’t watch or read this style of fiction on a regular basis. Some armchair, Monday Morning Generals are questioning the actions of the characters, and why some died yet others didn’t. And even more are calling the episode a failure, for trivializing the big bad. All because they don’t understand it.

Yes, everything has led to this point. Many character arcs, much of the story telling. But the story isn’t over.

The whole reason Game of Thrones has been a bloodbath, mercilessly killing off fan favorite characters throughout its history, was to prepare you for this. You were conditioned to think your favorite character could die at any time, so during the Battle of Winterfell you felt but all these characters were in jeopardy. And you got swerved. Aside from a handful of redshirts kicking the zombie bucket, only one major character, Jorah Mormont, died. The main players all survived. These characters did so because they are heroes and heroes overcome the odds stacked against them.

People need to remember this is a Game of Thrones, not a Game of The Night King, and though the prophecy of Winter Coming has long been the show’s mantra, last season winter arrived. I’ve got some news for you. Winter is more than the undead horde of the now disposed Night King. He only showed up in season 5, for the love of the Old Gods.

Let’s address the color palette.

I couldn’t see anything!

It was a battle against the embodiment of death, the Night King, during a snowstorm at night.  What did you expect it to look like? Game of thrones has long established telling the story from the POV of the person, and the battle continued this tradition, telling a battle from the POV of the people in it. We only saw the whole battlefield from aerial shots with the Dragons, for example – what Jon and Daeny saw.

What does this have to do with me not being able to see anything?

It was done by design. It made you uncomfortable, intentionally. It made it difficult for you to discern what was going on. You couldn’t tell who was dead or alive. It was a perfect survival horror effect, isolating the characters in this manner, and it did as it was intended – it brought the viewer into the story. You shared the emotions with the characters.

I would have used a different strategy! Jon Snow is a horrible general!

We can sit there all day long and question the tactics of the battle. Suffice it to say, in military terms, the winner of a battle expects 60% of his shit not to work (ie: go as planned) during the battle. This was set up right away with the elimination of the Dothraki horde. The disposal of the Dothraki, even after they were magically assisted by Millisandre, exposed the true terror and size of the enemy. It added to the suspense. You couldn’t believe the Dothraki got wiped out? Neither could the defenders at Winterfell. You felt their despair.

The Night King was taken out so easily!

Ok, now is this really hurts and it’s the biggest slight to one of the show’s greatest and most developed characters. In fact, you could say much of this story is about her.

Arya Stark.

Kids, I hate to say it, but this Night King kill was foreshadowed in the first season, prophesied in the third, developed through the others until reaching its pinnacle in this episode. Everything in Arya Stark’s story has led her to this moment. Hell, Bran even gave her the weapon she would kill the Night King with! She has trained to fight and defeat death. And who is, rather was, the embodiment of death?

The Night King.

The Red Witch told her in season 3:

Brown eyes, Blue eyes & Green eyes.

These would be her victims. Brown eyes, my friends are all the normal people on her list she faced down and killed during her travels. Blue Eyes is the Night King. And who has Green eyes?

Cersei Lannister.

It’s all about the prophecies in Game of Thrones, my friends. A prophecy brought us here with Arya, and now another prophecy sends Jon Snow to the Iron Throne. It’s been a long, violent trip through Westeros, and everything that came before has implications on what is to come. My personal prediction? Bronn assassinates Tyrion or Jamie. Arya makes a mask of the deceased and uses this disguise to gain access to Cersei, thus completing her story. I’m likely wrong, but part of loving this show is speculating. When you get mad because your speculation doesn’t come to fruition, it makes you look mighty silly. enjoy it. Don’t be critical of it because you didn’t get what you wanted. I can’t wait to see how the story ends.

I found The Long Night to be fantastic. I dare say it’s the best zombie movie ever made. I am firm in belief it’s raised the bar on survival horror for decades to come.

