What’s not to like?

Watching Kiah Roache-Turner’s Sting for New Scientist

A bratty 12-year-old girl. A feckless stepfather who loses her trust and feels increasingly out of place in his own home. Oh, and a giant spider.

Kiah Roache-Turner, a relatively new director on the horror scene, understands that real originality has almost nothing to do with who and what you put in front of the screen. What matters how is you set those elements to dancing. Like 2023’s killer-doll hit M3gan, with which it shares a certain antic humour, Sting cares about its characters. Charlotte (Alyla Browne) hero-worships her absent father, and this is slowly driving her stepdad Ethan (Ryan Corr) up the wall, since he knows full well that Charlotte’s real dad lives only half an hour away “across the bridge”. (Sting is ostensibly set in Brooklyn, New York; actually it was shot in Sydney and aside from a couple of establishing shots its action takes place entirely within a brownstone apartment house, all drywall and ducts.)

Ethan’s a struggling comic book artist who finds himself borrowing (and spoiling) Charlotte’s own much livelier ideas. When Charlotte’s pet spider (it arrived in a meteor during an ice storm — never a good sign) grows to man-eating size and drags Ethan off through the air duct, Charlotte, plugged in to her earphones, her videogames and her anger, simply fails to notice. The scene tries to hit the sweet spot between horror and comedy that M3gan struck again and again, and if it doesn’t quite succeed, I think it may have less to do with the writing or direction as with the film’s basic premise, which is, when you come down to it, very thin.

Comparisons to the original Alien are inevitable, if only because of the spider’s break-neck growth rate and all those ducts. And as far as the special effects go, Sting the Spider stands up pretty well. Wisely, the film prefers glimpses, shadows and one or two very well-judged sight gags to full-on goo and muppeteering.

The house — a realistically over-stuffed gothic interior full of corners and cabinets — is the family in metaphor. The ducts connecting Charlotte’s bedroom to the sitting room of Helga, her senile grandmother (Noni Hazlehurst, having more fun than the rest of the cast put together), are the torturous lines of communication by which these good people struggle to maintain a sense of family. Sting favours suspense over surprise. We learn very early on that Charlotte’s fast-growing pet cannot bear the smell of mothballs and that Helga, wrapped in umpteen threadbare shawls, stinks of them. For a second we teeter on a fairytale in which an old woman and a young girl will save the “real” adult world.

True, nothing kills a good story faster than cleverness — but a few more touches of that sort wouldn’t have hurt. Instead we have an efficient, entertaining light-hearted script, very ably realised, and one and a half hours of light entertainment that, though not at all wasted, are not exactly filled to the brim, either.

Why, then, has Sting acquired global distribution and, even before its release, such glowing trade coverage?

Well, for one thing, it’s refreshing to see a movie that puts its characters through the wringer in psychologically believable ways. Charlotte saves Ethan from the spider. Ethan saves Charlotte. In the face of a Fate Worse Than Death (trust me on this), the pair learn to cooperate. A weak man gains strength, a lonely child learns there’s value in other people, a cowardly exterminator loses his head and a bitter landlady plummets down a lift shaft. What’s not to like? Storytelling this pure looks effortless, but if it was, films in general would be a lot better than they are.

A Gigeresque melange

Reading Cold People by Tom Robb-Smith for the Times, 14 January 2023

Harvard medical student Liza is on holiday in Lisbon with her parents and younger sister when gigantic alien fish-shapes descend from the sky and order all humans to vacate the habitable bits of their planet for Antarctica, the only continent humans have never been able to settle.

Twenty years on, in a ramshackle, endlessly retrofitted settlement on the Antarctic Peninsula called Hope Town, Liza — one of very few survivors — gives birth to Echo, a genetically engineered daughter whose modifications allow her to withstand the bitter cold. Echo is an early prototype of future human being designed in McMurdo City (the ramshackle, ice-bound, over-serious new capital of humanity) by the heroically unprincipled geneticist Song Fu, aided and abetted by her assistant Yotam Penzak, the book’s splendidly drawn antagonist. (The author of Child 44 knows how to tell a story; you know you’re in safe hands when your villain is motivated by love.)

Yotam, who attended her birth, thinks Echo and her posthuman kind are a worthy end in themselves: powerful and humane, capable of nurturing unengineered humanity in their impossible new environment, even as they succeed them over evolutionary time.

His boss disagrees. The remains of humanity will die out in not much more than a century, says Song Fu. A more radical succession is required if humans are to survive in any form.

