In the novel Annihilation (2014), by Jeff VanderMeer, an area located in Florida, designated ‘Area X’, has been overtaken by unknown forces, creating a strange and mysterious ecosystem, which might possibly be an alien entity. Here, weird things occur, normal expectations are confounded by evolutionary anomalies, psychological disturbances, and other unexplainable phenomena.
When an expedition of four women is sent into ‘Area X’, each member possessing a specific skillset, they encounter forces none of them can comprehend. The investigative team enters ‘Area X’ without modern technology, reliant on their journals to record their thoughts and observations. These journals are reminiscent of the pneumatic capsule pipeline reports in the similarly weird island in Lost, observations of experiments, which end up pointlessly discarded in a pile cascading down a mountainside. Is this a comment about the act of observing: the pointlessness of over rationalised observation? Because all observation however pseudo-technical or scientific is subjective… stuck inside the limitations of words and language?
Annihilation is a classic journey into the ‘heart of darkness’ using the trusty storytelling device of the written journal – recording the narrator’s desire to capture and make sense of her experience, in much the same way an author uses stories to make sense of the world.
The post-apocalyptic story
In Five – the first post-apocalyptic Hollywood film – the characters rationalise their experience and ponder their future in a world destroyed by nuclear war. With civilisation in ruins, they must figure out what kind of society they wish to rebuild.
This dilemma typifies many post-apocalyptic stories, which go beyond the immediate loss and, instead, explore cultural values: what values are necessary to create a decent and just society? What areas of our existing culture must be jettisoned to ensure human survival?
The post-apocalyptic story originates in myth, and literature; appearing in the catastrophic floods of the epic poem Gilgamesh (2100 BC), and the story of Noah and his ark in the Bible. Where civilisation exists there is a reciprocal fear it may somehow collapse, and the world will return to barbarity. Then, with industrialisation, a fear emerged that the increasing mechanisation would be unsustainable: morally, and in terms of the sheer cultural upheaval and drain on natural resources. Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin De Grainville’s prose poem Le Dernier Homme (The Last Man), published in 1805, depicted the end of the world (a ‘dying earth’). Influenced by the biblical story of Adam and Eve, the Book of Revelation, and Milton’s poem Paradise Lost, the story is set in a distant future where the world has become sterile and mankind can no longer reproduce. The last (fertile) man has to choose between fathering a child with the last fertile woman, or allowing mankind to become extinct. He chooses not to father a child and consequently the end of the world takes place (which, according to the story, is what God wishes).
In the first ‘modern’ post-apocalyptic novel, Mary Shelly’s The Last Man (1826), the world is destroyed by a devastating plague. Post-apocalyptic worlds commonly suffer from: toxic environments, plagues, disease, severe pollution, sterility, and radiation. The cities quickly become unliveable, with the survivors escaping to the countryside where they can begin again.
Once the big city is destroyed the post-apocalypse story returns to the wilderness (much like the Western). The lone hero wanders through the wild; or a village settlement is forced to defend itself from external threats. And the means of modern technology may be lost, destroyed, or shunned in favour of a simpler life.
In The Time Machine global war has destroyed civilisation, leading to passive ground dwellers and an underground race that preys on the people above for food. In the Terminator the machines have run amok and threaten human survival, and in 28 Days Later humanity is in peril due to a modern-day plague which produces zombies. In When Worlds Collide an astrological event threatens the world, while alien life dominates humanity in Independence Day and The Day of the Triffids. And war, along with competition for resources, leads to mass social collapse in Mad Max, where oil is more valuable than gold, and a lone hero battles gangs of amoral thugs.
