Sunday, December 9, 2018

A Walk In The Woods: When The Appalachian Trail Beckons

[This is a review of the book A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Published in 1997 by Doubleday and by Black Swan the next year, A Walk in the Woods chronicles Bryson's attempt to trek and complete the Appalachian Trail. Other travel books by Bryson include Notes from a Small Island and The Lost Continent.]

If you have any semblance of interest in hiking, then I’m sure you’ve heard of the great Appalachian Trail. Fans of brevity simply refer to it as the AT. Stretching for more than two thousand miles along America’s eastern seaboard, it’s the granddaddy of long treks. This gargantuan trail is the muse for Bill Bryson’s book called A Walk in the Woods. In his early forties, Bryson thought it wise to go on an adventure and hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. For company, he brought with him a friend, a weirdo named Stephen Katz.

With their backs bent and burdened by overloaded packs, they embarked on a bittersweet journey through the legendary nooks and corners of the Appalachian Trail. With honesty, cleverness, and humor, Bryson chronicles their exploits on the trails. Bryson has achieved something extraordinary here. You would think that a one-time attempt of completing the Appalachian Trail would only merit an article or two. Bryson said to hell with that and proceeded to write a 350-page book about his attempt. With undeniable storytelling prowess, Bryson weaves stories that inspire you and make you pine for the woods.

I’d like to assume that Bryson wrote the book with hikers and outdoor enthusiasts in mind. The fact that I’m a hiker myself made the book more enjoyable to read. In many ways, the book pays tribute to the perks and tribulations of being a hiker. Yep, I get that reference. Yes, that’s exactly what I felt after a 12-hour trek. Yeah, sometimes I feel like I’d rather push an ice pick through my head rather than go on a long hike ever again. Bryson’s prose connects with you as if you are right there sitting right beside him in a cold shelter along the trail with Katz trying to build a fire with damp twigs just a few feet away.

It’s nice to know as well that Bryson did his research. He gave the book a nice dose of historical stories and anecdotes. You get a quick history lesson about how the Appalachian Trail came about. He connects these historical snippets with his own experiences in the trails. This is a rare talent that only a few writers are able to master. With that said, A Walk in the Woods isn’t just a fun and readable adventure book, it’s also “Exhibit A” for aspiring writers wanting to learn a trick or two on nature writing.

Overall, A Walk in the Woods was an enjoyable read. If you are a hiker, there’s a good chance you will like this book. If you’re not much of an outdoors person, you may not like the topic but Bryson’s humor and good writing might carry you through.
Wikimedia Commons
On that note, I’ll leave you with this quote from the book: “I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings towards the Appalachian Trail that weren’t thoroughly contradictory. I was weary of the trail, but captivated by it; found the endless slog increasingly exhausting but ever invigorating; grew tired of the boundless woods but admired their boundlessness; enjoyed the escape from civilization and ached for its comforts. All of this together, all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Exploring Mt. Marikit in Itogon, Benguet

In this age of social media saturation wherein information travels at the speed of light, it never ceases to surprise me how little I know about my immediate surroundings. I had yet another one of these surprises when I was invited for an exploratory climb of a fairly unknown mountain somewhere in Itogon, Benguet. I enthusiastically jumped at the invitation. Climbing and exploring a mountain that only a few souls know about is every hiker’s dream. It’s a treat that comes only once in a blue moon. There’s something endearing and magical about owning a mountain even for just a day. It’s just you and your group scaling the slopes.

That mountain turned out to be Mt. Marikit, a rocky peak sandwiched between the villages of Dalupirip and Tinongdan. “Marikit” is the Ibaloi term for “beautiful”. Prior to the climb, I’ve never heard of this mountain which is surprising because I’ve been to Dalupirip and Tinongdan countless of times. These two secluded villages serve as either the entrance or exit points for hikers climbing either Mt. Ugo or Mt. Pigingan. It turned out that Mt. Marikit is just a kilometer or two away from Mt. Pigingan, a mountain which I’ve climbed for like ten times already.

We started early. Our group of around twenty hikers were at the registration site in sitio Salapsap just as the sun started to rise over the horizon. We were not the only group climbing that day. A group of runners (Team Pinikpikan) have decided to run the trails to the summit of Pigingan. They hit the trails a half hour or so before us.

