Notes made by DX (not real name), while observing Geoffrey Sidwell, during the period of almost 2 years in which Sidwell was resident at the care facility:
They asked me to watch him and observe from a distance, and paid me good money. I have to make these notes. I am supposed to just sit in the room, reading magazines or looking at my phone, keeping an eye on whatever he does. Or else they will give me footage to look at, or I can view him on the security cam. All I know is that he was one of the ones who first went into that Thing, and that even though that was a lot of years ago now he is still important for some reason. He was only a kid when it happened. Now he’s 43 but he looks like the rest of the oldies in the place. Not wrinkly too much but his neck looks bent, and he hunches forward all the time.
The first time I saw him I thought he looked normal, I even said hello to him, as the people told me just to act normal like I was meant to be there. He said nothing, and then he did that thing with his fingers. I kept right away from him after that. The rest of that first day I just sat on the other side of the common room, pretending to read something and watching him. He sat looking out of the window. At one point, early in the evening when most of the residents were having their dinner, a bird flew across the sky in the distance, and I heard him make a small noise, like a sigh or groan. That’s it.
(from C. Sidwell’s personal correspondence)
Now that I have broken up with Geoff, I think I can tell the rest of his story – not because I no longer care what he thinks, although that is certainly true – but because this pigheaded silence of his is just another effect of this whole thing.
That is what I think.
To me, the photograph is one of the weirdest things about it. And I know he has never mentioned it, because he obviously decided a while ago to just play dumb, or, as I say, that was somehow decided for him. So I will talk about the photo, and I will talk about all of the other things, because I can. But first:
I have to start by reviewing that movie that they put out, because so much of it is wrong, for all the usual reasons. Such as: ‘they had to make it more dramatic’, or ‘these two characters were combined into one to streamline the narrative’. All of that is quite forgivable, in a way, but it’s the stuff that they just deliberately changed, for no good reason, which I need to talk about. That’s the stuff that worries me, because it’s basically the same as Geoff’s silence – it’s symptomatic. So I am going to go through the plot, and compare it with the truth of what happened; the truth that I heard from Geoff and some of the others that were involved.
First of all, they didn’t change the country where it happened, which is surprising, really, as they could have just moved the whole thing to the US and then not had to bother with trying to do the accents (which are awful, without exceptions). In any event, they shot it in Ireland and hired quite a few local actors, who then had to try and tackle the kiwi accent – brave souls. Anyway, Ireland is actually pretty good as a stand-in for New Zealand in this case, scenery-wise. There were a couple of urban shots that were filmed in NZ, with the Sky Tower framed conspicuously in the background. And they also chose a relatively unknown director, also surprising, (thank goodness they didn’t let Nolan loose on it), but still attempted to give it the Hollywood polish and shine, with characters reduced to one-dimensional dummies (with a single distinguishing trait) and cartoonish dialog.
To begin with, there were actually four of them, not three, in the group of friends that Geoff was part of. They were all boys, and so that is the first change: two of those boys became one girl. They still called her Zak, which was the name of one of the boys, who happened to be Geoff’s neighbour. Nothing so terrible there, just to introduce a bit of diversity, if nothing else. Except her character is written as if it was male anyway, and is completely interchangeable with any of the others. Zak, in real life, was a troubled kid, to say the least, certainly as far as I can tell from what Geoff told me over the years. Before he clammed up. Zak’s parents were nice people, it sounds like, but found it hard to stay out of trouble, and there was some drug use, and that sort of thing. Not a lot of money. Geoff’s family was not rich either but was fairly quiet and stable by comparison. Not sure what it was that brought Zak and Geoff together, but it was probably just proximity at first. Zak was the first to walk into that Thing, incidentally, but not the first to leave it – that was poor unfortunate Aaron. However, in the movie version, Zak is first to enter and first to leave, thus becoming the first victim. Aaron was such a sweet kid. I knew him back then also, a shy Maori boy with crooked front teeth.
