Significant Other, the fourth feature from Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, is an ingenious twist on one of the dominant trends of recent science fiction – namely, a new taste for the cosmic lushness and fractallated complexity of the natural world. This is essentially a global warming mode of science fiction, reminding us of the precarious but also alienating sentience of the organic world beneath our fingertips, along with our (at times confronting and counter-intuitive) continuity and complicity with it. While this recent wave of lush science fiction always embeds the natural world back in a more cosmic sweep, the great innovation of Significant Other is to pair it with a very specific UFO aesthetic, that of the Pacific Northwest, long venerated in UFOlogy circles as a site of peculiarly pregnant paranormal discourse, partly due to the overlap with Bigfoot sightings, which are briefly raised in Significant Other as a possible plot point. Olsen and Berk fuse the lush science fiction moment with this older UFO aesthetic by way of a hiking trip that takes couple Ruth and Harry, played by Maika Monroe and Jake Lacy, deep into the heart of redwood country. These enormous trees open up the film’s vertical field immediately, reinvesting the canopy with the same eerie sentience and complexity we’ve come to expect from this recent iteration of earthbound science fiction, imbuing the space above the couple’s heads with the inscrutable strangeness of outer space.
Conversely, the sheer height of the redwoods, and the density of their foliage, makes for a remarkably dim forest floor, especially whenever night starts to fall (and night falls early during the winter months in this part of the world). In fact, it never quite feels like daytime in this redwood forest, whose backgrounds are always occluded or blurred and which never quite stabilises into a single shade of green light. So vertiginously do the compositions shift between the army green murk, and the lurid fluorescence of fern bursts, that your eyes never acclimatise to either one, especially since Olsen and Berk tend to situate us in this space in two equally disorienting ways. First, they hold establishing shots for a beat longer than you might expect, until this almost looks like a normally scaled forest, only to shock us with the sheer tininess of the couple when they finally walk into frame. Indeed, the vistas are so enormous that they displace the couple as their central focus, meaning that Ruth and Harry are sometimes already in the shot long before they’re legible as a point of salience. Olsen and Berk then pair this with periodic montages that meld, spiral and superimpose different shots of the landscape into a galactic vortex, embedding the couple back in the fabric of the cosmos.
By about a third of the way through the film, these strategies have absorbed the deepest darknesses of outer space back into the woods – specifically, into the cavernous holes between redwood roots, which become a literal portal into outer space when Ruth discovers the lurid blue residue of what turns out to be an alien species that has landed in the forest. As she follows this trail into the bowels of the tree, she’s faced with an unseen spectacle that causes her to cry out in alarm, although this is immediately transmuted into the cry of a hawk that is simultaneously careening over Harry’s head, back in the campsite. This shift from human to hawk cry also draws on one of the key features of this lush science fiction mode, which garners much of its strangeness from the way it intensifies and aestheticises something we all take for granted – the mutability and continuity of all living things. Many films in this mode thus revolve around splicing events, such as the “shimmer” of Annihilation, which descends on the Southern California coast, and genetically intertwines any organisms that enter it. Something similar ends up happening further up the California coast in Significant Other, except that Olsen and Berk imagine it through a romantic rather than a scientific lens.
For the great splicing act of Significant Other occurs at the level of genre, as a fusion between this recent science fiction mode and the comedy of remarriage, a subgenre of screwball in which characters start out in a relationship, and end up in the same relationship, but have a crisis in between, usually by way of what Stanley Cavell described as a pastoral interlude – a retreat to the woods in which they calibrate their romance against the broader canvas of nature. Significant Other is an eccentric take on this pastoral interlude, and contours the arrival of the alien species, along with the verticality of the redwoods, against a marriage proposal. Indeed, this is the end point of the hike, which takes the couple right through the forest and to the ocean, where Harry gets down on his knees on the precipice of a towering cliff. To his horror, Ruth rejects him, not because she doesn’t love him, but because her parents’ marriage has taught her that people inevitably change over time. In other words, she loves him, but feels that marriage doesn’t adequately address the mutability of all things, while Harry, by contrast, sees marriage as an attempt to curb the ceaseless mutable flow of life. The alien presence emerges in, or perhaps from, this moment of fissure in their romance.
