Annihilation – A Movie Review

I happen to really enjoy Alex Garland’s work, particularly Ex MachinaAnnihilation hit the theaters and disappeared almost immediately, so I didn’t get a chance to see it until last night.

In preparation for the film, back when I thought I’d catch it in the theaters, I read the source material.  (My review for the book can be found HERE.)  This action proved totally unnecessary.  You can watch Annihilation without reading a single page of the book and be just fine.  This is the case for two reasons.  Firstly, Garland stripped the book’s sci-fi elements down to the barest essentials, which made a murky plot in the book very easy to digest on film.  Secondly, Garland radically changed almost every personality aspect of Lena, Natalie Portman’s character.  She is far more balanced, warm, and sociable in the movie than in the book.  Garland also created a mainstream background for Lena compared to what existed in the book.

In fact, Garland altered a great deal of the movie from the book.  The general premise is the same, but the circumstances, environments, and characters are all very different.  This is not a bad thing at all.  Garland delivered a tight, suspenseful movie that kept me guessing throughout.  At times it struck me as almost horror because the scenes were so intense.  But, I wouldn’t call it a horror movie — not by a long shot.  I wouldn’t even call it a science fiction movie, though it exists firmly within that world.  I would rather label this movie as a thrilling character study.

Portman plays a complex person.  Her husband in the film, played by Oscar Isaac, is equally complicated.  And while I found Portman’s supporting characters a little flat, everyone must agree that Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Gina Rodriguez gave it their all.  Again, it has much in common with a horror movie in that we get snippets of who these characters are amidst the suspense, but we get to know none of them deeply.

I keep mentioning horror, yet the movie is actually very quiet in many ways, which certainly builds the suspense.  It doesn’t feel obligated to tell you everything going on, though much is revealed by story’s end.  However, stay loose and enjoy the ride.  The movie demands a certain level of interpretation from the viewer.

Finally, the special effects are beautiful.  The premise is that a meteorite hits a remote area in Florida.  It begins to change the life within an ever-expanding zone.  This is a mutation occurring at the cellular level, so the results are pretty astounding.  Garland definitely succeeds at providing lifeforms that are both exotic but also within the realm of reality.  It’s quite a sight to behold.

All in all, I feel that this is a severely underappreciated movie.  It’s strange and demands a certain level of intellectual engagement by the audience, but it’s also well-made, well-acted, thrilling, and unique.  I highly recommend you give it a try.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

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Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer – A Book Review

Like you, I thought the movie trailer for Annihilation looked very cool, so I thought I’d check out the source material.

When the novel of the same name arrived at my local library, the volume’s slimness surprised me.  At only 195 pages, I knew it would prove a quick read.

Of course, it may be helpful to know this is only the first of a three-book series.  All three collected volumes are known as Southern Reach Trilogy.  The three installments appear to have been published within months of one another, so that could explain the page count.

Whatever the case may be, I have to admit that Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer immediately felt like a bad fit for me.  The prose in this book is … dense.  It’s full of description largely pertaining to foliage and biology.  Also, a first-person narrator delivers the story to us.  I don’t know if it’s Vandermeer’s style or the style of his narrator, but I found the prose clunky and difficult to follow.  To me, the sentences did not flow very smoothly which forced me to read and reread in a way that frustrated.

When Vandermeer’s characters spoke, this issue largely disappeared.  The dialogue flowed freely and felt natural.

The plot itself interested me enough, but things moved rather slowly.  In my opinion, there is no real “revelation” that makes the book a worthwhile, satisfying experience.  Perhaps the other two books provide this experience.  I’m not sure I’m inclined to read them, though.

The good news is that, as I said, this is a very slim book and so you can easily read it in a day or two and prove me wrong.  I have been wrong about books before.  I’ve even reread a few books to find that my opinion of them changed completely.

