(2018) Science Fiction (Paramount) Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, Sonoya Mizuno, Sammy Hayman, Josh Danford, Kristen McGarrity, Bern Collaco, Kumud Pant, Richard Clark, Hiten Patel, Bobby Mahmi, Helena Holmes, Mairead Armstrong, Crystal Clarke, Odette Mitchell, Honey Holmes. Directed by Alex Garland
Sometimes we wonder what other worlds look like; are they beautiful like ours or barren and dismal? It stands to reason that worlds that are like ours will have some differences of flora and fauna. But if the intelligent species of those worlds decided to invade ours, wouldn’t they have to remake it in our image?
That seems to be the case. In a zone called The Shimmer, a state park has been surrounded by a force field that people can pass through. Those who have passed through however, have never returned. That includes Kane (Isaac), the husband of Lena (Portman) who is a medical doctor, a biology professor who like her husband has a military background. A year has passed by since his disappearance. Then, something happens that throws her life into disarray.
Now she needs to know what happened to Kane in the Shimmer. She meets with Dr. Ventress (Leigh), the project leader in trying to find out what the Shimmer is and what it means for humanity. Is it the beginning of the end? Is it a natural phenomenon? An invasion? A portal into another dimension? Inquiring minds need to know.
So a team of women are sent into see if they can find the answers, led by Ventress but including Anya (Rodriguez), Cass (Novotny) and Josie (Thompson). What they will find inside the Shimmer is not what they were expecting, but it is nonetheless a dangerous place that they can’t let their guard down not even for a moment. Not against the environment – and not against each other. After all, what would a sci-fi film be without at least some of the characters bearing deep dark hidden secrets?
This could easily have been a run of the mill creature feature (and there are several creatures to be found in this film, some damn frightening) but that’s just not the way Garland operates. This is a thinking person’s sci-fi, based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer. It is the first book in a trilogy, which is probably what attracted Paramount in the first place – the potential for a franchise. That’s not exactly what they got, which is probably why the studio’s financial department demanded changes in the film (particularly the ending) because it was “too cerebral.” Producer Scott Rudin, who had the final cut negotiated in his contract, refused and the movie went out as Garland wanted it.
There is certainly some allegory here, both in the sense of how our own planet’s environment is changing and the lethal consequences that will arise as part of that. There are a few logical holes that I really can’t go into without spoiling the plot so I won’t and the movie runs just shy of two hours which is about a half hour too long. I like the intelligence of the script but I could have done with a little less travelogue.
The visuals are absolutely breathtaking and highly imaginative; there are images here that are going to stick with you for a long time to come, the stuff of both dreams and nightmares. The performances are a little hit and miss; at times Portman doesn’t seem to be in sync with what’s going on although it is true that her character does have a lot on her mind. However, Leigh gives a stellar performance that reminds us that she is an Oscar-nominated performer who is one of the most underrated actresses in Hollywood.
Whether you like this or not is going to depend heavily on whether you prefer to use science fiction as an escape or as illumination. Those who prefer the latter will find rich material to mine here; those who prefer the former are going to end up with a headache. I’m sort of in the middle on this one; it’s certainly flawed but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t enough here to check out, particularly if you like your movies to challenge you. This one does that for certain.
REASONS TO GO: The visuals are spectacular. Leigh gives a stellar performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit disjointed. The film runs way too long, maybe a good 40 minutes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence and some bloody images, plenty of profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Isaac and Mizuno worked with Garland on his previous film Ex-Machina.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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