- Clothing and character – in the real-world we’re not always defined by our clothes, we have moments in private when we shed our public persona, we contradict expectation, have off-days, and lapses of judgement. Fictional characters, on the other hand, are always defined by their clothes and appearance, because their attire communicates valuable information to the audience. Their clothing gives us important clues about their self-perception, and how other characters view them. Their clothing reveals their place in the world, their state of mind, how effective they are in their role, their stress level, and their moral core. The most extreme use of clothing in storytelling tends to emphasise masculinity (which is usually associated with physical strength), and femininity (which is commonly associated with beauty). It’s in the fantasy and superhero genres where wardrobes are liberated to their fullest expression, instantly defining characters as good or bad, beautiful or monstrous, ethical or morally void. Immaculate clothing (especially incorporating rare or precious fabrics, gold and jewellery) is a sign of luxury, affluence, magnificence, power and control, and sometimes a sign of social superficiality. A bedraggled appearance indicates poverty, hardship, lack of personal pride, a character who is stressed, on the run, out of balance. The significance of clothes can take on subtle connotations, a bedraggled appearance, for example, might not reveal an impoverished character but an affluent partygoer, living for the moment, or show an artistic spirit and nonconformity. A plain or simple appearance may suggest humility, spirituality, moderation, possibly locating a character as an ‘average’ person. Mismatching clothes, outfits that are too large or too small can make a character appear absurd, or mindless. Clothing takes on extra meaning when different characters’ outfits are contextualised, the beautiful princess in her white and gold, jewellery encrusted dress next to the peasant in his dirty, sackcloth smock. In storytelling, audiences are fed different visual clues that feed together to create a more complete mental picture of who and what a character is. These ‘clues’ are part of the game storytellers play with the audiences, providing information (sometimes deliberately withholding it). Clothing is part of this toolset, helping to convey if a character is good or bad, strong or weak. Traditionally, good characters wear light or white clothes and the villains wear black. Darth Vader in the Star Wars stories is clothed in back with a mechanistic mask covering his face. Brown is often the colour of humility with monks clothed in simple brown smocks. Green is symbolically the colour of nature and forests, what better colour for Robin Hood’s men? Purple is a fancy colour, associated with the decadence of royalty or the outlandish paisley taste of Austin Powers. Wardrobe artists can use colour symbolism, specific fabrics, patterns, and textures, to reveal an aspect of a character. Soft textures (luxury, wealth), harsh textures (toughness), exotic motifs, and historical or futuristic looking cuts. In Cleopatra Elizabeth Taylor dons a series of visually stunning dresses to reveal her beauty, wealth, and power as the Queen of Sheba. In Maleficent, the central character, Maleficent, goes through a series of wardrobe changes, each one echoing her transition from innocence to malevolence. The transformation uses her clothing and colour symbolism: changing from green (harmony with nature), brown (earthy), and on to black (for spiritual emptiness). The superhero genre takes a character’s outfit and elevates it into a visually identifiable brand. The colourful, body-hugging outfits reveal perfect health – the perfect physiques a kind of extension of the national ego, and national health (American patriotism). The superhero characters are larger than life, empowered by superhuman abilities, and yet even with their extraordinary strength, they retain a common ‘humanity’. The supervillains may also possess superpowers, but their physical strength comes at a terrible price. It has corrupted their sense of right and wrong, taken them over like a disease, turning them into a monstrous or machine-like shell that is devoid of humanity, and this is reflected in clothing that appears to be poisonous, reptilian, insectoid, non-human, beast-like or part machine.
- Directed by David Morris and Jacqui Morris, the 2012 documentary McCullin provides an insightful journey through Don McCullin’s war photography in various conflict zones. His matter-of-fact accounts and background information about individual images reveals amazing and truly horrific stories surrounding the decisive moment–how events impacted individual people. The documentary provides an intriguing behind the scenes look at how war photographers operate, and especially the thinking behind his own experience of the horrors. Having witnessed atrocities, murders, horrific brutality, as a viewer you wonder: why did he keep going back for more? Why didn’t he switch to less disturbing assignments? Was the kick of being at the heart of the action an adrenaline shot, an addiction? To some extent I’d guess that his own identity became wrapped up in his job: Don McCullin the war photographer. It was part of how he saw himself – who he was and what he did. It’s difficult to know the truth, but it’s probably a mixture of many things: the journalistic desire to record the truth, an addiction to the adrenaline, and being where ‘the action’ is. McCullin’s career took a different path when conflict coverage was phased out of The Sunday Times in preference for celebrity coverage, which was perceived to be advertiser friendly. Who really wants to see death, destruction and starving children while they’re eating their Sunday breakfast? This change also signalled a mainstream shift in the media to celebrity news and popular culture (which is also cheap to produce) instead of in-depth coverage of global conflicts and investigative journalism (which is expensive). His latter career saw him cover the Lebanese war, where he photographed further brutality and massacres, but assigning him there was widely seen as a way of side-lining him. This continued with the Falkland’s War when he was refused a press pass. It was a time of patriotic jingoism, when being loyally ‘on-message’ was more of a priority than giving journalists free access to report the truth. Don McCullin ended up retiring from journalism to take up landscape photography. Traipsing around the English countryside to capture landscape shots devoid of people, devoid of suffering and horror. It must have been a meditative experience, possibly an attempt to exercise the ghosts.
