Alex Garland is a creator who means a lot to me. His first novel The Beach is probably my favourite of all time, and since then he’s wrote loads more things that I love, such as the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine. In 2014 he made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, and it was terrific, so I’ve been excited for his latest film since then. However the news that it was only getting a Netflix release in the UK disappointed me, because I’m someone who likes the cinema experience. There are pros and cons to both sides of the Netflix argument, so I’ll leave that for a different piece, and try to focus on the film itself.
Natalie Portman stars as biologist Lena, who is currently working as a professor but is ex-military. Her husband is also military and he has been missing, assumed dead, for over 12 months. Through a series of events that I won’t reveal, Lena discovers that her husband was sent into an area of land sectioned off by the US government. To further investigate the area Lena and a team of four others head into this strange zone, knowing that they may not return.
This film works as a plot if you watch it right through to the end. There is a payoff to the narrative as it draws to a close, so bear with it if you find the beginning slightly arduous. It just takes a while to settle in, but once it gets going the film holds you tightly. The content of the movie is quite horrifying, and uncomfortable. It’ll make your skin crawl, and give you a fright or two. Garland directs this well, because it’s not always easy to frame your main set pieces around CGI. The effects are good in the film, if a little bleak. A lot of the film is a little bleak, though purposefully so. It’s lit in a way to never lift your spirits and it keeps you in a mode of utter terror. I cannot emphasize enough that the second half is where the greatness of the film is, after a brilliant moment of sheer dread that changes the narrative completely.
Portman is the best thing about the film, and I’ve not always been a massive fan of hers. She’s broken, and sunken in this role. Her look and physicality is perfect for this character, and I found her really engaging. The rest of her team are a less watchable, but mostly fine. I think the film is about her character and the relationship with her husband over anything else. Portman’s excellent performance drives this in the film, and the breaks to flashbacks to that relationship then back to the action gel together superbly. For all the talk of this film being a mind-fuck, or difficult to understand, it’s pretty simple in its execution of its ideas. This ‘zone’, the life-forms and the characters interactions with them are interesting. All the way through I wanted to work out the mystery, and by the climax the film reveals enough for you to get a handle of it.
It’s both a beautiful and ugly film that I wish I got chance to see on the big screen. At times the aesthetics suffered because of my small laptop screen and dodgy internet. Yet Garland’s impeccable tonal writing, Portman’s acting and its distressing plot pull it through. Did I enjoy it? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m glad that I’ve seen it, and I’ll be checking it out again sooner rather than later.
Is it worth your time on Netflix?
100%. Two words to describe this film: worth watching.