(director/writer: Alex Garland; screenwriter: based on the novel Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer; cinematographer: Rob Hardy; editor: Barney Pilling ; music: Geoff Barrow/Ben Salisbury; cast: Natalie Portman (Lena), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dr. Ventress), Gina Rodriguez (Anya Thorensen), Tessa Thompson (Josie Radek), Tuva Novotny (Cass Sheppard), Oscar Isaac (Kane), Benedict Wong (Lomax), Sonoya Mizuno (Humanoid & Katie-med student); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Allon Reich/Scott Rudin/Andrew Macdonald; Paramount Pictures; 2018)

A weirdly brainy and scary film.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”) is writer and director of this creepy horror pic. It’s filled with a foreboding sense of dread. It’s based on the 2014 book Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a professor of cellular biology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The scientist Lomax (Benedict Wong), in a hazmat suit, questions her about her military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who vanished while on a secret mission. About a year later he turns up in a catatonic state. An ambulance call to the hospital results in the kidnapping of the couple by federal agents, who take them to a secret government facility on the southern coast. The psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells us after a meteorite strike three years ago on the swampland around a Florida lighthouse, there was a glistening, called the Shimmer, that surrounded the area.

On a classified mission there, Kane was the only one to come back alive. We’re talking alien abduction here. The former army scientist, Lena, volunteers to join a team led by Dr. Ventress and lady scientists (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny), armed with assault weapons, going to that mysterious lighthouse of the shimmer to try to figure out what’s up. They encounter an alien world in the expanding luminescent shimmer, with mutated monsters appearing, like shark-toothed alligators, who attack them.

It might be futile to explain such hokum, but it turns out to be a weirdly brainy and scary film. The psychological drama raises many complex metaphysical questions and features a gory scene, a scary alien atmosphere, and many twists and turns. It might not be convincing (I never could take it for real), but it shows how vulnerable we are to the unknown and how chilling a sci-fi film can be if the imagery is effective, the acting is solid (though all their characters are undeveloped) and the terrible implications of alien mutations for modern mankind resonate.