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Directed by: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac
Rated: R for Violence, Bloody Images, Language and Some Sexuality
Running Time: 1 h 55 m
TMM Score: 5 stars out of 5
STRENGTHS: Writing, Directing, Visual Effects
WEAKNESSES: Themes (?)
A biologist with a military background is recruited by a mysterious agency to enter Area X, a location unlike anywhere else on earth, where she hopes to find a cure for her husband’s sudden and inexplicable sickness.
FIRST DISCLAIMER: I went into this movie fully expecting to love it. I read Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy last year and was utterly blown away by it. Then, upon reading Vandermeer’s overwhelmingly positive response to Alex Garland’s adaptation, my expectations skyrocketed, and still, somehow, Garland surprised me. Though the adaptation took massive liberties with the source material, the result was utterly spellbinding, and, I believe, ahead of its time.
SECOND DISCLAIMER: If you’re upset about the whitewashing controversy that has, sadly, tarnished this film’s reputation, I urge you to listen to our podcast, where we discuss why I don’t believe this film should be subject to that criticism. I do, absolutely, believe that whitewashing is an issue in Hollywood, but I also think that playing ‘the boy who cried whitewash’ diminishes the movement’s reputability. If you’re still reeling after listening to the podcast, maybe read the books, and then tell me how much of an impact the character’s ethnicities had on the way they behaved or reacted. After you’ve done your homework, if you still think I’m in the wrong, please, let me know. This is only my opinion, but I’d love to hear your opinion, too.
WHEW! With that out of the way, let’s begin.
The film is told in flashback form, starting with Lena (Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”) sitting in a glass room, while across from her a man in a HAZMAT suit, referred to in the credits as Lomax (Benedict Wong, “The Martian”), asks questions about the trip from which Lena has just returned. All around her, behind the walls of glass, people watch in suspense, eating up her every word. Lena talks about her expedition, but she seems disoriented, confused.
The story flashes back to a few years earlier as a meteorite of some kind plummets through the Earth’s atmosphere, striking a lighthouse when it lands and emitting a strange and shimmering light.
We then cut to a shot of cells multiplying. Lena works at a college, and on this particular day, she is teaching her class about how ovarian cancer cells multiply. Similar shots of cells becoming two becoming four becoming eight and so on, becomes a recurring image throughout the film. As Lena leaves the college for the day, another staff member, Daniel (David Gyasi, “Interstellar”) approaches her, asking if she would like to join him and his wife for a barbeque. Lena declines, saying she has to paint her bedroom. Daniel reaches out and touches her arm, in soft tones, he tells her that there’s nothing wrong with spending time with other people; it’s not disrespectful to her husband’s memory. Lena still declines the invite.
Later, as Lena paints her bedroom (blue to white, symbolizing, perhaps, the sadness she felt at the loss of her husband (blue), and the act of trying to start fresh (white)), her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”) returns home and wanders, almost as if somnambulant, upstairs, where Lena and he reunite; her, tearfully, him, without emotion. Lena asks where he’s been for the last year, what happened on the expedition, what became of his other crew mates, but Kane is unable to answer. Lena gets him a glass of water, puts it down on the table, and places her hand over his, shown through the distortion of the liquid. Kane says he isn’t feeling well, and after taking a sip of his beverage, blood dribbles down the side of the glass and taints the crystal clear water. Lena calls an ambulance, but on the way to the hospital, helicopters and armored trucks surround them, and force them to pull off the road. Before anyone can discern what’s happened, Lena is sedated.
She wakes later in a kind of cell, similar to the one in which we first met Lena; she immediately walks across the room to vomit. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, “eXistenZ”), a psychologist, enters the cell and apologizes for the sickness, saying that it’s a hangover from the drug they gave her. Lena asks what’s going on, and Ventress tells her all she knows, which isn’t much. Kane had been sent into Area X, a place surrounded by a strange pseudo-psychedelic shimmer, where the government has been conducting experiments, trying to determine what the place is; right now, they are essentially clueless, even after years of research. Kane is apparently the only crewmember to ever return from the place, but now, as he’s fallen into a coma, he is unable to relay any information he might have assimilated inside. Ventress shows Lena the shimmer from afar, and announces she, herself, plans to enter with a new team soon. Lena volunteers to go along, and with her military and scientific credentials, Ventress agrees to bring her.
Before entering Area X, Lena meets the other crewmembers: a paramedic, Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez, “Deepwater Horizon”), a physicist, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson, “Avengers: Endgame”), and an anthropologist, Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Novotny, “Eat Pray Love”). Lena chooses not to reveal that Kane, whom is now, famously, the only returnee, is her husband.
They enter the shimmer.