The trail to Mt. Marikit starts within Dalupirip central. This is a quiet village surrounded by rice fields, river tributaries, and towering mountains. The place is in itself a thing of beauty. Folks from open windows greeted us with subdued smiles as we passed by. At the edge of the rice fields, the assault to the summit began. For a couple of hours, we hiked through a steep incline with winding dirt trails. This is the hardest part of the trail. Once you reach the mountain’s ridge line, there’s very little climbing to do. The next two hours or so to the rocky summit is merely a stroll through grassy slopes and pine forests.

True to form, the views from the trails were beautiful and refreshing. We were welcomed by sweeping views of the Cordillera mountains. You can also view the towering peaks of other well-known climbing destinations like Mt. Ugo, Mt. Pigingan, and even Mt. Pulag in nearby Kabayan. The trail to the summit is easy to follow so it would be rare for anyone to get lost. The first half of the trail is actually a route for the Cordillera Mountain Ultra, a running event held there every year. Every few meters of the trail, you see the remnants of the markers for the annual run. Just follow the markers until you get to the grassy clearing near the top of the ridge leading to Mt. Marikit.

The summit of Mt. Marikit features a rocky terrain with clumps of trees and brush. Technically speaking, we didn’t go to the actual summit. We congregated a few dozen feet below the main summit. There’s a high cliff that you need to scale to reach the main summit. We didn’t have the necessary ropes and gear so we contented ourselves with a view of the top. However, I think that it’s possible to get to the summit from the north side through a pine forest without having to scale the rocky cliff. To do this though, you have to skirt around the peak from the east or west side. Maybe next time.

The descent was in itself a huge challenge. For several hours, we trekked through pine forest trails. A huge section of the trail follows an irrigation canal that winds for a kilometer or so back to where we started. The irrigation canal runs across a steep cliff. We had to navigate through the narrow walkways. A misstep or two can have you plunging below. One of us actually fell off the walkway but she managed to grab onto something. God knows what could’ve happened if she fell all the way down below. With that said, I wouldn’t recommend hikers to take that route. For safety reasons, I would advise those planning to climb Mt. Marikit to get to the summit and return to the jump-off point following the same route they used to get to the top (backtrail).

Overall, Mt. Marikit lives up to its name. It’s beautiful. The trails are great. The views are awesome. It’s the perfect place to conduct a long hike. It took us around twelve hours to finish the trek. It was already dark when we got back to the jump-off point in sitio Salapsap.

I will return, that’s for sure. Maybe to run the mountain’s trails or camp on one of its grassy clearings. See you soon again, Mt. Marikit.

Here are a few photos from the climb. Photos courtesy of Ana Fe.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Itogonia Wild Country Trail Run Post-Race Report

I jumped out of the couch when the alarm clock rang. It was 2:00 am. In two hours and a half, a race director will beat a gong to mark the start of the Itogonia Wild Country Trail Run. Excited and sort of afraid at the same time, I took a quick shower, ate a breakfast of rice, eggs, and beans, and checked my running gear. Hydration pack. Check. Water bottles. Check. First aid kit. Check. Trail food. Check. Headlight. Check. Whistle. Check. Running shoes and socks. Check. I was ready to rumble.

I met up with a friend who was also running in the event and we took a cab to Camp John Hay, the location of the start and finish line of the race. I lined up to have my mandatory gear inspected. I was running in the 32-kilometer category and our start time was scheduled for 4:30 am. My friend who was running in the 16-kilometer category will have his start at 5:30 am. Another friend who signed up with the 8-kilometer category will have her start at 6:30 am.

I also saw many familiar faces and friends at the race, many of whom have been hiking buddies during previous mountain climbing trips. I was in good company. So everything was good. I started feeling relaxed. Before I knew it, it was 4:30 and runners started trooping to the starting line. “Runners ready! Two minutes to go!” shouted the race director. I took my place at the third or fourth row behind the frontline. This was my first trail running race so I was basically going by instinct. Most of the time, I didn’t know what I was doing. Should I go in front? Should I stay at the farthest end of the pack? So I just took my place at the middle of the pack.

And off we went! The leading pack of runners shot ahead. The first thing that came to my mind was “If they can maintain that pace for the rest of the race, me and everybody else are screwed!” I kind of just laughed off the thought and ran ahead to catch up with another pack of runners. There were probably three or four packs ahead of ours. Right then and there I’ve decided to stick with the pack and see if I can keep up with them. And I was able to for some time.

