Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Some might say this is a horror film, and horrific things do happen. Others might say it is fantasy, and one shot toward the end had, of all things, Alice in Wonderland pop into my head. It could also be considered science fiction, since the film does something the novel speculated but didn't confirm. The opening sequence shows a meteor landing near a lighthouse, establishing that the weird events that follow are caused by an extraterrestrial organism. There are other changes from the book, added characters, many details excised, and a completely different climax, but I still feel it is true to the spirit of the book. I don't know if writer/director Alex Garland intended this to be a one-off, or if he has ideas on continuing the story, but if that happens I suspect it will have little in common with either of the two books that concluded the trilogy. And that's okay, because I was just as impressed with Garland's vision as I was with VanderMeer's.
A biology professor (Natalie Portman) has been mourning the loss of her husband for a year. He was an Army sergeant who had not returned from a secret mission, and she had failed in her attempts to get information about where he went or what the mission entailed. Except...he finally does return at the end of that year, or at least something that resembles him returns in his place. That much matches the beginning of the book. The film is divided into three sections, Area X, The Shimmer, and The Lighthouse. The first should actually have been The Southern Reach, the government/military/scientific facility observing and researching Area X. The Shimmer is unique to the film, but I'm not sure if it comprises the entirety of Area X or only describes the perimeter. Once past that barrier, the expedition does not see that same effect everywhere, only reflections or refractions of it. What they do see is a landscape at times quite normal, but the further they penetrate Area X they encounter new and varied plant types, as well as animals transformed in uniquely weird ways.
It's dreamlike in places, nightmarish in others, with only one scene I would describe as a "jump scare." I know it won't do as much business as I would like, not only because it will be overshadowed by Black Panther's second weekend, but there will likely be reports of it being too slow and methodical, too much dialog and not enough action. I think it's paced perfectly, and the dialog, and long scenes without dialog or action, set the mysterious mood the story deserves. It is visually stunning, with the exception of several scenes that were too dark, where facial expressions in particular were hard to discern. Overall the acting is very good, subtle and reserved where appropriate, frantically frightened as required. Natalie Portman gets top billing of course, and has the most scenes and dialog. She is good, but I was equally impressed by Gina Rodriguez, and of course I have yet to be disappointed by an Oscar Isaac performance. My only disappointment was for the other three actresses, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Nuvotny. Not in their performances, but in the minimal development of their characters and their limited screen time.
As I previously mentioned, the climax differs from the book, but is equally enthralling. Somewhere in the middle of the sequence at the Lighthouse is the image that evoked Alice in Wonderland, but scenes before and after that made me think of two different science fiction films, but only in visual terms, not thematic. They are The Quiet Earth and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I suspect I'm the only one who thought of those, but I won't explain. You'll just have to see it to understand, or else puzzle over why I thought of them. This is likely to get wildly different reactions from different viewers, but it gets a very positive recommendation from me.
My review of Jeff VanderMeer's novels, the Southern Reach Trilogy.
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