This review contains spoilers.
Alex Garland directs his second feature film, following up on Ex Machina (2014) with an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel of the same name.
It is an eery, narratively original and progressive, often disturbing science fiction horror film that follows a team of four scientists into a zone deep within a national park that has become surrounded by a “Shimmer”: a dome of colourful, shimmering light capturing the territory inside it.
What lies inside the Shimmer is a mystery, but it is expanding and taking new territory at a steady rate every day, and has provoked the US government into a state of alarm—teams are being sent in to investigate and contain the situation before it becomes public knowledge.
The concept of the Shimmer invites comparisons to the loss of rainforests in the Amazon, or the expansion of deserts each year, or to cancerous tumours. The film’s themes play on these comparisons, to natural forces and disease, often.
At the outset, only one person sent into the Shimmer has re-emerged: Kane, a soldier who has undergone distinct personality changes that resemble PTSD. He also has limited ability to remember or describe much of what happened to him.
Natalie Portman plays the lead role as Lena, a cellular biology professor and former soldier, and the partner of Kane. Disturbed by Kane’s mysterious condition, she decides to go into the Shimmer herself… and the strangeness begins.
At its core the film has an all-female cast, following a team of four female scientists into the Shimmer while cutting to flash-forward interrogation scenes with Lena in a military base. Oscar Isaac plays an important but supplemental role as Kane, a character key to the story of Lena, but never a narrative focus himself. The viewer is never positioned to see the story from his perspective.
This reliance on female talent for primary roles, positioning the viewer squarely behind female eyes, sets the film apart in its genre. Challenges of survival within the Shimmer are met with less of the typically “male” point-and-shoot solutions common to monster movies (a sub-genre this film can be considered part of), which breaks the plot out of cliché and imbues the story with a fresh, rational approach to problem solving.
There is a distinctly fearless quality to these characters: a mindset able to maintain focus on scientific understanding as the primary objective as man-eating monsters abound.
Alien’s Ripley laid the blueprint for strong female leads in the science fiction horror genre back in 1979, but over forty years later it still feels notable when a film pushes the concept further and puts an all-female team of soldiers and scientists centre stage.
Each team member brings distinct skills and a different outlook, too; each is an invaluable member of the team, but in a different way. Each is cut from a different cloth. This avoids the reading that “the” female lead is simply an exceptional individual who happens to be female, or that at least one man is essential in any military unit to act as muscle (which Gina Rodriguez, as Anya, provides in spades).
Besides the cast, progressive gender roles are written into the foundations of the script. In a flashback scene Kane relays to Lena that, since they will be in the same hemisphere, she will be able to look at the same stars as him from the garden while he is away on a mission. Lena almost laughs him out of bed at the idea she will be in the garden pining, staring at the stars and praying for his return. Outmoded, soft notions of “romance” have no travel here.
Behaviours imbued with sexist expectations don’t only emit from male characters, either. When Lena first meets the members of the all-female team, her first response is to ask with surprise “All woman?” She is quickly corrected in a matter-of-fact way: “Scientists.”
Once inside the Shimmer, reality starts to shift towards a dreamlike form of nature. Disorientation and memory loss is followed by the discovery of biologically inexplicable plants, with several species growing from the same branch structures. Then encounters with multi-species mutant animals take us into the monster movie realm.
Remnants from previous expeditions lead the team to an alarming discovery: the Shimmer refracts everything inside it, including DNA, merging all living things into new forms, and creating organically-mirrored structures of them. If a person inside the Shimmer submits to this process of change, their body might rapidly transition into a plant structure. Things are strange (and they continue to get stranger).
This process of universal genetic mutation gives form to the concept that nature exists in a fundamentally larger and more powerful realm than any living thing. Fear of nature itself, and the futility of human attempts to dominate over it, become a source of existential dread in the narrative—a striking and original source of horror.
From nature as a grand cosmic force, we are also reminded how it operates on the microscopic level. Transformations in the Shimmer are caused by DNA mutations, which are tied to the uncontrolled division of cancerous cells through multiple references and parallels in the script. For example, in an early flashback scene Lena cites uncontrolled cancerous cell division as an example of how God makes mistakes. This creates a second source of existential dread in the narrative: the fear of cancer.
A third allegorical reading is tied in with the fear of cancer during a key conversation—a reading I think is the film’s most narratively significant.
“I also lost someone. A daughter: leukaemia. In a way it’s two bereavements. My beautiful girl, and the person I once was.”
At the start of the film we see Kane return home to Lena a changed man. Lena immediately senses the change, and as they spend more time together that becomes a more certain feeling—that he is not the same person he was before.
This puts the couple in an odd situation, where one has changed and the other has not. They are together, re-united, and yet they are also now strangers.
The soundtrack returns several times to “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby Stills & Nash, whose lyrics take on an eery and unsettling quality playing over Lena and the “post-Shimmer” Kane:
They are one person
They are two alone
They are three together
They are for each other
Lena decides to follow the same path Kane went down, the one that left him a changed man, into the Shimmer. She is either trying to find a cure and save him, or trying to induce the same change in herself, so she can meet him again on equal terms.
The film’s final scene sees the two reunited, both having been into the Shimmer and emerged back out, and suggests the second outcome has come to pass. Lena has been changed in the same way Kane has. The final shot suggests an understanding that something terrible has happened, but also that they are able to communicate on the same level again.
The third bogeyman the Shimmer represents is the fear of ageing (something Lena explains is due to a genetic malfunction in the earlier flashback), but more specifically, the fear of radical changes to a person as they age, brought on by dramatic life events. The fear that with age and the life experiences that come with it, an individual can transform into a completely different person.
The power of Lena’s love has allowed her to inflict the same wounds on herself that were inflicted on her partner, and arrive at a new place of understanding. Though changed people, Lena’s (perhaps subconscious) sacrifice means they are able to continue together through life.
Unlike Kane’s earlier, outmoded attempt at romance—Lena pining in the garden, looking at the stars—the film leaves us with a radical and fearless expression of love: Lena has embarked on a mission to save Kane, risked her life, and ultimately allowed herself to be permanently transformed, just to reconnect with him.