A Book Of Light And Shadow

 

I’ve been writing and creating since I can remember. My Mom started teaching me how to read and write at about three years old and I didn’t waste any time applying what I learned. It was sometime around second grade when I read Edgar Rice Burrough’s Back to the Stone Age, and all I wanted to do was tell stories. My “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” and “Goosebumps” was called “More Science Fiction Tales” and the attached volumes. School book drives allowed me access to the classics I knew from Monster Movie Matinee, Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man. The made for TV horror of the 70s, from Trilogy of Terror and that goddamned Zuni doll to Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’s fairies. Heavy viewings of every Godzilla and King Kong movie, the OG Planet of the Apes franchise and, eventually, Star Wars… all of it molded my imagination and influenced me.

Teenage Tom found Terry Brooks, Frederick Pohl, Richard Matheson, Robert E. Howard, Stephen King, Michael Moorcock, the magic of Richard Adams and John Carpenter. Each of these people made impressions upon me like none other, further molding how I told the stories I was developing in my mind. Dungeons and Dragons gave me a further outlet for story telling. This carried on into adult Tom and led to his true love, the extremes of horror. Nancy A. Collins, Skipp & Spector, Joe Lansdale, and Brian Keene. Oh, and the beauty of Cormac McCarthy. Through these people I learned there are no barriers. Nothing is taboo. And all of it can – and does – blend together.

And now it gets real. Friday, I share a bunch of my fucked up stories with the world in “A Book of Light And Shadow.” A goal I set nearly 5 and a half years ago has been met. It’s funny how my writing career was launched by my ability to talk. Radio, and in turn podcasting, has opened so many doors for me,. Considering I started upon my writing path as a teenager… to say it’s been a long, strange trip is an understatement. None of it was easy. I wrote 300,000 words for This Is Infamous over two years, allowing me to establish my voice as a writer. I learn more every day. I firmly believe you can never learn enough. I’m a gamer, and why do we play games? To learn. Workshops, mentoring… I suck it all in and apply it.

And the end result is this. A Book Of Light And Shadow. I wanted to release it in May. Back then, the title was Unplugged: Live From R’Lyeh & Tanelorn. I had designed a cover for it, using old friend Patrick Fitzgerald’s drawing of my hero, Ami Nightswan (thus Pat’s credit in the book as an illustrator). None of it sat well with me. So I held off.

What is special about these stories? Why have I included them? Well, some are a great example of things to come from me. Other pieces were previously published, and I’ve touched them up some for this release. Regardless of the why, each story is a chronicle of my progress as a writer. Some were first written, at least in part, over 30 years ago, while I was still in high school. The stories within are genre bending, much like the novels I read growing up. It’s a diverse lot, covering science fiction, horror and fantasy. Much of it blurs together, mashing up the genres. New readers to my fiction need this disclaimer: Don’t expect happy endings. And the whole cat thing… well… yeah (Thanks, Church!).

I hope you enjoy the stories. I know I enjoyed telling them, crafting them. There shall be more to come, coming sooner than you think…

You can pre-order the Kindle version A Book Of Light And Shadow here, or get yourself a paperback copy from me or on Amazon, and it’s available on Prime now.

Anti-Heroes Never Disappoint You

The adage says never meet your heroes, they’ll only disappoint you. I guess I’m safe. The only hero I ever had was New York Yankee catcher Thurman Munson.

The Captain died when I was a ripe old age of 11, 40 years ago last month, to be precise. The small engine plane he flew crashed, and my hero was gone, taken from my during a my formative years. I got to see him play live, once, it had been earlier that year. He didn’t exactly play the game, he was nursing an injury preventing him from performing his usual role as catcher. But he did come on as a DH, and nailed a walk off home run for the Yanks only score in a losing effort against the Chicago White Sox.

Since this time, I’ve had Anti-Heroes.

