Controversial opinion incoming right from the off; this was, for me, a rare example of enjoying the film considerably more than the book. This was due largely to the way it was adapted, focussing on a faithfulness to concept and tone, rather than feeling constrained to recreate the novel’s plotline, step-by-step. Indeed, there were several significant deviations plot-wise, but the strange, absorbing nature of the setting, and the dark, ethereal, hallucinogenic atmosphere were captured beautifully.
For those unfamiliar with either version of the story, it follows a woman who volunteers to join the latest expedition into a mysterious environmental disaster zone. Her husband has returned as the sole survivor of his own similar mission after being MIA for a year, though he has been evidently changed by his experiences. She joins an all-female scientific team, and ventures into Area X to try and uncover its secrets.
The main thing holding me back from loving the book was how distant the characters felt. The film addresses this by giving us much more distinct glimpses into their personalities and backstories, making it far easier to feel emotionally invested in their fates. This, to me, meant there was more at stake when the group dynamic began to fray and the psyches of the characters were compromised by Area X’s abnormalities. Many people’s reservation with screen adaptations is that they feel pared back, having been forced to cut significant details. In this case, however, I’d argue the film feels more fleshed out, providing a better hit of emotion and a greater sense of completeness without sacrificing its surreal side, or the air of mystique that hangs over Area X. Indeed, the film features some of the strangest and most unsettling sequences I think I’ve ever seen.
The visuals are gorgeous (I’m disappointed I didn’t get the chance to see it on the big screen), and I thought the cast all gave very good performances. The jumps in timeline and location could prove jarring for some viewers, but to me felt like a nice nod to the non-linear structure of VanderMeer’s novel.
I admire director Alex Garland for honouring the book’s spirit whilst putting his own distinct spin on the story and characters. I also admire him and producer Scott Rudin for sticking to their artistic guns. The film ended up getting a very limited release (only showing in theatres in the US and China, and being released on Netflix elsewhere) due to their unwillingness to placate Paramount by simplifying the ending, dumbing down the ‘intellectual’ feel of the film, or changing the development of the heroine to make her more sympathetic. It’s refreshing to see a case of art put before money and corporate box ticking, even if it was to the detriment of the scale of the film’s release.
Having sat with the film for several days, I find it greatly haunting my thoughts, like a dream you just can’t shake (I don’t think I’ll ever forget the scene with the bear…) For that alone, my appreciation for it is ever growing. It’s an unfortunate rarity these days to find a film unafraid of staying true to its original vision, and bold enough not to hand us all the answers, no matter how challenging it may be to the audience. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big fan of ‘weird for the sake of weird’, and whilst I felt the book flirted with exactly that, the film took the source material’s greatest strengths and infused them with enough humanity for the story to connect so much more.
Whilst it can simply be viewed as an absorbing, surreal sci-fi ride for those who want to be weirded-out, there are also many different thematic layers to be picked apart, and interpretations to be made. To me, it explores notions of the human propensity to self-destruct, as well as the ideas of transformation and second chances. Not for everyone, I’m sure (but then neither was the book), I’d say it’s well worth giving a go if you’re in search of a film that will get you thinking. As far as screen adaptations go, this was one clearly approached with intelligence and style.