The movie opens with a few sweeping aerial shots of some rather pretty green hills, complete with morning mist. (Nod to Kubrick’s The Shining perhaps, or just unconscious imitation?) This gives way to an establishing shot of the Auckland cityscape, with a rosy glow of dawn beginning to appear. Very pretty. Cut to a suburban street lit with a conspicuously different quality of light, a sort of weak amber – and the thing is: it’s Geoff’s actual house from when it all happened. An easter egg for the nerds I suppose. From there some typical domestic scenes ensue, setting up the family and their niceness and normality and letting us begin to sympathise with them and become involved in their lives, before the big event. All very perfunctory for this type of movie. The parents are bland, and the actor playing Geoff has an odd screen presence from the start. He seems very aware that he is on camera. Same hair colour but otherwise no real likeness otherwise.
At this point, the filmmakers make the first of many odd choices – a sort of mirror version of the opening aerial shots, but with the colours all messed with, heavy on the green, perhaps to give an ‘alien’ POV? Who knows. The effect, at this point in the movie, is just clunky rather than the obviously intended sense of foreshadowing or ominousness.
Cut to another household scene, this one not so happy and banal – but of course, the drama is cranked up to ten – as we see Zak at the tail end of a shouting match with ‘her’ Mother (played by someone far too young here). Zak slams the door and stomps out into another amber-coloured street. For all the sense of poverty and harshness that the film attempts here, Zak herself is played by a pretty girl who looks only slightly disheveled. Hello Hollywood. The musical score, which prior to this had been surprisingly subtle, kicks it up a notch here, bringing in the heavy cellos and something else shrill and piercing. None of this happened.
I had bad dreams last night, but I think it was just something about the fingers. Anyway, I came in a bit late, and settled myself in the common room, but he wasn’t there. I didn’t see him at all until after lunch. He was just suddenly there, by the window, and I hadn’t even noticed him come into the room. One of the old biddies was trying to talk to me, going on about something to do with her son or nephew. I couldn’t really concentrate because in the place where her front teeth should be she has these two little metal stumps. Anyway, he didn’t do or say anything all afternoon. Not sure if I’m supposed to talk about my dreams.
They said it’s okay to talk about what I dreamt. Especially if it’s about him. But anyway it was just that one the other night. Today he stayed in his room most of the time, so I had to watch him on the screen. He didn’t really do much, and I’m not sure if the stuff he did do is worth writing down. Anyway, here it is:
Drank some water. Quite a lot of it. Almost two of the tall glass jug things they have here.
Punched the wall really hard with his fist. Not the one with the fingers.
Next, the final kid from the group is introduced – this time, perhaps to keep the pace ticking along – done with a bit of welcome restraint, although this is possibly more of a side effect than intentional. We see Zak jumping a wooden fence and running across a bit of parkland, and then she is shown banging furiously on a garage door, and out pops the third kid, Leon, with a floppy fringe that looks very modern and not mid-80s at all. They race down an amber-tinted street, and the ominous music rumbles along with them. Then we see the two of them from above, sliding down a grassy bank behind a row of pretty rough-looking houses, and stumbling along beside a busy road beginning to fill with morning traffic. They arrive at a disused industrial site to find Geoff already there, hooded and smoking a cigarette. I don’t know if they actually met in a place like this to smoke before school but it seems plausible. The site, however, is very Hollywood, and almost looks like a leftover set from an old 80s action movie, which I suppose you could say is the correct era, at least. The three of them share the cigarette while some nicely backlit movie fog rolls across the stony ground. So now we have our characters and setting, sketched in. Job done.
Back in the common room today. He just sat at the window again for most of it, although there was some action when an old man bumped into him from behind by mistake. He hardly reacted at all but I thought about him punching the wall and was waiting for something to happen. Nothing did.
I have known Geoff since primary school, and we spent 5 years together as a married couple – and I also knew the other guys from back then as well. I wasn’t friends with them in school though, I just knew who they were by sight and name. Me and Geoff got together after high school. But I knew him to see around the playground or in town and so on. Even then he was quiet, one of those people who leave silences in a conversation, gaps that demand to be filled, and he spoke slightly slower than everyone around him, as well. And of course, the silences grew, and became all there was.