Since Berk and Olsen present the marriage proposal as a gatekeeping gesture, a way of repressing the promiscuous otherness of the organic world, it makes sense that both Ruth and Harry become alien to each other as soon as she rejects him. This coincides with Ruth discovering the alien presence in the bole of the redwood, which initially seems to have infected her, and subsumed her back into a broader cosmic life-force. The moment marriage is off the table she appears to absorb the very mutability she fears, but much faster than she anticipated. In a further twist, however, it turns out that Ruth actually saw Harry’s lifeless body enmeshed in a cocoon in the tree trunk, and realised at that point that the “Harry” she was interacting with was some kind of alien avatar. In either case, this moment of extraterrestrial contact occurs just after they return from the cliff, and from the proposal, which has turned each of them into aliens to each other, whether in perception or in reality.
In a way, this twist is like a science fiction answer to Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers, a home invasion drama that starts in the midst of a rejected marriage proposal, meaning that the couple involved are already compromised by the time they return home to confront the invasion itself. Over the course of Bertino’s film, the couple become more fused with their invaders, since failing to traverse the proposal threshold has estranged them from themselves, and rendered them alien to one another. Significant Other takes that premise a step further, reimagining the premise of The Strangers as if there were no difference between the couple and the invaders, the protagonists and their estranged or alien selves, from the very outset. In The Strangers, this breaks down the thresholds around which home invasion normally revolves, often making it feel like the strangers themselves are the true occupants of the house, but by the time we arrive at Significant Other, the forest has dissolved even the slightest residues of interior and exterior space. Beneath the redwoods there is no inside or outside, just a series of infinitely nested thresholds. There’s not a single domestic structure in the film, while the closest we get to a domestic threshold is the tremulous space between Harry’s car and the trailhead, where the most subliminal apprehensions of horror occur. Paradoxically, Significant Other is a chamber drama (almost a two-hander) without a clearly defined chamber, immersing us in a world where the cloistered spaces that once entrapped, but also protected, the bourgeois couple, have collapsed into the cosmic continuum of all life.
Just as the lush science fiction mode is primarily a response to the threat of global warming, so Significant Other details the breakdown of the bourgeois couple as a gatekeeper for global continuity. The only way that couples can exist now as is a way of communing with other forms of social reproduction, which brings us to the comic centrepiece of Significant Other, the twist that migrates it into a full comedy of remarriage – the fact that the central romance doesn’t actually occur until the couple see each other as aliens. This shift starts with Ruth, who upon realising that Harry is an alien, asks him to take her back to the cliff face, and repeat the marriage proposal, which is now reframed as a reminder of the vast mutability of the universe, rather than a plausible way of gatekeeping it. As such, the topos of proposal itself has to be repressed, along with the cosmic continuity with all life that it represents, and so Ruth pushes Harry over the cliff as soon as he gets down on his knees. In stark defiance to a Hollywood machine that presents the marriage proposal as the key to planetary survival, Ruth realises that only by dismantling this trope entirely can we hope to have a future as humans.
Of course, Harry is now an alien, and is able to survive, turning up at the campsite mere hours later, where the return to the marriage proposal trope has also transformed his perception of Ruth as well. He tells her that, while he is technically an alien, he is an exact biological replica of Harry, both physically and psychologically, and that instead of transforming her into another part of this extraterrestrial hive mind, he wants to romance her, and take her back to his home planet, exactly as she is, in human form. Not only is Harry an alien, then, but he is a shapeshifting alien, and has lived as many different creatures on many different planets, embodying the entire mutability of the living world in doing so. Rather than romance being a way of keeping this world at bay, it now turns into a strategy for engaging with it in the fullest and most comprehensive manner, for love becomes even more unique for existing in the midst of this organic stew, as Harry himself finally acknowledges to Ruth: “The crazy thing is that love doesn’t exist anywhere else…of all the other things I’ve been, none of them feel it.”
