Alex Garland’s second film pulling double duties as director and writer is a perfect microcosm about the creative issues Hollywood currently faces. Here we have a hypnotic, intellectual sci-fi horror movie that refuses to dumb itself down to appeal to the largest common denominator. It is thought provoking, ethereal and a wonderful piece of art that asks questions of the audience. It was made to be seen on the big screen. And Paramount wouldn’t release it theatrically worldwide, with only a short run at the US box office with little marketing… Thank god Netflix picked it up and thank god Alex Garland and his producer were able to release this without studio mandated changes.
I have now seen this movie twice and enjoyed it considerably both times. On the repeat viewing you notice subtle, and some not to subtle, acts of foreshadowing and visual parallels that occur throughout allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusions about the story. I watched it for the second time through the lens of everything being a metaphor for cancer. My friend saw someone mention it’s also about the importance of introspection and how, as humans, we constantly look outwards. This is a film that rewards with further viewings and deeper analysis. While I didn’t initially notice the theme of introspection, this is a deeply personal idea to me that likely helps explain, in part, why I enjoyed this film so greatly even if I hadn’t quite grasped those underlying messages.
The cancer metaphors are what initially jumped out of me- with numerous characters discussing cancer or having being affected by it- not to mention the repeated visual motifs showing cells mutating much in the same way that tumours do. The idea of The Shimmer representing cancer as an alien invader, attacking and mutating the DNA of Earth but without any malevolent purpose is quite profound. I also read the characters representing different ways people deal with cancer. Some fight it but are forever changed due to their experiences (Lena), some die in pain, and some have goals they need to accomplish before succumbing to the disease (Jennifer Jason Leigh). I felt Tessa Thompson’s character represented euthanasia, the way she accepted her fate and peacefully died. With Lena, I didn’t feel the shimmer in her eye meant that it was her copy, like Kane was, but that it indicated that she’s being changed, her DNA has been refracted due to her experiences in The Shimmer, much in the same way patients who survive the aggressive chemotherapy treatment will experience changes to their body and character. This was also foreshadowed early on with the Shimmer being reflected in her eyes when she first gazes upon it. Another reoccurring visual metaphor throughout the film is the forearm tattoo, that is designed to look like mutating cells. This appears on characters arms to symbolise their DNA having been mutated, with it first appearing on the dead soldier. There’s another nice piece of visual storytelling involving glasses with a late shot mirroring an earlier on shot, only this time the water droplets, again, look like cells mutating.
This film has scenes with grotesque body horror that really stay with you. One of the scenes that will surely haunt viewers involves a mutated bear who echoes the screams of a dead character after devouring her. As a character bluntly states after, a truly disturbing thought, having your last moments of pain be what you’re remembered for… Something I’m sure many cancer patients can identify with. This horror sequence is expertly handled with the tension mounting and impressive visuals and sound design being utilised to maximum effect.
The finale of this film is suitably mind bending and is a wonder to behold. There is a long stretch with no dialogue and only the wonderful visuals and score that combine to create something a very trippy and mind bending sequence. This sequence is pure sci fi goodness and doesn’t provide the audience with clear explanations about what exactly is happening. It trusts the audience is capable of coming to their own conclusions.
The camera throughout the film is used to communicate the idea that not all foreign bodies are necessarily a bad thing and good, even beautiful, things can come from initially horrible things. Shots of the two deer, the gorgeous flowers and the humanoid trees demonstrate this to me. I believe the film is trying to communicate that you can come out the other side horrific life events stronger than before despite been irrovecably changed. And that through introspection and self reflection you can become a better version of yourself.
In summary, this was a visually arresting, thematically resonant and, most importantly, thoroughly enjoyable film from start to finish. It is one that I will no doubt revisit numerous times, much like Ex Machina. I for one cannot wait to see what he treats us to next and let’s hope his projects only grow in ambition.