Right away, things feel off. The crewmembers awaken, confused. They don’t remember setting up camp, and based on their rations, it seems as if they’ve been there for days, not hours. All of their equipment that relies on external communication- their GPS and radio- doesn’t work; even an ordinary compass can’t find magnetic north. They eventually get their bearings and continue further into the area, where things continue to get weirder. Upon finding a shed slightly submerged in a swamp, Lena examines the flowers growing outside, which blossom and bloom as if in a “constant mutation;” the blooms appear to be a myriad of different species of flowers all growing from a single vine. Shortly after Lena announces her discovery, Radek is pulled into the shed and Lena rushes in to save her. After pulling her out of the water, the team retreats to shore, only to be attacked by a large alligator. Upon killing it, Lena examines the carcass and finds that has rows of teeth, similar to the kind of teeth a shark would possess.Lena takes a sample
The team continues further, eventually coming upon the remains of a camp inside a building overrun by more mutated plants; it’s apparent Kane’s crew set up the camp. They find a video camera containing footage of Kane, ostensibly out of his mind.The crewmembers decide to set up camp for the night, and they choose a high watchtower as their place of rest.During their rest, Lena examines some of the cells she’s taken from the gator under a microscope, and finds that they are mutating.
That’s about as far as I’ll go into the plot of this movie; the books, much like the movie, have a very mysterious feel, and I’d hate to spoil everything.
Why do I love this film so much?
There is so much good here, but first, let’s start with the visuals; shall we? The third act of this film will draw many comparisons to “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and that is totally fair. This film, much like Kubrick’s masterpiece, slips from a sci-fi adventure film towards a psychedelic, quasi-existential, super-metaphysical meditation in the end. The result is magical, bizarre, and, in a way, terrifying. Throughout the film (before we loose our minds completely to the world of Area X), the visuals are utterly compelling; the film is unlike anything else I’ve seen. In a way, it’s indescribable until you see it for yourself.
Writing and acting. “Hold up!” You say, those two things shouldn’t be written about in the same paragraph, but, oh, they certainly should. Now, this “strength” is one may take people by surprise. I’ve read a few comments from other film friends saying that Portman’s portrayal of Lena was too stiff, the dialogue she was given was rather stilted, but I would heartily disagree with that assessment. Again, keep in mind that this is only my opinion, but here’s why I loved the dialogue and acting: the source material has a cold, distant feel to it, and this movie matched that tone perfectly. In the book, Lena’s character is known primarily as The Biologist (likewise, the other characters are also known primarily by their occupations); the biologist has a hard time connecting to anyone; in fact there’s a scene when the biologist is asked what she would do if she were infected by Area X, and she responds saying she’d take a sample of herself. She is cold, calculated. She has a hard time caring for anything other than what she’s working on. There’s a scene in this film when Lena is speaking with Daniel, he says that it’s not him she hates; it’s herself. She responds by saying, “No, Daniel, I hate you too.” That line captures the essence of the novel perfectly. Portman’s distant portrayal of Lena matches exactly how the Biologist would react. I believe it’s brilliantly executed. But, for those looking for warmth within characters, don’t come here.
Garland’s direction, too, is pretty impressive. For those unfamiliar with his other work, check out his directorial debut, “Ex Machina” (2014), for which he received a Best Original Screenplay nomination. Garland’s career is already quite impressive; he’s penned a few very notable scifi films including “Sunshine” (2007), “28 Days Later” (2002), and “Dredd” (2012). He was also, reportedly, paid a million dollars for writing the Halo movie, which never seemed to get off the ground. The stylistic choices Garland made in “Ex Machina” are elaborated upon in this film; there’s plenty of subtle symbolism (and some not so subtle). His ability to create an atmosphere much like Vandermeer’s books was what really blew me away. Upon reading the Southern Reach Trilogy, I thought the books were essentially unfilmable, but Garland has proven me wrong, and I’m very happy he did.
The not as great bits...
Before seeing this film, I saw a few comments from filmmaker friends criticizing the film's lack of theme, and while I agree that this film does not have a overt underlying message meant to change your mind, it does pose the most basic of metaphysical and scientific questions: What do we know, and how much more can we learn? This film is about scientists looking for answers to those question, because that's what scientists do, and that's how they approach things. Sure, there could've been a deeper theme, but I don't think I'd want that. I think this film raises more questions than it answers, but that, again is the point, because, in the end, it leaves you wondering at what will happen, about what has happened. I love films that make me think about the minuteness of our lives when compared to the scope of the universe, and this film did that. Some people might not prefer the ambiguity this film leaves you with, but I thought it worked wonders for this film.
As I mentioned at the very beginning of my review, I loved this film. The issues that others had with it made me love it all the more. I hope that Garland has an extraordinarily long career ahead of him, because his first two films were pretty stellar, and if they’re any indication of what he has to offer, then we’re in for a lot more sci-fi goodness.
What did you think of Garland’s adaptation? Did you find it as compelling as I, or did you think it fell flat? I’d love to hear your feedback, both on the movie and on my review. Leave a comment below, be sure to like and subscribe, and look forward to more True Myth Media reviews coming soon.
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