Anti-Heroes aren’t far off from heroes. Much like my departed hero, my Anti-Heroes are blessed with extraordinary skills, regardless of their origin. Anti-Heroes can’t disappoint you. They’re either fictionalized entities or normal peeps, and the irony is the latter often gives birth to the former. As a result, because normal peeps are fallible, both are inherently flawed.

Some of my early Anti-Heroes are obvious figures from fiction…

Conan. Snake Plissken. George Taylor. Robert Neville. Hazel. Elric. Hawkeye. Tarzan. John Carter. Starbuck & Apollo. Han Solo. Moon Knight. Supergirl. Carl Kolchak. The Man With No Name…

And some are real people, living and dead…

Musicians…

Ozzy. Dio. Bruce Dickenson & Steve Harris, fuck it – all of Iron Maiden. Ritchie Blackmore. Zakk fucking Wylde. Gary Moore. The Bard: Phil Lynott. Godamn KISS. Shawn Morgan. Johnny Reznik…

Filmmakers…

John fucking Carpenter. James Cameron. Kathryn Bigelow. Quentin Tarantino. Neil Marshal. Adam Wingard.

Wrestlers…

Roddy Piper. Jake Roberts. HHH. Buzz Sawyer. Paul Ellering. Bobby Heenan. Paul Heyman.

Actors…

Michael Biehn. Lee Van Cleef. Kurt Russell. Daniel Day-Lewis.

Actresses…

Fay Wray. Nicole Kidman. Sigourney Weaver.

Writers…

Richard Matheson. John Skipp & Craig Spector. Stephen King. Brian fucking Keene. Nancy A. Collins. Robert E. Howard. L Sprague De Camp. Cormac McCarthy. Frederick Pohl. Richard Adams. William Gibson.

Anti-Heroes can never disappoint you. They’re only human. They only do as a much as humans can do.

The weekend of my birthday in 2005, I had an opportunity to talk to one of these Anti-Heroes: Zakk fucking Wylde. I took that time to express to him not my adoration, but to tell him how much my wife, who typically isn’t a fan of his music, loved a particular song he wrote (In This River.). He appreciated our time – because it wasn’t what he expected. The mother fucker gave me a bear hug. The song has gone on to be his eulogy to Darrell Abbot. When my father in law passed in 2013, I hired Joe Altier to record the song as a special Christmas gift for my wife. It had become her song to identify with her Dad. Zakk Wylde is an amazing musician, but he’s a fucking human.

Last year was a bucket list of Anti-Heroes. I was able to pick the minds of both John Skipp & Craig Spector, and express to them how I always wrote, but I didn’t learn how to write until I read their material. For those not in the “know,” the former rock stars of Splatterpunk horror aren’t on amicable speaking terms. Skipp thought Craig was in the room with us and the look of anxiety over it I saw in his eyes told me he was terrified of seeing his former writing partner. It’s very much on a John Fogherty vs. CCR level. BUT – Craig is battling prostate cancer, the same disease that took my father from me on Superbowl Sunday, 2017. As a result, the empathy I have for Craig is immeasurable.  So, yeah… without a doubt, Skipp & Spector are fucking human.

Later, I got to spend 10 minutes alone with another of my Anti-Heroes, Brian fucking Keene. The talk was rather casual, and when asked for advice on how to apply my work ethic, he reminded me of his blue collar roots, and how he applied that in his approach to writing. He also revealed to me that he, too, suffers from ADHD, a demon I’ve battled since I was a child. He’s fucking Brian Keene. But he’s fucking human. And when he had the fire and burn scare earlier this year… it only reinforced this notion with me.

If you place your heroes, idols, inspirations or muses on too high a pedestal, it’s a set up for failure. You imprint yourself with hubris. It blinds you to the simple fact, these people… they’re only human. They’ll always disappoint you if you look for it, and when you suffer from hubris, it becomes a delusional poison.

Here’s to the Anti-Heroes. Long may they live, flaws and all, to show us…

We’re only human.

