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'Annihilation': Is the 'New Weird' too weird for Hollywood?

Commentary: Paramount decided the Natalie Portman film couldn't work as a broad release. The issue may be book author Jeff VanderMeer's take on the genre.

Paramount Pictures

The sci-fi thriller "Annihilation," based on Jeff VanderMeer's book of the same name, could be one of Hollywood's most unusual and exciting adaptations of 2018.

The book, published in 2014, asks important questions about ecology, authority, identity and the human condition, while maintaining a constant sense of inscrutable and sinister unease as mysteries pile on top of mysteries.

The film, which stars Natalie Portman, opens Friday in the US. But when I found out "Annihilation" won't get a theatrical release beyond the US, Canada and China, I was more than dismayed. What's stopping the movie from reaching big screens elsewhere? According to The Hollywood Reporter, Paramount was concerned the story may be "too intellectual" for general audiences following the movie's poor screen-test results.

Bosh.

Though I haven't seen the film, I have read the book, and it's one of the most approachable (not to mention creepy) achievements of VanderMeer's oeuvre to date.

Unless there are vast departures from the source material, I struggle to see how a general audience wouldn't have the mental capacity to enjoy an adaptation of VanderMeer's spectacular but fairly straightforward novella.

The plot is simple enough. "Annihilation" features a team of women tasked by a secretive government agency with investigating a mysterious environmental disaster zone known as Area X. All previous investigations of the region have ended in disaster.

On crossing the border, the explorers are confronted with an innocuous, rich wilderness. But the mood darkens when one of them discovers a strange creature that infects her with toxic spores and kills another team member who ventures too close. Paranoia spreads, lies are exposed, and no one is safe within the suffocating, preternatural borders of Area X.

Much of VanderMeer's earlier work, including "City of Saints and Madmen," "Shriek: An Afterword" and "Finch," are more deeply set within the realms of fantasy. And while the exploration of the noir genre in "Finch" was certainly original, the distinctive approach likely "alienated as many readers as it charmed," according to a book review in The Guardian.

Incidentally, this desire to play with established norms is probably why director Alex Garland was attracted to VanderMeer's work in the first place. "I work in genre," Garland said earlier this month in an interview with CNET. "I write thrillers and sci-fi movies and then to some extent try to subvert them."

Perhaps it's this idea of subversion that's at the heart of the problem with "Annihilation." The unfavourable audience reaction may in part be a response to its genre, which falls firmly under the category of "New Weird" -- a wild and unconventional mix that occasionally deviates into exasperating postmodern territory.

Genre busting

"Annihilation" is a stew of genres, deftly defying traditional ideas of categorisation while retaining the feel of genre fiction.

For example, VanderMeer goes from fantasy, describing one of the beasts in Area X as a "great sluglike monster ringed by satellites of even odder creatures," before quickly thrusting us into horror, with a scene that wouldn't feel out of place in a Stephen King novel:

"Then I felt the impression from behind me of hundreds of eyes beginning to turn in my direction, staring at me. I was a thing in a swimming pool being observed by a monstrous little girl. I was a mouse in an empty lot being tracked by a fox."

This border-crossing approach to writing is known as the New Weird, a term coined by John Harrison in 2002 in an introduction to China Mieville's "The Tain." Common sources of inspiration include science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, horror, steampunk and even westerns.

Though it has "new" in the name, don't let that fool you into thinking this is entirely uncharted territory. New Weird's origins go as far back as H.P. Lovecraft, who rather helpfully wrote a guide to the approach (then known simply as "Weird Fiction") as it took shape in the early 20th century.

You can even trace Lovecraft's influences back to the gothic fiction of the 19th century, which itself emerged as a genre a century earlier in the 1760s with the publication of "The Castle of Otranto" by Horace Walpole.

This heady and often experimental brew of disciplines, with its own convoluted (and weird) history, flies in the face of traditional genre-fiction norms, and as a result doesn't always find the audience it arguably deserves. Time and again, these experimental approaches to writing have struggled to find approval.

This isn't helped by a propensity to embrace a certain kind of absurd logic, such as attempting to attain a narrative balance by throwing the reader off balance again and again.

VanderMeer is particularly adept at these acts of literary choreography. And of course, he's almost always using the unsettling nature of this approach to his advantage. He wants you to feel uneasy.

But for those who aren't prepared for its playfulness, the New Weird can make for a discombobulating experience. With the narrative always threatening to lurch from the familiar to the unfamiliar in the blink of an eye, nothing is certain.

A good omen?

Could it be then that the unease brought about by the inability to pigeonhole "Annihilation" into one specific genre is the reason Paramount lost its confidence in the film? The studio didn't respond to a request for comment.

The situation certainly wouldn't be anything new. Robert Aickman, a writer of "Strange Tales" (a bosom buddy of New Weird and Aickman's own coinage) has only recently seen broad success -- 37 years after his death -- thanks in part to the peculiarity of his approach.

Now published by Faber & Faber and a firm favourite of literary giant Neil Gaiman, Aickman is finally finding the audience and interest he ought to have had decades ago.

So rather than dismay, maybe I should be celebrating the news that an author like VanderMeer is getting any attention from Hollywood, when many of his equally talented predecessors have spent a lifetime in near obscurity.

Yes, it's disappointing that the screen release is limited. But this could be the beginning of a new future for New Weird, cautiously dipping its toe into an exciting medium, for a new audience that simply needs to become more accustomed to its inherent unpredictability.

At the very least, I hope Garland's attempts at adapting VanderMeer will prove to be successful enough to encourage more directors to turn to this fascinating literary genre for inspiration.

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