This review contains spoilers!!!
Apparently, the one thing that can get me to watch something I really had no hard plans for viewing is…CURIOSITY.
I guess I’m just a big nosy-ass, because when the opportunity came for me to stream this, I simply could not resist, even though it was 2AM, and I knew I had to get my ass up out the bed at 7:30. (Extreme curiosity is pretty much my go-to motivation for watching a lot of stuff.)
So, I watched this, and I have to admit, despite my trepidation, I actually kinda liked it. For my definition, it is more of a horror movie, than a Scifi movie, not because horrible things happen in it, (they do), but because the haunting feeling of melancholy, and dread, from the book, was perfectly captured, so I can’t actually call the movie enjoyable, in that sense. Its a mood that sticks with you long after the movie is over.The best horror movies present as many questions as answers and that ‘s what the director, Alex Garland, does here.
In my last post, I remember asking if this movie was un-filmable, and yeah, it is, because this movie is not the book, in the sense of the events happening as they do there. The movie, because of its nature, has to present a sequence of events that lead to other events, in a linear fashion. Garland does make a good effort at this by flipping back and forth in time. Unlike the book, we’re not privy to the narrator’s disturbed, and disturbing thoughts, and the director had to substitute with mood, instead.
On the other hand, the mood of the movie is perfect. Jeff Vandermeer is one of the primary authors in the New Weird literary genre, along with China Mieville, and M. john Harrison,and it’s especially difficult to film and market such a genre, because so many of the stories are simply unfilmable. The purpose of New Weird is to upend stereotypes, and overturn tropes, and movies are kind of built on that type of shorthand. And even if you could film one of these weird novels, you’d have to change so much of it for the audience to understand it, that it would no longer be the book. I mean how do you film, for a mainstream audience, something like Perdido Street Station by Mieville, which involves love scenes with insect headed women? But Alex Garland seems to have captured the spirit and intent of the book, if not the exact details, because the ending is completely different, and if you’ve read the book, the events that happen at the Lighthouse are interpreted very differently. This movie is not for everyone. If you like understandable ,concrete endings, this is not for you.
The movie begins with Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, being interviewed about her escape from what the characters call The Shimmer, and what the book calls Area X. In the books, the characters don’t have names. They’re known by their roles within the expedition team. Lena is The Biologist. Tessa Thompson as Josie, and Gina Rodriguez, as Anya, are the anthropologist, and paramedic. Ventress is the team leader and a psychologist. And there’s another scientist named Shepard.
The book’s subplot, of having the psychologist control the others with hypnotic suggestions, has been jettisoned, and Lena’s memories of her husband, who previously ventured into the Shimmer, are told in flashback. In the film, all the women have existential reasons for volunteering to go into The Shimmer, all of them are self destructive, and this motivation plays a large part in the theme of the movie. Lena is self destructive over her marriage, Ventress is suicidal because she has terminal cancer, Anya self harms, Shepard lost her daughter and is depressed, and Josie suffers from depression, as well. They are the kind of people who want to opt out of life, and The Shimmer preys on that to some extent.
No reason is given for what The Shimmer is really, or why it’s there, at least not in concrete, nailed down terms, in the first book, which is more concerned with thoughtful exploration. In the movie, it’s an alien life form, not-conscious, not intelligent, whose purpose is to simply change other life forms, merging, reflecting, and refracting them. The team encounter hybridized creatures, like a mutated bear which screams in the voice of the colleague it killed, (Shepherd), and an alligator with a mouth full of shark’s teeth.They also come across the bodies of hybridized and refracted humans, whose bodies have merged with nearby buildings, or have become plant like statuary. The imagery is fascinating and terrifying.
The first hour of the movie is mostly spent exploring Area X and establishing Lena’s reasons for volunteering. Thanks to the trailer, I was worried that the movie would be dumbed down, and be another vehicle to have women be chased and attacked by a monster, but that turned out not to be the case. The movie is smarter, and more emotional than that.
You’ll be happy to know these women are also pro-active, and kick some ass. There are no fainting damsels here. Lena has military experience and all the women are well armed. They end up in vulnerable situations because they have walked into the unknown, and have no idea what to expect, not because they’re waiting around to be attacked. The bear sequence takes up only a small part, in the middle of the film, and then its done. That’s not the movie’s focus. I do wish the director had been a woman though, because the relationships between these characters feel somewhat antiseptic. There’s deep emotion on an individual level, but not as they relate to each other. These are professionals doing a job, and I wanted just a little more emotion between them. (Not drama, which lazy writers often substitute, but emotional connection.)
