Despite the guns the women are carrying, this is quiet science fiction and reminded me of Arrival. As in that other movie, the framing here is military and the threat of violence looms, but here as in Arrival, violence is framed as failure rather than as a challenge to be overcome with stronger, more effective violence. Understanding the Other is the goal and jumping to conclusions—from fear, from greed, from paranoia—is the real danger. Part of the film’s power is that I’m not sure the story ends badly: transformation is life, no? The future?
In terms of its use of locations and the integration between the narrative and place, the film reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979): both films rely on ordinary but ruined landscapes that offer few signs of the fantastic yet are recast by the narrative as menacing. The resulting tension manifests as a deep sense of dread organized around a basic confusion: is the danger of the scene objectively there in the world or is it all in the characters’ heads? Now there is obviously real danger here—a crocodile with shark teeth, a bear with a woman’s voice, a snake thing crawling beneath a man’s skin— but overall “the Shimmer” is banal space with strange plants. Yet not since The Shining have I found topiary so horrifying.
The movie is beautiful—even those topiary—and it wears its aesthetic and narrative influences on its sleeve. Alien looms large, especially in the darkest moments of body horror, but the horror evoked by certain famous news photographs is clearly a reference as well.
Ultimately, the film was a surprise and evoked the same reaction as I watched the credits as Passengers: why did none of the marketing or reviews give me a clue as to how good this movie would be? And again, I found myself wondering if we’ve lost our ability to imagine science fiction or fantasy films that are not action-adventure movies?
More personally, I love seeing Jennifer Jason Leigh perform and Tessa Thompson is becoming one of my favorite stars. So this movie was a treat.