Ghost Prequelle: A Rainbow Rising

Ring-a-ring o’ rosies,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes, ashes,
We all fall down…

Prequelle, Ghost’s latest opus, is a Baroquian masterpiece ripe with enough medieval imagery and hooks to make Ritchie Blackmore jealous. The band’s fourth full length release is, without a doubt, their Rainbow album, and it achieves this feat by summarizing the aforementioned guitar maestro’s body of work into 10 songs. It is a work of aural art, and as any good art should be, it is polarizing. Their fan base, as well as the rock and metal community, are divided on how they feel about Prequelle’s grandiose blend of metal, rock, pop and your local Renaissance Fair. It’s nothing they’ve ever heard before. Or have they?

Outside of the metal community, nobody really knew of Ghost, even when they had won the Grammy for their album Meliora in 2015. Formed in 2006, band leader and lead vocalist Tobias Forge, along with a group of Nameless Ghouls, started on a journey that led them from blending the black metal imagery of King Diamond with a bastardized Catholic mass to what we see today; the world’s premiere theatrical hard rock band. It wasn’t until their second E.P., Popestar and the hit single Square Hammer and a gig opening for Iron Maiden on their latest worldwide tour, that the public began to take notice of the Swedish band. With success also came the lawsuits and controversy, over what and who Ghost was, started. You can google that and form your own opinion. I will say this, the lawsuit may have actually helped Ghost’s cause. Removing the demonic pope characters of Papa Emeritus and replacing them with a Christopher Plummer mask and a new player, Cardinal Copia, may very well have been the last hurdle this band needed to overcome on their path to the top of the charts.

I was introduced the to band through their first E.P., If You Have Ghost, and their cover of Erickson’s If You Have Ghosts. The influence of Dave Grohl, a producer on the E.P., is strong. The Foo Fighters front man plays guitar on their popular cover of Erickson’s classic song about haunted pasts, as well as drums on two of the other tracks. Tobais Forge is a wise student, absorbing everything he observes. He learned from Grohl, of that I have no doubt, and he’s applied every last bit of it since. Forge is much like Grohl, much like Blackmore, in that he is a musical genius seeking to create a specific vision.

Prequelle is anthemic and epic, if it is nothing at all. Set during the time of the Black Death, it tells a loose story about love and death during a time when half the world’s population died. Laden with pop hooks that would make Lady Gaga and her song writing team proud, Prequelle is on par with other classics throughout the decades. Sgt. Pepper’s lonely Hearts Club Band, Machine Head, Rumors, Destroyer, Appetite for Destruction, Nevermind and Metallica’s Black album are its peers. It’s the album Blue Oyster Cult always wanted to make, but never did.

Songs such as Dance Macabre and Rats force you to move your hips while they play, channeling KISS’s underrated disco album, Dynasty, if George Lynch and Dokken had played it. He takes a page from John Carpenter with Miasma, a wave synth 80s soundtrack homage ripped straight out of the director’s Prince of Darkness. Ghost openers Zombi no doubt influenced this track, except for the left field saxophone a the song’s epoch, which neatly brings us back to the 80s. The albums other instrumentals are straight out of Ritchie Blackmore’s playbook. The introductory track, Ashes, and the album’s penultimate track, a window into a Hellish cathedral, Helvetesfönster remind one of Rainbow’s Greensleeves adaptation and his current work with Blackmore’s Night. Whereas Blackmore chooses the stringed approach, Forge has gone the route of major chords on an organ and harpsichord. The album’s ballads are its heart. See the Light, Pro Memoria and Life Eternal all lament love through death, reminding you not to forget your mortality. The heaviest song would be Faith, and perhaps the song that will be most overlooked is one of my other favorites, Witch Image. The latter hearkens back to great deep cuts like S.A.T.O. or Little Dolls from Ozzy’s Diary of a Madman.