In the book there’s a creature called The Crawler, which writes strange poetry on the walls of the lighthouse, and kills one of the team members. I didn’t think it was possible but the end of this movie is stranger than the book, and that’s why I feel that the intent of the book was captured so well. We get a lot of answers during the film, and the conclusion appears satisfying, at first, but we’re also left with a big mystery at the end, too.
There are about fifty different words that mean “weird”, and the movie draws on all of them.The most disturbing part of the movie wasn’t the mutated bear, although yes, that was terrifying. It was the scene where Anya, in a fit of extreme paranoia, takes the rest of the team hostage, and threatens to kill them, after she finds out Lena’s husband was on the previous expedition. She has very obviously gone insane, and the helplessness of the other characters is enough to have you sitting on the edge of your seat. I feel like this scene takes the place of the unreliable narrator scenes from the book.
I think the saddest, most unexpected, scene was Thompson’s anthropologist, who just wanders off to become part of the scenery. Literally! She just gives in to the whole thing, and seems entirely at peace with it. I identified more strongly with Lena, than I did with her, but I found that scene especially horrifying. If that were me, I don’t know that I could just give up like that, which is ironic, considering I suffered from my own bout of suicidal depression in my early twenties, where I would’ve been happy to give up. My reaction to that scene is probably informed by my recollections of that time. I think I identify more with Lena, especially now, because she never stops fighting what’s happening to her, all the way to the end.
A large clue to understanding one of the themes of the movie, and what The Shimmer is, is in Lena’s biology speech at the beginning of the movie, and her basic message is that all life came from one source, one cell, and what would happen if we devolved back to that one source. Early in the movie, one of the books she’s caught reading is The immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about a black woman whose immortalized cancer cells are the foundation of cancer research in America. Lena also has conversations, with her husband, about how humans could never achieve immortality because we have a strong self destructive streak.
The return of Lena’s husband is told in flashback. It’s been nearly a year, when he simply walks into the house, and into her bedroom. He has no memories of how he got home, or where he’s been. He has a seizure and falls into a coma, and that’s when Lena discovers he’s not supposed to be back at all. The current expedition comes across videos left by the previous team, and that’s how they begin not only to understand that something is happening to them, but what happened to the last team, including Lena’s husband.
When the last of the team, Ventress and Lena, reach the lighthouse, Ventress gives herself over entirely to the alien Shimmer, and Lena discovers the body of her husband, and video footage of how he actually died. (He committed suicide.) Ventress’ death has the unintended side effect of releasing a kind of genetic doppelgänger of Lena, that tries to become her, and duplicates her every move. Realizing that the double is a version of her, with her genetic code, Lena tricks it into holding a phosphorus grenade, and escapes before it burns up, taking the lighthouse, and alien Shimmer, along with it. There are a lot of theories out there about what this scene means, with people speculating that she passed her suicidal, self destruction to the alien, and that this possibly makes her immortal, now. I don’t know about that, but at least she’s no longer suicidal, at the end.
She somehow manages to find her way back to the Southern Reach, and her husband, although she realizes it isn’t her husband at all, and he can’t seem to answer that question. For Lena, it ultimately doesn’t matter, because she was infected by the alien Shimmer before it destroyed itself, and she may not be as human as everyone thinks she is either. This is indicated by her and her “husband’s” shimmering eyes before the final credits. Is the alien dead? Are they still human, but changed? Not human at all? Is Lena immortal? And what does this mean for her, her “husband”, and the rest of humanity?
Ultimately, you’ll have to decide for yourself if this movie is for you, if you trust my description of it. It’s definitely an acquired taste,and not for everyone. If you suffer from bouts of depression, this may actually trigger it, as one of the movie’s primary themes is depression and suicide, and it’s a cross between The Thing, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s much more thoughtful, and introspective in mood, because the answers aren’t simply handed to you, or over-explained. You have to pay close attention to what’s being said. The feeling of dread is vague, undefined, and quiet, and sneaks up on you as you begin to realize what it all means, punctuated by moments of terror.
Yeah, it’s definitely weird.
I don’t regret having watched it though.