I still plan to see the movie, but, if I’m being honest, not much that I’ve seen in the trailers evokes much from what I read in the book.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

 

 

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson – A Book Review

As you know, I’m honored to be a teacher by day.  An esteemed student recommended this book to my class, and he made it sound so exciting, so imaginative, and so flat-out fun that we all wanted to read it.  I ran to my local library and picked up a copy as soon as I could.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about Snow Crash is that it debuted in 1992.  In many ways, this book is downright prophetic in regards to technology, specifically the internet.  It absolutely nailed what was then considered the near future.  I dare you to read this book and not see a world that came to realization.

The plot is … complicated.  Hmm.  How best to succinctly explain?  Okay, here goes: Hiro Protagonist is an underachieving hacker who spends his days delivering pizza for the Mafia.  However, he’s also a master swordsman responsible for much of what’s called the Metaverse, which is what we would call a world of virtual reality.  There’s a new virus attacking those most adept at coding, especially hackers.  It’s called Snow Crash.  However, this virus may not be new — it may be the remnant of something from Biblical times.  There’s so much more, but that’s the driving thread of the book.

Every single sentence in this book made me work, and I mean that as a compliment.  It’s so unique, so original that the reader cannot take a single word off — it demands your concentration at all times.

My only complaint is that the book seems to end rather abruptly compared to the epic tale preceding it.  Frankly, the ending struck me as almost anticlimactic, but that seems fairly consistent with the author’s sensibilities.  Mr. Stephenson seems like a writer that refuses to follow convention, especially when it comes to endings.

Some books require no necessary rereads.  Snow Crash is NOT one of those books.  I intend to read this book again, and probably a third time as well, in order to fully grasp it.

If you’re looking for something completely unique and unlike virtually anything else you’ve ever read, I suggest Snow Crash.  Though it will remind you of The Matrix and Ready Player One, you must remember that this came first.

 

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Read “Terminal Synchronicity” – My Latest Short Story

Terminal Synchronicity: A Short Story by [Foley, Scott William]

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In this brief tale, Eli and Molly collide in a terminal. They are ecstatic to see one another again, yet both state that such a meeting is impossible. Their love has seemingly conquered time and space, but how? And for how long? (Science fiction/Fantasy/Love)

Stories Of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang – A Book Review

As you know, I loved the film Arrival.  As is my habit after watching a great movie based on a book, I immediately acquired the source material.  It turns out that Stories Of Your Life and Others is actually a short story collection and “Story Of Your Life” is specifically the installment that served as Arrival’s source.  However, there are seven other shorts in this collection by Ted Chiang, and they are all imaginative and thought-provoking.

Chiang trained as a computer scientist, and it shows in his writing.  He is very precise, very analytical, and very scientific.  Yet he also has a great sense of character, pacing, and detail.  I especially appreciate that he seems to know the appropriate time to really delve deeply into scientific jargon, but he also knows the right time to pull back and simply let the story flow.

I would not say that all of his stories are purely science fiction, by the way.  “Tower Of Babylon,” for example, explains the science behind building a structure reaching to the heavens, but I would say it is more commentary about the human spirit than anything.  “Hell Is the Absence Of God,” a story about the physical, spiritual, and emotional consequences following sporadic visits by actual angels, is also far more about what it means to be human than anything else.

In fact, at their root, most of Chiang’s stories in this collection are investigating the plight of the human condition.  He tackles love, greed, beauty, sin, justice, obsession, honesty, and even eternal life, but he does so in extremely smart, original, and imaginative ways hidden within the genres of science fiction, steampunk, and fantasy.

If you enjoy innovative, thought-provoking stories, I highly recommend this collection.  They are all fairly complex reads, but well worth the effort.  You will like some more than others, but each is to be appreciated in its own way.

(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

“Phasks” – My Latest Short Story On the Nook and Kindle

Phasks: A Short Story by [Foley, Scott William ]

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They say technology will one day tear us apart, but for some, it will bring us together, especially in the case of two young women traveling to a Jill Thompson fan club meeting. Set in the near future, this short story is optimistic, innovative, and humorous as it propels today’s technological trends to the next level. (Science Fiction/Social Commentary/Technology)

The Book Of Strange New Things by Michel Faber – A Book Review

A friend recommended The Book Of Strange New Things to me a while back, so when I saw a beautiful hardcover edition in the severe discount bin at my local grocery store, I swept it up without hesitation.  (I’m still trying to figure out why it ended up in a discount bin at my grocery store.  Weird.)