The result is a post-human twist on the pastoral interlude of screwball comedy, in which a couple retreat to the woods to embrace each other’s inner alien. Classic screwball didn’t go quite this far, contenting itself with acknowledging our broad continuity with the animal kingdom, most notably through the leopard that a very camp Katharine Hepburn and a very gay Cary Grant raise as their own in Bringing Up Baby. Then again, bringing evolutionary theory into mainstream cinema was perhaps as otherworldly, at the time, as Berk’s cosmic sentience here, which immerses Harry and Ruth in an organic flux that stretches from the cellular transformations of the alien hive mind right up to the redwoods, some of the largest organisms on the planet. Like screwball, this incongruity is often very funny, especially in contrast to the sombre first act, and the trauma of the failed wedding proposal, while also playing upon Lacy’s talent for douchiness, which is largely untapped in the early part of the film, but comes to the fore here, as even his alien host seems to recognise: “What is wrong with me? Of all the creatures to stumble upon, I had to be this guy. I was better off as a deer.”
Such is the elegant tonality of the film, however, that by the time we arrive at the third act this comedy has muted back into a post-human vision of marriage that is as chilling as it is otherworldly. For when Ruth refuses to accept the proposal of Harry the alien, as she did with Harry the man, he forces her into an eerie ceremony that inverts two of the most tried and tested tropes of marriage. The first of these is the idea of two partners becoming one, which Harry literalises by cocooning Ruth in one of the giant sarcophagi she initially saw beneath the redwood, and absorbing her life force into himself, so as to physically and psychologically become her. At the very moment he takes on her appearance, he puts on their shared wedding ring, the second trope that is denatured here. For while wedding rings typically signify the infinitely insular self-reflexivity of the bourgeois couple, the circle of metal now becomes a figure for the cyclical fusion of all life, once again embedded in both the cellular details of the alien ceremony but also in the enormity of the redwood in whose roots it occurs.
By turning marriage into a hostile takeover, Significant Other thus ends on a more pessimistic note than screwball comedy, and perhaps even signals the failure of the long project of screwball comedy – namely, to reimagine marriage as a vehicle for American global continuity. While the classic screwball comedies managed to (just) rein in the anarchy of the entire universe, Significant Other is less confident in the capacity of marriage, even alien marriage, to maintain mutability in a steady state. This produces a reprofuturistic depression, a sense that the pressure of marriage and the pressure of global warming have become incommensurate with one another, especially since the world seems more likely to validate the survival of the nuclear couple and family over the survival of the entre human species. Towards the end of the film, Harry tells Ruth she’d do best to come with him, and live with him as his partner, since more aliens will be arriving, and terraforming the earth in his wake, conjuring up a social unconscious in which the fear of total planetary destruction is somehow less pressing than the fear of a planet comprised of single people, and single women in particular. Ruth responds by running into the ocean, and drawing Harry after her, turning his reprofuturistic rhetoric against by him by relying on the growing numbers of sharks close to shore – a symptom of global warming – to finish him off, and permit her to escape his grasp.
In the end, though, it’s not enough for Ruth to fight back using the condition – global warming – that led to her reprofuturistic depression. Instead, she has to fight back through and with that reprofuturistic depression itself, which Harry absorbs at the moment that he “becomes” her in the final alien ceremony. As she watches him, he turns into her, and then into a personification of this reprofuturist despair, as she tells him “You will always be broken,” and flees to the carpark, where she gazes once again at the tremulous space between car and trailhead, threshold of the most provisional of private bourgeois spaces and what has become the most cosmic and alien of natural spaces. And the film dissociates from here, freefalling into a space where marriage no longer holds, but global warming isn’t resolved either – a symptom itself, in the end, of the reprofuturistic dread it so beautifully enacts and embodies.