But as we covered more and more kilometers, the tides started to change. The pack started to break apart. Those with better endurance went ahead. Some got left behind. As I got used to the trails, I realized that in order for me to finish the race, I needed to take a conservative approach. And that is to maintain a slow but steady pace so as not to burn myself out. I’ve studied the map of the race a day before the event and I saw that the trail to the finish line was an uphill climb. So I decided to take a moderate pace so that I will have enough strength left for the last uphill climbs.

I’d like to believe that my plan sort of worked because only a few runners passed me during the race. I also managed to overtake a few runners who started really strong but burned themselves out down the stretch.

When the pack of runners I joined early on the race broke apart, I was pretty much left on my own. Most of the time, I was running alone. However, around halfway during the race, I shared the trails with three runners. They would pass me. Then I would pass them. Then they would pass me again. This went on for quite some time. However, during the last quarter of the race, one was able to gain considerable distance over us. I decided to follow him and see if I can overtake him. I never did. But I managed to pass by three other runners who seemed to have either tired themselves out or just wanted to enjoy the sceneries before they get to the finish line.

I ran the last couple of kilometers to the finish line. My knees were shaking in pain. Blisters in my right foot were popping. But I had one goal and that was to reach the finish line before other runners overtake me. I did make it to the finish line, the 20th runner (out of more than 90 runners) to do so. And it felt great.

I learned a lot of valuable lessons from this race which took runners through the trails of Camp John Hay to the mountains of Itogon, Benguet. I regularly hike and run in the mountains but this is my first time to join an official trail running event. When I signed up for this race, I was afraid they weren’t going to allow me because I have zero experience in official trail running events. I registered anyway and they didn’t ask any questions so it was good. I was able to get in.

Then race day came. It was much harder than I had expected. Due to the incessant rains, the trails were muddy and slippery. In many portions of the course, runners were literally trudging through inches of mud. I managed to be the 20th runner to reach the finish line but I know I could’ve done better. I know I could’ve pushed harder if I tried. There were so many mistakes in the way I managed my run that need either fixing or improvement. As I said earlier, I learned many lessons that day. The most glaring of which are as follows:

1. Focus on a steady pace, not on speed. I’m not saying that speed is irrelevant but what good is speed if you burn yourself out every 15 minutes? I’d like to think that endurance is king and that speed is secondary. These are just my initial thoughts on the matter. During the race, there was one runner who maintained a good distance away from me. I would catch up with him at the aid stations. I was running and he was mostly walking and jogging but I never caught up with him on the way to the finish line. He was able to maintain his pace while I kept burning myself out trying to catch up with him. I ended up taking a lot of rest-stops along the way. Not a good race strategy at all.

2. Train during the weeks prior to the race. I did a bit of jogging and running prior to the race but I am certain that these weren’t enough. I think that if you want to finish a 32-kilometer race strong, you need to put in the hours in training. I don’t have the slightest idea on how to train for long races. That said, I have a long way to go before I’d learn how to train properly for an endurance race. Suffice it to say that I’ve started doing my research on how to train properly and I’d like to think that it’s going well, so far.

3. Position yourself at the frontline during the start of the race. Of course, this is only applicable if you are confident about your training and your ability to keep up with the leading pack. There are two huge benefits of running with the leading pack. One, human traffic is common in trail runs and you can easily get left behind if you are too polite to overtake other runners. Two, it’s good to run with the front runners because you are forced or shall I say encouraged to perform your best. If the pack is running at a fast pace, you will be forced to keep up. Of course, there’s an inherent risk to this strategy. You can burn yourself out quickly. Again, I think it’s a confidence game.

4. The importance of trekking poles in trail running. About two weeks before the race when I registered for the event at an outdoor gear shop in Center Mall, Baguio City, one of the shopkeepers suggested that I should get a pair of trekking poles. I just shrugged off the advice. I told him I’ll be fine without it. Well, I came to learn that I should’ve taken his advice. Trail running involves a lot of uphill and downhill climbs. At the Itogonia Trail Run, runners have to go up and then down wet and muddy paths. It’s during these climbs that I realized the importance of trekking poles. You can use poles not only to propel yourself forward but to support yourself while you navigate through muddy trails. Having no trekking poles with me, I improvised and found a pair of sturdy pinetree sticks. Using the sticks helped a lot. It’s like having four legs instead of two.