Yotam’s unlucky love life leaves him vulnerable to browbeating by his boss, and then to seduction by Song Fu’s posthumous final creation, a Giger-esque melange of human, alligator and shark.

In this wasteland, “Eitan” and his kind are by far the dominant species — or will be, if Yotam lets them out of their cave.
Much as Roald Amundsen and his party consumed the husky dogs that had got him to the Pole in 1911, they will consume their human creators, not out of hate or revenge, but simply because they have no other use for them.

Can Yotam’s convictions be shaken? Can Eitan be stopped?

Cold People does not explore ideas; it animates them. Plot is king. Smith’s characters aren’t so much pretend people as they are admirable, animated types. The result is a page-turner that, without offering much by way of ordinary human feeling, reveals Tom Rob Smith’s view of the human condition: what he thinks about the plight of thinking, would-be ethical beings who still need to consume and burn and exploit in order to survive. In Smith’s vision, humanity’s reach so far exceeds its grasp that its downfall at its own hand seems more or less assured.

These are chewy and worthwhile themes, and Cold People cleverly distils them to the point where they play out, and reach a satisfying climax, at ordinary human scale. If Echo can protect her human family, there’s hope for humanity at large. If not, we’re all for the chum bucket.

Cold People will entertain and impress readers who enjoy novels that are containers for ideas. The rest of us may regret that Smith did not linger longer among the Polynesian navigators, seal hunters and stir-crazy researchers populating his largely irrelevant but wonderfully evocative prologue. Slow down, Smith! You were so set on your destination, you missed the scenery.

X at heart

Reading Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation for the Guardian, 5 March 2014

When you were a child, did you ever repeat some random word until it went strange in your mouth? Do you recall it growing heavy, as if by repetition it was acquiring the power of a spell?

“The biologist” (we’re not told her name) has spent her life staring into puddles, into rock-pools, until “I had a sense that I knew nothing at all – about nature, about ecosystems.” Now she is staring into the kind, bland eyes of her husband. He is newly returned from fabled Area X, unharmed, intact and utterly scraped out.

Area X is an abandoned and apparently unspoilt stretch of US coastline, held under strict quarantine by a mysterious government agency called the Southern Reach.

Into this place come the biologist and her colleagues: a surveyor, a linguist, and a psychologist. They are all women. And that is all. Sensitive readers will already have begun to feel their fingers prised loose from the edge of the swimming pool, when it turns out these explorers are unable to divulge their names. “Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X.”

In Annihilation, the first part of an imaginatively marketed and beautifully produced trilogy (the other parts are out in May and September), the novelist and publishing entrepreneur Jeff VanderMeer sets out to create a lasting monument to the uncanny by revisiting – without embellishment, and with a pitiless focus on physical and psychological detail – some very old ground. An alien invasion site. Assimilative spores. An unfurling of promiscuous alien biology.

On the first page we are told that the women’s enterprise is doomed. Their equipment is either nonsensical, or inadequate, or antiquated. Their training and instructions are sometimes vague, sometimes misleading. They cannot recall the moment they crossed into Area X, and they have no clear idea how they will leave. They cannot agree about what they are seeing (a shaft? a tower? a throat?) and three of them are all the while half-aware of being hypnotically manipulated by their team leader.

You enter Area X with them, thinking the uncanny must lurk in some particular spot. The lighthouse? The reed beds? The “tower”? Very quickly you spot your mistake, as a subtle, well-engineered wrongness turns up in every character, every deed, every observation until, at last, you find yourself afraid to turn the page.

The uncanny, by VanderMeer’s measure, is not, and never was, a thing. It is, and has always been, the actual state of the world. Familiarity is a fiction we perpetuate through psychological necessity. The closer the nameless biologist comes to this realisation, the more she falls back on her scientific training – not in any petulant, pedantic way, but rather as a means of limiting the kinds of questions she needs to ask the world, and of her rapidly transmogrifying self.

From this self-destructively objective vantage point, there can be no “us” or “them”, no threshold to cross, no home to flee to when all’s done. Science is there to handle the uncanny, and the biologist’s declaration near the end of the book – “Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish” – is anything but an expression of doubt. It is as stirring in its admission of human frailty and ambition as Beckett’s “You must go on. / I can’t go on. / I’ll go on.”

Where this story will end I cannot begin to guess. We are less than 200 pages in to the Southern Reach Trilogy by the end of this first volume, and already home is a distant memory, and an unreliable one, too: for who’s to say that home was not always X at heart?