Run for your life

Watching Gints Zilbalodis’s Away for New Scientist, 18 November 2020

A barren landscape at sun-up. From the cords of his deflated parachute, dangling from the twisted branch of a dead tree, a boy slowly wakes to his surroundings, just as a figure appears out of the dawn’s dreamy desert glare. Humanoid but not human, faceless yet somehow inexpressibly sad, the giant figure shambles towards the boy and bends and, though mouthless, tries somehow to swallow him.

The boy unclips himself from his harness, falls to the sandy ground, and begins to run. The strange, slow, gripping pursuit that follows will, in the space of an hour and ten minutes, tell the story of how the boy comes to understand the value of life and friendship.

That the monster is Death is clear from the start: not a ravenous ogre, but unstoppable and steady. It swallows, without fuss or pain, the lives of any creature it touches. Perhaps the figure pursuing the boy is not a physical threat at all, but more the dawning of a terrible idea — that none of us lives forever. (In one extraordinary dream sequence, we see the boy’s fellow air passengers plummet from the sky, each one rendered as a little melancholy incarnation of the same creature.)

Away is the sole creation of 26-year-old Latvian film-maker Gints Zilbalodis, and it’s his first feature-length animation. Zabalodis is Away’s director, writer, animator, editor, and even composed its deceptively simple synth score — a constant back-and-forth between dread and wonder.

There’s no shading in Zabalodis’s CGI-powered animation, no outlining, and next to no texture, and the physics is rudimentary. When bodies enter water, there’s no splash: instead, deep ripples shimmer across the screen. A geyser erupts, and water rises and falls against itself in a churn of massy, architectonic white blocks. What drives this strange retro, gamelike animation style?

Away feels nostalgic at first, perhaps harking back to the early days of videogames, when processing speeds were tiny, and a limited palette and simplified physics helped players explore game worlds in real time. Indeed the whole film is structured like a game, with distinct chapters and a plot arranged around simple physical and logical puzzles. The boy finds a haversack, a map, a water canteen, a key and a motorbike. He finds a companion — a young bird. His companion learns to fly, and departs, and returns. The boy runs out of water, and finds it. He meets turtles, birds, and cats. He wins a major victory over his terrifying pursuer, only to discover that the victory is temporary. By the end of the film, it’s the realistic movies that seem odd, the big budget animations, the meticulously composited Nolanesque behemoths. Even dialogue feels clumsy and lumpen, after 75 minutes of Away’s impeccable, wordless storytelling.

Away reminds us that when everything in the frame and on the soundtrack serves the story, then the elements themselves don’t have to be remarkable. They can be simple and straightforward: fields of a single colour, a single apposite sound-effect, the tilt of a simply drawn head.

As CGI technology penetrates the prosumer market, and super-tool packages like Maya become affordable, or at any rate accessible through institutions, then more artists and filmmakers are likely to take up the challenge laid down by Away, creating, all by themselves, their own feature-length productions.

Experiments of this sort — ones that change the logistics and economies of film production — are often ugly. The first films were virtually unfollowable. The first sound films were dull and stagey. CGI effects were so hammy at first, they kicked viewers out of the movie-going experience entirely. It took years for Pixar’s animations to acquire their trademark charm.

Away is different. In an industry that makes films whose animation credits feature casts of thousands, Zabalodis’s exquisite movie sets a very high bar indeed for a new kind of artisanal filmmaking.

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?