5. Spend less time at the aid stations. There were five aid stations for the Itogonia Trail Run. If I remember correctly, I didn’t stop at the first station. But for the next four stations, I stopped and wasted precious time resting and relaxing. At one station, one of the marshals urged me to go before more runners catch up with me. I found that funny. I would’ve sat in the chair for a minute more if he didn’t suggest that I get going. I do believe that I would’ve completed a stronger finish if I didn’t linger too much at the aid stations.

Photo by Team Tagtag.
6. Hydrating and fueling properly during the run. I had no idea what I was doing in this regard. As far as water was concerned, my plan was straight-forward. Don’t run out of water before an aid station. I never ran out. Actually, most of the time, I didn’t even drink half of my bottle when I get to an aid station for a refill. It’s the fueling part that I think got me. I didn’t know jack about what I’m doing. I had chocolate bars and packets of Nips in my trail pack. Every thirty minutes or so, I would take a few bites. I would also eat some of the available food at the aid stations (i.e. bananas, boiled eggs, rice cakes, puto, kutsinta). I don’t know but my stomach felt heavy the entire race. This is definitely something that I need to work on. Find a way to refuel and take in calories during the race without jeopardizing my run.

7. Always check if you are running on the right course. During the Itogonia Trail Run, I got lost thrice. Yes, three freaking times. Although I believe that most of the errors were not on my part but on the part of the organizers of the event. The first time I got lost, I was with a pack of six runners. We were running on a paved road and we didn’t see the arrow sign that says we need to get off the road and follow a trail that goes left. We realized we were on the wrong course when we came across some race marshals who told us that we needed to go back because we were on the wrong path.

The second time I got lost, I was alone. I came upon a junction but there were no ribbons or tags that signal which road I should take. I basically just took a guess and picked one of the roads. Unfortunately for me, it was the wrong road and I lost more precious minutes running back to the junction and getting back on course. The third time I got lost, I was with someone. I was focused in following another runner and trying to catch up with him that I forgot looking for ribbons marking the course. The runner took a wrong turn and I followed him not realizing that we were on the wrong direction. I saw him stop in his tracks and start running back. That’s when I realized we’re on the wrong course.

All of these are definitely mistakes that can be easily fixed or improved upon. That’s it for today. See you all in the next trail run.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Four Commandments For Cities Of The Future

By Bridge Telva Mapangdol - [I work in the Internet Marketing industry with specialization in content, social media, email marketing, and in Search Engine Optimization.]

In 2007, seven cities around the world made the longlist of the potential hosts for the 2016 Summer Olympics. These were Baku, Chicago, Doha, Madrid, Prague, Tokyo, and Rio de Janeiro. Following the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) analysis of the countries’ answers to the application questionnaire, it was announced that the forerunners were Chicago, Madrid, Rio, and Tokyo. After IOC members visited each of the candidate cities, they cast their votes: 66 went to Rio and 32 went to Madrid. What could have happened? How did a South American city prevail over what most of the public know as more progressive cities?

Eduardo Paes, the then-incumbent mayor said, ‘It was emotional and it wasn’t easy.’ He was in Long Beach addressing a TED Talk audience and emphasized that “Mayors have the political position to change people’s lives.” And I believe that that is true.

In his talk, he presented The Four Commandments for Cities in the Future. These are the commandments which he believed played a part in Rio’s eventual selection to host. He pointed out that for a place to become a city of the future, it has to be environmentally friendly, it has to deal with mobility and integration, it has to be socially integrated, and it has to use technology to be present.

A city of the future has to be environmentally-friendly. Simply put, a city must not do any harm to the environment. The thing is, that’s hardly ever the case, and we know that. Cities thrive through urbanization and industrialization and in the process, different kinds of wastes are created as a by-product. What these wastes are is a different discussion altogether. What matters is that something can be done about them.

In an effort to start a green initiative, Paes had to look for areas in a city of 7 million in order to create specks of open spaces. Sadly, Baguio City intends to do just the opposite. Burnham Park and Melvin Jones, including the smaller recreational parks in various parts of the city, are open and green spaces that ought to stay that way. Why?