Prequelle is an album about death, and life and change and rebirth. It is the album Ghost needed to make, the album Tobias Forge needed to make. It is a masterpiece rising from a perfect storm of controversy and growth in an artist. Ghost now stands aside the likes of Deep Purple, Nirvana and Fleetwood Mac. Inspired and beautiful to behold, Prequelle stands out as our first masterpiece album of the 21st century.

A Quiet Place, Jim and the Smell of Home

John Krasinski’s third directorial outing and first genre film, A QUIET PLACE, has taken America by storm. The survival horror film, focusing on a family living in fear of someTHING in a post apocalyptic Adirondack mountains setting, has been able to suspend disbelief with Middle Americans. Making over $50 million in its opening weekend, it becomes the first original horror movie to reach this summit and continues the trend of well made horror films dominating the screen. I’ve seen the film twice since it opened last Thursday. My second viewing was on a Tuesday evening. Each time the theater was packed. And silent. You could hear every bag crinkle, cough and sniffle for 90 minutes.

This seems to be the most common statement a person makes after seeing A QUIET PLACE, now being heralded as the movie that made Millennials shut up in the theater. But there’s much more to this film than this superficial indicator. The film’s story is simple, which allows for basic understanding by the masses inhabiting Middle America. As is the case in most horror films, we establish the rules early on. Much like last year’s IT, the first incident our family encounters lays the foundation that all bets are off and nobody is safe. Unlike IT, which is a well made and entertaining movie but is missing something (like a second half?), A QUIET PLACE pays off in spades.

Like any good horror story there are rules. In this case, they are a titular establishment. A QUIET PLACE indicates sound will be an element and play a key role in the story and it’s the story that propels this film. Screen writers Bryan Wood and Scott Beck, with a little help from Krasinski, keep it simple and stupid. They don’t waste a moment of screen time, either. Each and every thing that happens on screen is for a reason. Some of it is blatant foreshadowing, some is little moments of character development. No matter what a scene establishes, all of it moves the narrative along at a brisk pace. The trailers for A QUIET PLACE are misleading. This is not a slow burn.

There’s also the “Jim Factor.” John Krasinski’s long time role on TV’s THE OFFICE has made him a darling among the Amy Schumer-something female demographic. He’s everyone’s favorite guy. No attempt to hide Jim works for Krasinski. He’s like an action figure. Give him a beard, he’s still Jim with a beard. Stick him in a war movie (13 HOURS), he’s still Jim, with a gun. Make him angry on screen, he’s still Jim, being angry. In this movie, we get to see Jim as a loving Dad and husband at the end of the world. The natural chemistry he has with his wife, Emily Blunt, on screen also contributes to this movie’s success. She’s no Pam, thank God. Quite honestly, everyone hates Pam for dicking Jim around for the better part of a decade. The young actors playing their children are also outstanding. The entire cast contributes to making this believable.

For me it was more than a sense of familiarity with Jim. It was a feeling of home. I’d like to welcome the rest of America to upstate New York. I’ve called it my home most of the past 50 years. There have been a few times I’ve left for extended periods of time, all of them paid for by Uncle Sam and the United States Army. Missouri, Indiana and Arkansas were nice, but they weren’t New York. They smelled different. The flora and fauna was different. Even the weather. As a teenage in boot camp in Missouri I witnessed my first storm coming across the plains. It resembled a demonic gateway to another dimension, floating in space in the distance, lightning erupting from its black, clouded heart. Of course it wasn’t a rift in time and space, it was an illusion created by the horizon. Locals assumed I’d never seen such a spectacle before because I came from the big city of New York. That wasn’t the case. Where I grew up had mountains. Up until this point in my life, I’d never seen a horizon except on water.

