Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
United Kingdom/USA, 2018. DNA Films, Paramount Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, Skydance Media. Screenplay by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. Cinematography by Rob Hardy. Produced by Eli Bush, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Scott Rudin. Music by Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury. Production Design by Mark Digby. Costume Design by Sammy Sheldon. Film Editing by Barney Pilling.
A year after going missing, a soldier (Oscar Isaac) returns home to his wife (Natalie Portman), herself ex-military and now teaching biology. She can’t believe her good fortune, but it isn’t long before he becomes violently ill and the two of them are quickly evacuated, she waking up days later in a mysterious compound in an unknown location. The doctor in charge (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells her that an alien presence has caused a perimeter wall called the “Shimmer” that has been expanding on a daily basis further and further beyond the shore where it was first spotted. Countless soldiers have been sent into this Shimmer and Isaac has been the only one to return, but not with any credible data or information; Leigh has decided to send a group of scientists in place of military personnel to go in and find out if they are at First Contact or Mars Attacks.
Portman joins the all-female team of five as they venture in through the high, soapy-looking walls of the Shimmer and, once inside, find a world turned upside down: the alien presence has been messing with the DNA of anything living within its boundaries, meaning that plants and animals are getting mixed up, crossbred species are being created and plants are growing in the shape of people. Once they realize that the situation is also affecting their own physical makeup, and that this is having an affect on them psychologically, the emphasis is placed on getting what they came for and getting out as soon as possible.
Very little of what happens is pleasant or innocent in this Solaris meets Apocalypse Now fantasy based on the first of a series of novels by Jeff Vandermeer, which when it’s not overwhelming you with grimness is paralyzing you with sequences that are downright terrifying. Nervous executives apparently tried to convince director Alex Garland to recut the film into something more palatable for wide audience taste and were thwarted by producer Scott Rudin, who supported the director’s decision to think outside the box, and what results is not easy to place. It’s not an action film despite the presence of plenty of guns, and a number of sequences are both fascinating and ridiculous at the same time, but what purports to be intellectually nourishing science-fiction actually relies more on a sense of dread than anything intellectually contemplative.
The flimsy visual effects are either of poor quality or intentionally subtle, depending on how much you’re enjoying being scared out of your wits, and while it gets a bit long-winded in the conclusion, there’s no denying that the film follows a very original and unpredictable story with a worthy ending that does not give in to any simplistic tying up of loose ends. Mass audience response seems to have fallen on the executives’ side, it’s not a film that was ever going to have popular appeal, but a cult appreciation will likely grow around it in the decades to come, regardless of whether or not its poor box office response prevents the later novels to be adapted into films as well.