Open spaces represent an urban area’s quest to preserve the natural environment. Yes, Burnham Park and Melvin Jones have undergone human-initiated improvements across the years, but the idea of obliterating a huge area in order to accommodate a man-made structure is ludicrous. Second, open spaces are the last frontiers of green space provision in a city where concrete structures sprout like mushrooms.

Third, open spaces are where the public can go to in order to recreate and escape the usual concrete visuals they encounter on a day-to-day basis. Fourth, open spaces are where people congregate in order to build a sense of community. To me, it wouldn’t make sense to build an ‘environmentally-friendly’ structure on a land that’s already considered environmentally-friendly.

A city of the future has to deal with mobility and integration of its people. Paes says that since majority of a country’s population are found in cities, there’s a need to prioritize mobility and integration. Now this issue is something that can be addressed by high-capacity transportation systems. The problem is, building it costs a lot of money. So what did he do?

Paes replicated what Jamie Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil has done: create the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). So he took a bus, transformed its interiors into a train car, and allotted an exclusive lane for it to move. Bus stations were also built at different points which gave rise to a high-capacity transportation network.

At the time of his talk, only 18% of Rio’s population are being moved by the BRT. When fully functional, Paes estimated that BRT will be able to move 63% of the city’s population. Beautiful, isn’t it?

The thing about Baguio and La Trinidad is that mobility shouldn’t be a problem if not for congestion. We lack the space to expand our roads but new vehicles continue to come about. Not to mention the fact that because we assert our freedom to own a private car, we don’t really see how that sense of entitlement becomes the very cause of our own inconvenience. And then we blame the government.

We fail to see that auto makers are now mass-producing vehicles for shipment to third world countries. In response, banks are now making it easier for people to get approved on an auto loan by partnering with auto dealerships. Their marketing is so attractive that people don’t realize they’re acquiring debt based on a depreciating commodity.

What we also fail to see is that the solution doesn’t lie in building additional parking lots. The solution lies in decongestion. Yes, the Number Coding Scheme is effective but only when I was in high school. Nor is the parking podium a solution. Build a 10-storey parking structure and it will only serve to displace congestion. When vehicles go back on the road, the same thing happens. It’s a Band-Aid solution.

So what about regulating the number of vehicles that run the streets especially on high-tourist seasons and on weekends? What about initiating an active campaign telling tourists to utilize local transportation when coming up here to visit and when leaving the city? After all, we’re very, very concerned about them, right?

What about reviewing the effectiveness of the existing Number Coding Scheme? What about starting an initiative that highlights the role of road discipline in uninterrupted flow of traffic?

A city of the future has to be socially integrated. Paes discussed this part by focusing on the favelas in Rio. Slums can be found in any city. For his part, Paes emphasized that favelas need not be a problem. Instead, they can be a solution. So instead of having people go to the heart of the city to avail of educational, health, and social services, Paes brought these services to the heart of the favelas by looking for existing structures and transforming them into habitable spaces. I call this the social integration counter flow.

This is something that we already have. We have health centers, day care centers, and primary schools in local communities. And although there are communities in far-flung areas, we have dedicated people who go on their way to serve. I call this social integration in progress. We’ll get there as we learn from what we do.

A city of the future has to use technology to be present. During his talk, Paes called his secretary of urban affairs in Rio’s Operation Center to see what’s going on. His secretary gave him an update on the weather, the traffic condition, and even where the garbage collection trucks were at that moment. It was wonderful.

Now, for the majority of us, one of the best indications of technological integration is the installment of CCTVs in strategic areas in the city. This is a great beginning only if it’s used to respond to something sneaky real-time and not after it happened. Yep, that means enforcement visibility not only when it’s time to shut the bars down for curfew or when it’s time to manage the traffic flow.

The Internet is also now lending a hand in terms of making communication and networking a lot faster. And so is the prevalence of GPS. But do you know what we lack in this space? Responsiveness, and the perfect example is social media.

Very rarely do social media pages attributed to government organizations and political or public figures entertain the comments on their pages or posts. I’m not sure why but in my field, this reflects on the quality of engagement from the person or organization represented by the page. The same applies to websites that lists an email address. You send an email but no one responds. So I’m not sure now what that email address is for. So there’s the challenge in technology. If it’s expertise that’s lacking, there’s a lot of people in the city who I know are tech-savvy enough to man the digital space. And mind you, if these spaces are optimized, we won’t have to wait for the radio announcer to announce that classes have been cancelled because of an impending storm. With technology, we can actually feel that our local leaders are with us and not above us.