There’s something about upstate New York. It’s rolling hills, its corn fields and cow pastures. We’re blessed with two mountain ranges. Our mountains aren’t your traditional mountains. They’re lower peaked than the high, snow-covered points of the Rocky’s, more like hills in the grand scheme of things. The southern tier’s Catskills are a spur of the range that includes the Poconos of Pennsylvania and the Berkshires of Massachusetts. The Castkills are one of the most commercialized mountain ranges in the country and densely populated to the point where they are nearly a suburb of New York City. Further north, our claim to fame becomes the world famous Adirondack range. Where as most mountains are formed when two plates crash together, the ADKs (as we call them) were formed when a massive glacier ground down a massive volcanic dome over a few million years. As a result, beach sand is as prolific in the Adirondacks as clay earth is in the foothills close to the mountains.

Nestled in the heart of the river valleys surrounding the Adirondacks lies the small town of Little Falls, NY, where much of A QUIET PLACE was filmed. Like most small towns in New York, it’s felt the economic crunch most of New York has been under the past few decades. Many businesses have closed over the years as people have made a mass exodus from the harsh winters and humid summers, leaving brown fields scattered about the terrain. These temperature extremes bring about distinct scents, many of which change with the seasons. Spring, for example, smells of mud and pollen. Summers are a cornucopia of aromas. Rust and mildew mixed with mowed grass, corn and cow shit. Fall brings the distinct scent of dead leaves. By winter, the combined odors of vehicle exhaust and salt are so thick you can taste them.

I made a similar comparison to Ted Geohagen’s WE ARE STILL HERE three years ago, filmed in Palmyra, NY. Geohagen’s follow up, MOHAWK, was similarly filmed in Highland forest near the towns of Tully and Fabius, NY – no more than a twenty minute drive from my house. POTTERSVILLE, last year’s Netflix Bigfoot comedy featuring Michael Shannon, was filmed in Hamilton, NY. Now, with A QUIET PLACE, the rest of America is finally seeing how beautiful upstate New York is.

Much like the under appreciated BOOK OF ELI, a movie that utilized sound as a factor in its story, A QUIET PLACE is a unique film you should enjoy in a theatrical setting, wherein a complete sensory experience awaits you. You’ll smell and taste this film as much as you see it and hear it. When a good movie is made, the public will follow, and man have they followed this movie. After the award winning success of genre films GET OUT and THE SHAPE OF WATER, A QUIET PLACE stands firmly on my short list of Oscar contenders for 2019.

Close Encounters of the Mythological Kind

There are two constants on entertainment, and both contribute to a property’s overall appeal. One: Great art has many different interpretations, and two: Great stories transcend genres.

I got to see Annihilation this past week. Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel is a visually stunning, thought provoking film that will leave the audience polarized. You either like this or you don’t. People are comparing it to Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey or Scott’s Blade Runner. I don’t see why or how.

I’ve always found 2001 to be a bore fest, and (throw stuff at me now) I’ve never been a big fan of Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s film lulls me to sleep with its imagery. Yes, its visually stunning. Face it, though, Blade Runner is poorly paced. It damn near requires carbon monoxide alarms to periodically wake you from the inevitable moments of narcolepsy you will find yourself suffering. Now, if the caveat of your comparison is Annihilation is everything people said Blade Runner or 2001 was without putting you to sleep; then you and I share the same assessment.

The secret is the sense of wonder and fear of the unknown that Garland’s script builds. As you watch the team move through the Shimmer, the narrative set up has you wondering what is behind the next tree up ahead. Plus the colors are vivid popping out at you, keeping your interest. Enough suspense has been built that you, as a viewer, want to know what the fuck is up with the Shimmer and why and what it is doing. This keeps you engrossed in it.

By contrast, 2001 had a lot of exterior space shots, basically black and white back grounds and not much going on except space ships docking with one another. And the classical music score, though iconic and great, can also be used for pre-surgery relaxation therapy. Then there is Blade Runner and Ridley Scott’s godamned light filters, plus Vangelis’ Muzak synth wave soundtrack, were a lethal cocktail of GO TO FUCKING SLEEP. And, in both cases, the story plodded along with no real suspense. Not so with Annihilation. Garland keeps you awake. He knows how to weave a mystery box with out cheating (I’m looking at you with a lens flair, JJ!).