The Book Of Strange New Things is a breath of fresh air, that’s for sure.  But, if I’m telling the truth, it didn’t end quite satisfactorily in my mind.  More on that soon …

The premise is that Peter, a man of 33, has been selected by a clandestine corporate entity to serve as a missionary to an indigenous species on a planet said entity is colonizing.  Peter is very happily married, and while he moved through the vetting process with ease, his wife did not, which results in her having to stay behind.

Both are incredibly devout to God.  They effectively run their own church while Peter’s wife, Bea, also works as a nurse.  Both experienced a difficult past, and it’s amazing Peter even lived long enough to eventually find God.  If I may be so bold, Bea and Peter are the sort of Christians who lead by example.  They do not force God upon people.  They treat people with respect, they administer to people, they expect nothing in return, but if an opportunity comes along to share the Message, they will.  They do not judge, for Peter has plunged lower than most anyone during his previous life.  They do not beat their Bibles.  They love.  They care.  They help.  They share.

Due to their faith and bond, they agree to serve God by sending Peter off to this distant world as Bea stays behind.  Once Peter arrives, his work proves to be far simpler than he imagined.  In fact, the denizens he’s serving are all too willing to have him; they’ve even been looking forward to his arrival!

But soon after Peter settles in on this new world, horrible things begin happening back on Earth.  He and Bea’s faith and love are put to the test in ways they never imagined.  Even their belief in God is strained.

I won’t spoil it any further, but this gives you a good sense of the tone of the book.  It introduces some compelling themes.  The idea of putting God first, before oneself and even one’s spouse, is a conflict of great interest to many.  There are also several mysteries unfolding, particularly in regards to the aliens themselves.  Just why are they so enthusiastic to learn about God?  Why did they specifically request a missionary from the corporation?  What is their motivation?  Furthermore, Peter suffers dismay as he is unfathomable miles from his wife as her world seems to be falling apart.  What is going on back on Earth?  Are things as bad as she says?  Is it even her writing these messages to him?

I appreciate that Peter is quite believable as a man who lived in the gutters before finding God.  Faber had to walk a tightrope in making a missionary who did not come off as too preachy, too stereotypical, too “holier than thou.”  He also came close to making Peter too selfless, too forgiving, and too naive.  Instead, he managed to strike that delicate balance with Peter, and, as a result, created an engaging character for whom we care.

The book moves quite slowly, but not unpleasantly.  Faber spends a great deal of time establishing Peter, Bea, the creatures, the new planet, and even Peter’s coworkers.  He explains just enough to make this colony believable, yet he smartly avoids trying to explain every nuance of the science and technology involved.  Peter is a bit of a amateur when it comes to technology, so it helps to see the world through his eyes.  Things happen, but he doesn’t pretend to understand the science behind it, nor does he particularly care.  He shares his curiosity with the reader, but does not try to focus too much about anything beyond the natives and his mission.  Oh, and Bea.  For the most part.

My only complaint is the ending.  For a book that burns so slowly, I expected a bit more from the conclusion.  On the one hand, we are given some interesting revelations concerning the planet’s inhabitants, but in regards to life back on Earth and Bea, I found myself rather unsatisfied.  I don’t need everything wrapped up in a tight little bow, but I thought Faber could have rewarded the reader a bit more in that regard.

There tends to be a real trend of late with new takes on space travel and “aliens.”  With mature, thoughtful approaches like Arrival and The Book Of Strange New Things, I hope the genre continues to expand and reinvent itself.

I absolutely recommend The Book Of Strange New Things for its characters, themes, creativity, originality, conflict, style, and plot.  My only reservations in recommending it to you are the pacing and the conclusion.

 

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