The miniscule land areas of Baguio and La Trinidad offer a huge challenge. I’m clearly aware of that. But challenges have their own accompanying solutions now or later. We may never get a shot at hosting the Olympics but it’s the out-of-the-box solutions that we implement that takes us a step closer to greatness. We can be cities of the future only if we go beyond the bounds imposed by our own dull way of thinking.

[Update: The plan to construct a multi-level parking lot in Burnham Park has been rejected by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Read the article here.]

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

13 People Confirmed Dead In A Vehicular Accident In Dao-angan, Balbalan, Kalinga

At least thirteen (13) people died when their vehicle figured in an accident in barangay Dao-angan in Balbalan, Kalinga on Tuesday afternoon (September 11). In a news update, PTV Cordillera stated that this was confirmed by the Kalinga Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (PDRRMO).

The state-backed news outfit also released the names of the casualties. They are as follows: Willy Gamongan, Benjamin Badong, Isabel Bagne, Victorio Banglagan, Rosario Badong, Solidad Dammay, Agida Palangdao, Lolita Latawan, Elisa Dangiwan, Leota Maday, Angelina Benito, Teresa Dulansi, and Annie Palicas.

The incident occurred between 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon. Initial reports from Kalinga are saying that most if not all of the casualties were senior citizens. They just came from a trip to follow-up on their social pensions.

More than a dozen of the other passengers were seriously injured and are in critical condition. The passenger jeep just came from the Balbalan Municipal Hall and was on its way back to Dao-angan. The jeep was reportedly overloaded with more than forty (40) passengers. The driver lost control of the vehicle's brakes. The vehicle fell off a ravine measuring around eighty (80) meters deep.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Hiking Activities In Kibungan Suspended Until Further Notice

Due to the incessant heavy rains, the municipality of Kibungan has decided to suspend until further notice all types of hiking activities within the town. The town issued an order dated August 23 citing weather disturbances, unstable roads, and unsafe mountain trails as the reasons behind the suspension order.

Kibungan is one of the most popular hiking destinations in the country for outdoors men looking for more challenging climbs. In particular, the traverse across Tacadang will take hikers through several mountain peaks including Mt. Tagpaya, Mt. Oten, and Mt. Tagpew. Your body has to be properly conditioned to complete the long traverse.

Below is a transcript of the suspension order issued by the municipality. Please be guided accordingly.

Photo credit: Sanggala Mountaineers

Prescribing the Suspension of Mountain Climbing and Trekking in the Municipality of Kibungan

Whereas, it is declared the policy of the state yo uphold the people's constitutional rights to life, health, safety and property and to promote the general welfare of its people at all times, especially during disasters and calamities;

Whereas, the state is further mandated to institutionalize the policies, structures, coordination mechanism and programs on disaster risk reduction from National down to Local levels;

Whereas, the Municipality has been experiencing continuous rains from August 10, 2018 to present due to Enhanced Southwest Monsoon (Habagat);

Whereas, Cordillera Weather Bulletin as of August 23, 2018, 11:00 A.M. Tropical Depression Luis entered the Philippine Area of Responsibility and is forecast to enhance the southwest monsoon, bringing moderate to heavy rains in CAR starting August 24; and

Whereas, due to the weather disturbances, roads are under close/open situation and foot trails have become unsafe.

Now, therefore, I, Cesar M. Molitas, Municipal Mayor of Kibungan, Benguet, by the power vested upon me by law, do hereby order the suspension of mountain climbing/trekking activities within Kibungan until further notice,

Issued this 23rd day of August 2018 at Kibungan, Benguet, Philippines.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Annihilation: A Fresh But Imperfect Take On The Alien Invasion Genre

When it comes to movies, the sci-fi (science-fiction) genre sits at a very special place in my heart. If you are going to scoop out my brain and place it under a microscope, you’ll get a million “what ifs” floating around. What if the planet Mars used to be inhabited by sentient beings? What if Earth is but a figment of our imagination? What if you can turn back time to millions of years ago and transplant yourself smack in the middle of the catastrophic event that wiped out the dinosaurs? What if the sun is not an organic thing but is actually a well-oiled machine built by an army of extra-terrestrials from a far-flung galaxy? What if 100 years from now, thousands of metallic monsters arise from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to wreak havoc on us puny humans?