Garland is destined to be heralded as one of the greatest early-millennial directors. I see many parallels between him and Stephen Speilberg, more so than I see with the man who has been accused of wanting to be Speilberg, JJ Abrams. Superficially, all three men have made a career out of fantastic speculative fiction. They blend tropes from horror and science fiction into what can only be described as genre defying adventures. All of their films are modern commentaries on social studies using a fantastic platform to tell their story.

Speilberg’s have been more grounded in our world and the suburban development he grew up in. JAWS, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park. Indiana Jones. Saving Private Ryan. Horror, science fiction. Adventure. All of them seen through the eyes of Speilberg as a child.

Abrams has been all over the map, dipping his chips into each bowl of dip. He’s the ultimate fanboy who sees what he likes, but doesn’t understand the broader appeal of it. As a result, many of the protagonists and supporting characters in JJ’s films are one dimensional and uninspired.

Garland, on the other hand, he’s stayed true to intimate portraits of what makes us human, using them to drive his stories. They work each and every time, without fail. He keeps the scope small. His interactions are with small numbers of characters, not fitting typical story archetypes, but psychological profiles of common people we can relate to and bond with. He is masterful at creating suspense. In spite of how personal his foundations may be, there are worldwide consequences for the action or inaction of the characters in his stories that would require assembling the Avengers in a Marvel Studios popcorn movie.

Alex Garland slowly infiltrated our popular culture and tapped into our basic fears nearly 20 years ago. He’s as much responsible for you watching the Walking Dead as Kirkman, Keene or Romero. All the while, he’s fully embraced Greek story telling and myth, using them as templates for his stories, shaking them up just a bit so you don’t recognize the source material. He’s constantly showing us the ramifications for opening Pandora’s Box, and all of them are ugly. Zombies, clones, killer AI’s, alien manifestations, to name a few.

Garland is in tune with what scares us. In the past decade, with both the written word and motion pictures, he’s has proven he has a finger on the pulse of the human psyche. And a strong appreciation for the basics. You see, Garland has been retelling Hellenic myth all along, and that’s part of the appeal of his work. His screenplays laid the foundation for what has come with Annihilation and Ex Machina.

28 Days Later helped establish the modern zombie craze was his first dip into what happens when Pandora’s Box is opened, something he revisits in Ex Machina. Never Let Me Go is dystopian Sci Fi, and it’s the myth of the Elyisum fields. Sunshine is so bold it tells you it’s the flight of Icarus, as well as a commentary on global warming and climate change. Even Dredd, a fantastic adaption of the 2000 AD comic book and reboot after the horrible 90’s Stallone vehicle, is Greek. It gives Theseus a bad attitude and a badge as he traverses a sky scraping Labyrinth to kill Ma-Ma’s interpretation of the bullish minotaur.

Now we come to his most recent entries. 2015’s Ex Machina is an amalgamation of the Pandora and Prometheus myths, while also being a study in human survival. Brothers in coding, Bateman is Prometheus,  Caleb is the sibling Epimetheus, who later falls in love with Pandora, er, I mean Ava. Prometheus gets chained to a rock and is stabbed in the chest by a vulture that eats his liver every day for eternity, Bateman gets stabbed in the liver by Ava. We all know what happens when Pandora opens that box, which is tantamount to Ava’s exit from the facility in Ex Machina’s horrifying climax.

 

Annihilation is the myth of Orpheus and proof that love transcends change. Is the Shimmer the Underworld, or is our world? That is the question this movie has left me asking. It also questions our perceptions of individuality. Who are we and what is it that makes us… us.

Annihilation is smarter than most people will give it credit for. In fact, it’s probably smarter than most of the people going to see it. For modern “smart” hard sci fi, it’s everything Arrival and Interstellar both wanted to be, but failed to capture in their third acts. I’m eagerly awaiting Garland’s next offering. Annihilation transcends and defies. It’s art of the highest caliber, and its divisiveness if the evidence.