- Klaartje Quirijns’ documentary Anton Corbijn Inside Out explores Corbijn’s impressive career as a music photographer alongside a personal insight into Anton Corbijn ‘the man’. We are taken through various photo shoots, back office tinkering, client meetings and, perhaps most poignantly, those quiet moments when he’s taking some downtime to reflect on his work and life. In these moments we learn of the sacrifice he’s made to achieve his success. We also learn about the motivations behind his obsession with photography – what drives him creatively. While he professes to be a quiet loner who enjoys protracted silence, he’s a remarkably cool and confident professional when it comes to handling potentially difficult clients (rock and pop artists). He conducts his shoots with a sense of calm control, leading his subjects with clear direction and ever-present good humour. As a photographer his ‘live performance’ as it were: directing subjects, his calm grip on things, his quiet but concise communication skills, bringing in the scenery and location and using space effectively, and incorporating a ‘cinematic feel’ is remarkable. As a production Anton Corbijn Inside Out looks beautiful with an abundance of textures and contrasting looks, from gritty black and white to a slick ‘movie feel’, and all this is punctuated with voiceovers, cutaways, music and ambient sounds. But there’s something revealing about the documentary because Corbijn’s job is to make his subjects look great – superhuman even.
- Protagonist vs antagonist – conventional storytelling centres on a conflict between the hero (the protagonist) and the villain (the antagonist). The protagonist fights for something beyond him or herself: loved ones, friends, a community, justice, the truth, an idea or way of thinking that will make the world a better place – fighting for the benefit of the many. The antagonist fights for personal gain and self-interest: ego and vanity, self-aggrandisement, perverting justice, covering up the truth, perpetuating falsehoods, bullying and threatening others to maximise their power – exercising repressive control for the benefit of the few. In typical action and adventure stories this involves a plot in which the antagonist attempts to subvert the natural balance of things to skew it in their own advantage. Their ultimate goal: to enslave the world. Once the people are demoralised or living in fear, the villain can exercise mastery over the population, monopolise available resources, impose taxes, manipulate the people, impoverish them, and consolidate their grip on power to ensure their control remains unchallenged. Actions derived from either selfish or selfless motives are the fundamental difference between a good and an evil character. Classic action movie villains in the superhero genre, like the Green Goblin, are self-obsessed, unable to move beyond their hatred, envy, greed, and a desire to be recognised as important. James Bond Villains such as Dr No, Blofeld, and Goldfinger, are completely motivated by selfish ends, self-glorification, ego, vanity, and power. They are unable to countenance any form of empathy, delighting instead in sadistic brutality, possessing people like tools and status symbols, treating their lovers as little more than disposable property. Selfless actions require moral consciousness, and self-confidence – the ethical or intellectual clarity to focus on what is outside of him or herself. But, there are times in storytelling when a character lacks clarity. They are lost, confused, misguided, or deluded. In struggling with issues of identity, purpose, and their role in society, they are battling with an invisible ‘monster’ (fear, vanity, the lack of a positive identity, prejudice, lack of worth) – in these cases a sense of self can be a positive thing. A character can go in the other direction, on a journey to a new land, to spiritual enlightenment, and moral awakening.
- In Nocturnal Animals Susan Morrow ponders the relationship she walked out of – leaving her ex-husband Edward Sheffield – while reading his newly completed manuscript. The dissatisfaction with her life weighs heavy. Although outwardly successful her life is fuelled by selfishness, and materialism, and it conceals both impending financial bankruptcy and her husband’s infidelity. The story switches between her real life, and the story told in Edward’s novel. In the ‘now’, Susan lives in a luxurious mansion, surrounded by seductive materialism, where everything looks beautiful and her work as a contemporary artist appears a success. Edward is notable by his absence, only present in her memories and through the manuscript that he’s sent her. The film feels like two stories that have been stitched together and presented to the audience inside an ‘art film’ wrapper, which like Susan’s house, and her art, is beautifully crafted, but weirdly empty.
- In the film Moon (2009), Sam Bell manages an automated surface mining facility on the Moon. His three year contract is almost over; he’s looking forward to returning to Earth to see his wife and child. From this moment on, things begin to unravel for him. Jack Harper is Tech 49 in the film Oblivion (2013). He works on Tower 49, a sky platform, where he lives, and uses as a base for his patrol craft. He maintains and repairs drones, used for hunting Scavengers or ‘Scavs’: alien lifeforms responsible for invading Earth. The plot twist in both stories is that their perception of reality is a fabrication created to make them productive workers.
- The runaround – noir and Neo-Noir fiction is known for its rambling plots, the meandering cul-de-sacs, the main character dodging and weaving from one clue to the next – but the succession of trails leads nowhere. Suddenly, at the end, the protagonist discovers information that solves the puzzle. The plot provides a ‘merry-go-round,’ experience, a series of challenges designed to test the hero. The satisfaction comes from savouring the character’s changing mental representation of the world around them, ‘wising up’ and seeing reality for what it is. In The Third Man we follow Holly Martins as he searches for his missing friend, but the story is really about his journey – a personal journey of learning and self-discovery. The film contextualises his naïve goodness against the corrupted soul of his so-called ‘friend’. The pointless quest provides a situation where the audience can witness a character’s transformation. Even if there is no obvious reversal of fortune, there will be a change in the way the character sees the world.