At this point the movie does a bit of a musical montage, showing the three kids out on the mean streets of Wellington (with some Irish town standing in for Aro Valley, I believe, at this point). The light changes back to a rosy morning hue, and the soundtrack becomes rhythmic, lighter, youthful. If we hadn’t figured it out already, the movie tells us that the kids are cutting school with a nifty shot of a school bus sizzling past them on the wet street, complete with older kids gesturing from the back window. This indicates in not subtle fashion that yes, this is a school day. Zak gives the receding bus the finger and the three of them laugh. Now I know that the incident did occur on a school day, so that is not an issue here, but the problem is really the sense of destiny, the sense of something that is bound to happen, that these kids are doomed already. Really they just wandered up the Valley and into the Polhill Reserve just for the hell of it. Perhaps they did this all the time, I know that Geoff did miss a fair bit of school. And poor Aaron, he was always loitering in the streets and the hills around the Valley, avoiding school, and the authorities, and from what I can tell, his home situation as well.
In the movie, they head into the trees as if a meeting had been pre-arranged, and the Thing is there, waiting for them. Of course, it looks like a spaceship in the movie. It’s big, it’s black – a colossal half-sphere that seemed plonked down in the midst of the trees just outside the suburban streets of Wellington. It looks like something from a movie, that is, something designed and made and faked up by special effects people and pixel manipulation. From what I can tell, the actual Thing didn’t really look like anything – or anyway, the reports I heard were so conflicted as to become meaningless. A certain fuzziness, blanketing a part of the forest, that they stumbled into, like walking into a mirror. Or, a colossal structure made of smoke. Or a clear waterfall, rising up from the ground and falling into itself. They were inside it before they were even really aware of it. In the movie, they stop in front of it, and the camera swoops around from above, to show the scale of the thing, I guess, and the music swells to a crescendo. And then there is silence. In the movie, and in life.
So they got that right. But the silence is what is wrong. Not just from Geoff himself, but the refusal to acknowledge what has really happened.
They took him out today. They sat him out under a pergola near the fence. He sat there for ages, and I had to watch him through the window, as I couldn’t really think of a reason why I would be outside without giving myself away. He didn’t do much, anyway, and it was so boring that I started to daydream a bit. I started to imagine the branches in the tree near the pergola waving in the wind, kind of rippling like they were made of rubber instead of solid wood. I imagine strings stretching down from them and attaching to his head, like cobwebs. Don’t know why I thought all this but they said to mention stuff like this.
At this point, the movie slows down – at least relative to what apparently happened, as I heard it. In the movie the three kids stop in their tracks, gazing up at this spaceship structure, and there follows many close-ups of scared-looking faces, weird humming noises, ominous overhead shots and more of that colour-tinted stuff. Eventually, this stuff all dies down, and then in a quiet note of maximum tension, the actor playing Geoff approaches the black object. More Kubrick? He reaches out his hand – yes, that hand – and after a long, agonisingly drawn out moment, presses his fingers against the shiny black surface.
As I have mentioned, in reality, the kids were inside this thing before they even realised it, and I think it took a fair while before they even knew it. Their descriptions of it (at least the survivors) were all so different. But something had changed around them, and they gradually realised they were now inside some sort of structure. No one ‘touched’ anything, until Aaron, panicking, ran straight through the side of it and back out into the open. And then the horrible thing took place. From Geoff’s description, it simply appeared that Aaron could no longer breathe. As if the atmosphere outside whatever they were contained in had disappeared, or changed into something completely different. They watched the poor kid thrashing around, grasping at his throat, falling to the ground, going purple in the face – and that was when Geoff put his hand out, and touched the side of the thing. He said it was simply a shimmer, or a smokiness in the air, not a surface at all. Although it felt hard against his fingers. Yes, those fingers. He said he felt his fingers turn into liquid, as they bent back from the edge. And so he jumped back, and the rest of them stood back, watching their friend die.
Fade to black.