Yes, I know. Sci-fi plots range from the realistic to the totally absurd. But these are the exact attributes that make the genre very interesting and enjoyable. There’s something for everyone. Maybe that’s just the escapist in me talking. Anyway, I like anything remotely related to sci-fi, even the ones that you would consider as bad or what a reviewer for the New York Times once referred to as “sci-fi feces”. Case in point is the action classic Predator starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. That movie is over-the-top, absurd, and plain stupid. But it’s fun and enjoyable to watch. And the premise is actually unique. The film caters to a “what if” scenario. What if merciless warriors from another planet visit Earth with the sole intention of hunting humans for sport? Nice. Now that’s a plot. And who can forget that iconic line: “Back to the chappahhhhh!

A few days ago, with the monsoon rains making it almost impossible to go out of the house, I took the time to watch Annihilation, one of the most recent sci-fi pictures to hit the big screen this year. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the film so my expectations were higher than normal. The “what if” scenario for Annihilation is this: What if a meteorite crashes on Earth and what if such a meteorite carries “something” that starts transforming Earth’s organisms into mutating monsters?

Based on a book of the same title by James Vandermeer, Annihilation offers a fresh perspective on the alien invasion genre. I haven’t read the book so I don’t have the slightest idea if Vandermeer stayed close to the book with his adaptation. Annihilation is one of those films that I’d like to describe as “almost great”. It’s a great movie but it’s riddled with plot holes and story flaws so I’d have to demote it to the “good” category. Still, it’s one of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen in years.

There are several things to like about Annihilation. First off, it was marketed as a sci-fi horror. I thought they were kidding but after seeing the film, I saw why they placed it under that category. There are scenes in the film that can potentially make viewers squirm. You’ve been warned. There’s one specific scene involving a mutated bear that quickly reminded me of scenes from the Alien movie franchise. I wouldn’t be surprised if director Alex Garland took cues from that series in developing that scene. For those not in the loop, Alex Garland is the same director behind Ex Machina, another great sci-fi film that came out a couple of years ago.

Visually-speaking, Annihilation is a masterpiece. Remember that the plot of this film revolves around mutations happening due to an “alien matter” that arrived on Earth through a meteor crash. Something called “The Shimmer” has developed around the area where the meteor landed. Organisms within The Shimmer started mutating in ways that can be considered as biologically impossible. The mutations don’t seem to make distinctions between flora and fauna. For example, flowers and plants started growing on the antlers of deer. I can already picture biologists watching this film and exclaiming “that’s completely absurd”. But you have to admit, the visuals in this film are unique and they mess with your head. You could see that they invested in artists to get the concepts off the ground.

Another great thing about the film is its pace. It takes its time to unpack the story and build up on the suspense factor. I’ve read other reviews saying that the film is so slow and boring. I understand where these types of reviews are coming from because the film truly starts slow. It only begins picking up the pace at around the halfway mark. Some viewers looked at this as a negative thing, but for me, the slow pace helped in carrying the film to its climax.

Annihilation official movie poster.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, Annihilation has its plot holes and story flaws. There are inconsistencies on the flow of the story. There was an early scene in the movie wherein the characters wake up inside The Shimmer not having any memory of what happened in the last few days. Somehow, this strange phenomenon got forgotten in the rest of the film. It’s like the incident was so random and it didn’t affect them at all in the next days they were in The Shimmer. The characters seem to remember everything after that. That’s inconsistency.

In a nutshell, Annihilation is a great but flawed sci-fi movie. What I love most about it is that it’s not preachy. At its core, it’s an alien invasion movie but it doesn’t paint the aliens as good guys or bad guys. Hell, the end credits start rolling and we don’t even know what the aliens want. We don’t know if the “thing” that came with the meteor is here to destroy us or help us. Or the crash could just be one of a million random incidents occurring in an endless universe. In a scientific perspective, that’s a good thing. There’s so much we don’t know about the world and the universe. Lucky for us, we have scientists working day and night to help us understand things and how they work.

If I am to score Annihilation, I’d give it 3.5 stars out of 5.