So, here we have a sci-fi film with horror overtones getting generally good notices from critics and lukewarm reception from audiences, and this just screams The Boy and I. I had a vague recollection of the Red Letter Media crew speaking warmly of it, but they may have simply pointed out that it’s a sci-fi movie with an all-female team where that team arises organically (kaff) which is, shall we say, debatable.
This is the sophomore effort from writer/director Alex Garland, whose freshman outing Ex Machina was highly praised by critics and audiences alike, and which The Boy (especially) and I felt was a bit over-rated. A movie about a robot that turns on its creator is not exactly fresh but it was pretty stylishly done and help up as long as you didn’t think too hard about it. Also, people seem to appreciate naked Alicia Vikander.
I wasn’t really aware of the movie’s pedigree going in. If I had been, I would’ve been completely unsurprised by the fact that this is another hoary old sci-fi tale done up in a stylish manner (though not that stylish, frankly).
If we did a breakdown, I would give this film a tepid thumbs up with a stern warning not to think about it very hard at all, and The Boy would give it a solid thumbs down, finding it both rather pale compared to the source material it’s ripping off (The Boy loves Stalker (1979) which is a clear influence here) and finding the acting awful and the denouement tipped from the first act.
The story is this: An object from outer space crashes near a lighthouse creating an anomalous field that is slowly expanding outward and probably/maybe gonna destroy the whole world but every mission they send in doesn’t come out and is probably dead so they figure “Well, hell, let’s just throw some girls in there maybe they’ll have better luck than the highly trained special forces dudes who didn’t come out and why not?”
I mean, that’s literally the “logic”. The (unspecified arm of the government) can’t think of anything else to do so they send in a (*squints*) psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a biologist (Natalie Portman), a physicist, an anthropologist and a paramedic.
Our “hero” is Natalie Portman whose husband (Oscar Isaacs) has vanished in the zone but then came back—the only one to escape The Zone though he remembers nothing and nobody knows how he got there (at which point The Boy immediately sussed out the whole plot)—only he’s real sick and the ambulance ride to the hospital is intercepted by guys in black cars, and they end up at Area X where Portman gets the necessary exposition to propel the team into the zone.
Up to this point, I was going along with it pretty easily. The set up is broody and atmospheric and there’s a sense of fatalism (ennui, even) that makes emotional sense—everyone’s going to die if something doesn’t change, so lets do stupid, desperate things—even if there’s no way on God’s green earth anything like that would ever go down in real life. This tone, I felt, was one of the big “lifts” from Stalker.
But we’re going to use this dubious set-up to do something smart and interesting, right? Well, no. Right at the beginning of the ladies’ foray into The Zone, they become aware that they’ve lost time. Like, five days.
Now, look, knowing that nobody else has come back alive (except our biologist’s husband), the first mysterious thing, what would you do? You’d head straight out. Just surviving gives you information you can bring back to base, and that’s more you had than before, when nobody had any information about The Zone. And of course, if you start thinking along these lines, you realize that what you’d do is send in maybe one guy and have him step in, then step right out. Maybe tie a rope around him, I dunno.
But okay, let’s go along. The inside of The Zone is all weird and mutate-y. Some nice design on the plants and animals. A kind of interesting premise involving cross-species gene sharing. Moody and mysterious exploration.
Then we get a boogen.
This is really jarring. It’s not scary or very exciting. One of the girls is taken but I think they rescue her. I can’t remember. As The Boy pointed out, the characters were mostly just their superficial characteristics. I thought the paramedic was sort of interesting—and completely unsuited for a mission like this—as was the psychologist. The Boy disagreed, finding it hard to care about any of the characters.
The big hook (not really a spoiler since it’s show in act one) is that Portman’s character is wracked with guilt over her faithlessness to her husband. This explains her motivation to go into The Zone—and the characters’ motivations are all this really has to distinguish it from any basic popcorn film.
The ending explains everything, and I had figured it out by act two but was sort of holding out hope for something better, but it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Like, we get the whole thing with biologist’s husband, but there’s no logical explanation for how he got to her, and how (having eluded the government in escaping The Zone) they discovered where he was. We sort of have to assume they were constantly watching the biologist, which I guess isn’t too far out.
Worse, though, and much like Ex Machina, there’s no reasonable explanation for the ending. It’s obscure without being interesting. It’s the kind of faux-depth that critics seem to adore.
As I say, a cautionary thumbs up if you like broody Portman and Leigh—and I do love me some JJL. She’s been one of the most consistently good actresses since she was Marcie on “Baretta”. But don’t be fooled: It’s really just a rehashed B-movie with some interesting aspects to it.