Then we get a fairly standard title card – over the black screen, with a little bit of mournful music: ‘15 years later’. And this is where I come in – or at least, Hollywood’s version of myself – in the form of a much better looking, slimmer, younger wife of Geoff, 15 years after the event, finding him locked into a very uncomfortable and unhappy marriage. And that much is certainly true. And so we get a second act that is a sort of self-contained domestic drama, a sketch of two people trapped and a man that is broken. Lots of shots of Geoff as a man in his mid-30s, jogging across a foggy hillside, sitting on a park bench under moody trees in full autumnal splendour. Needless to say, none of the specifics here are true; everything is ramped up, exaggerated, heavy-handed, melodramatic. He slams doors, she shouts and he doesn’t respond, they bicker in harsh whispers in a supermarket aisle. I am not going to go into the reality of this period because that is personal; I lived it. We lived it together until we couldn’t anymore. But yes, he was increasingly silent, and withdrawn. And yes, I was a bit of a bitch sometimes, and both of us were petty and childish. But we also lived together for five years and shared all of that life, and we knew each other as intimately as anyone can. But he was obviously traumatised, and nothing had really been done about it because nobody even really knew what had happened. How do you deal with that? He did have counseling in the years after the event, (not shown in the film by the way), and I did suggest he do more when we were together. I tried to talk with him, help him, in the early days, and I think for a short time that even helped. Anyway, in the movie, this little drama plays itself out and ‘they’ break up. It’s ugly and unpleasant to watch, and I think the audience is supposed to empathise with Geoff’s character and resent my character. Fair enough.
He talked to me. It was weird because I have hardly ever heard him speak to anyone at all in the month or so that I have been doing this. I was sitting in a corner of the common room and he just got up from his chair and walked over to me. We talked, for a bit, and I think he asked me my name. I was worried that he had found me out, but he seemed okay if a little quiet and withdrawn. But I can’t remember specifically what we said. Except for one thing: before he left to go back to his room, he waved those fingers in my face. And he said, ‘You see that? That is what is happening in my mind. All the time, now.’
Then he left.
My dreams have become very bad.
So that is Act one and Act two, capped with another fade to black and another title card. And this is where the film leaps into fantasy with what I must say is quite an unexpected move – and there seems to be varying opinions even among those who think the film has any merit as to its effectiveness. The title card comes up, ‘20 years later’ jumping us squarely into the future: some imagined future where Geoff is in his late fifties and convalescing at some facility. And in fact, even though this is, obviously, complete fiction as opposed to dramatised reality, this is where the movie does actually become kind of interesting, at the very least for taking this kind of risk in the first place. I mean, is this taking liberties with real events and being disrespectful to those involved in a traumatic incident, or is this some bold, genius move as a way of exploring the true horror of a life broken down by an encounter with the ‘Unknown’. Fucked if I know. Anyway, in the movie, a young guy is hired to observe Geoff as he lives out his days in near silence in this care home, and gradually the observer’s mind is somehow poisoned by what Geoff has become. And the ending – that fucking ending – well, say no more. Everyone knows about it, and I don’t have anything further to say. End of my bitter and twisted movie review.
One day when I was quite little, I remember being on a plane, flying back into Wellington after a trip to visit relatives up North. I remember the turbulence as we prepared to descend to the airport, and I was looking out the window, past my mother’s face at the city below. There was some unusual quality to the light – normally not of great interest to a small child – it was either early morning or evening as the sun was setting, and it seemed there was a haze over the city that caught my attention. It was almost like a wall of thin smoke, bending away in a great curve as it hung over the edge of the city.
And then there is the photograph. I said I would talk about it, as Geoff is certainly not going to, although it was him who first pointed it out to me. It belongs to him, after all.
He used to say it’s no big deal, I disagree. Whatever. The photo shows Geoff at school as a ten year old, it is a polaroid perhaps taken by a teacher or his parents. In the image Geoff is standing in front of a low table, looking slightly to the side of the camera as if at someone behind the person taking the picture. On the table is a science project that Geoff had made, a cardboard model of a spacecraft made by Geoff, behind which was a sheet of cardboard featuring handwritten pages of text and hand-drawn images. Geoff is half-smiling, his hand is raised as if in a flourish to indicate the hard work sitting behind him. But the spacecraft, well, it looks very similar to the Alien ship as it appeared in that stupid movie. Too similar, really, to be possible. When I first pointed this out to Geoff, when he would still speak about such things or at all, he said that the photo had captured it on a funny angle, and it wasn’t really an accurate representation of the object he had made. He said it appeared stretched and much darker than it had ever been. Okay, that’s fine, that happens in photos, like when you see yourself or someone you know well caught in an awkward and unrepresentative pose or facial expression. But this thing looks almost exactly like a miniature version of that thing in the movie like they based their design on this very image. Which as far as I know is impossible, as nobody else would have any reason to know about this, being just another forgotten science project from long ago. But for me the worst thing is not the eerie similarity of the spacecraft as depicted, it’s what Geoff is doing with his fingers. Those fingers.