Alex Garland follows the acclaimed Ex Machina with another thrilling sci-fi vision
British writer-director Alex Garland has adapted the first part of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy from memory, after reading the novel just once. The result is a visually eerie creative explosion packed full of grand ideas that recall Tarkovsky's Stalker, the work of Cronenberg and Kubrick, and the horror of Ridley Scott's Alien, while revelling in its own unique brand of weirdness. Though the film veers away greatly from the original text, the dreamy ambience of the book is very much intact.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist with a military background. Following in the footsteps of husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who has recently returned from a mysterious mission, she joins a (superbly cast) all-female expedition led by Jennifer Jason Leigh's psychologist and accompanied by scientists played by Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny. They travel into 'The Shimmer', an area that has been impacted by a meteor and keeps aggressively growing in size, threatening to swallow up Earth.
Bizarre mutated breeds of animals inhabit the alien environment, where the grotesque and gorgeous live side by side and dreams give birth to nightmares. Flowers grow into human shapes that resemble Antony Gormley's weathered, cast iron statues of 'Another Place' and the monsters that roam the land are imbued with an audible and desperate sadness.
Thematically Garland is traversing the subject of self-destruction, tearing apart the human psyche with molecular science and twisted imagery. The crew is made up of women suffering addiction and trauma, women who have lost all hope or who are dealing with tragic loss. The exquisite, synth-heavy score from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (who also scored Garland's debut Ex Machina) compounds the intense mood of looming danger and thrilling discovery.
VanderMeer's novel stirs up big questions about the meaning of life, taking its lead from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. In Garland's trippy vision – disappointingly debuting on the small screen in the UK – Lena literally makes her way to a lighthouse, concluding the film with an enigmatic finale that evokes Woolf's words on the pain, longing and complexity of the human condition.
Available to watch on Netflix from Mon 12 Mar.