March 2, 2018 – This is one of those films that get better ratings from critics than they do from paying audiences. While I did pay to see this, I liked it a bit more than the Cinemascore rating of C and a bit less than the average critic score of B. If you like ambiguity, you'll like this film more than you will if you find ambiguity annoying.
While it is a science fiction drama, and it has scary monsters and lots of creepy genetic mutations, it is not just a “bug hunt” as the snarky starship troopers in “Aliens” like to call this kind of operation. It is also darker and more subversive than most real bug hunt movies. Its theme is nearly as sinister as that of “The Astronaut's Wife” (1999). It is a kind of thoughtful scientific mystery tour into an otherworldly realm called the “shimmer.”
The ever-expanding shimmer zone begins at a Florida lighthouse when a meteor-like object from space hits the area. Various expeditions go into the shimmer zone, but nobody comes back out, until a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaak of the recent Star Wars movies) emerges from the shimmer and mysteriously shows up at his home. His wife, Lena (Natalie Portman of “Jackie”) notices that he is behaving strangely before he suddenly becomes very ill.
Lena soon learns that Kane was the sole survivor of a secret military expedition into the shimmer zone (which, unbelievably, has been kept secret from the public). Something in the zone has affected him. Desperate to discover a cure for her critically ill husband, Lena, a professor of cellular biology, agrees to join an all-female expedition into the shimmer zone, led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh of “The Hateful Eight”).
This is where the story gets into its bug hunt phase, with a mutant alligator and a deadly giant bear-like creature attacking the group. Others on the expedition include paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez of “Deepwater Horizon”) geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny of “A War”) and physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson of “Thor: Ragnarok”).
The prevailing theories about why all but one of the people in previous expeditions died is that they were killed by something inside the shimmer, or the shimmer somehow caused them to go crazy and kill each other. Both theories show a lot of promise during the expedition. The internal logic of the film doesn't really bear close examination, however.
As the expedition gets closer to its goal, the lighthouse, which is the epicenter of the shimmer, members of the expedition get picked off one by one. Things definitely don't go as planned. There is a lot of fatalism in this group. The group lacks the determination I expect from an experienced American military squad.
I suspect that the ambivalent reaction to this film is caused by this fatalism, and by the ambiguity in the story. There are certain critics who admire ambiguity in a movie, who are drawn to it and who praise it. Others find ambiguity frustrating, and no amount of critical praise will assuage this feeling of dissatisfaction.
What this movie does have, however, are some solid characters. This small band of adventurers are soldiers in a war against an unknown enemy. Like a band of brothers in a war movie, the team forms its own identity, based on the personality of its leader and its members. To get to the next level, however, there needs better character development, and a more convincing back story particularly for the main character, Lena, her husband, and their relationship. This film rates a C+.
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