Cellular Biology Professor and Army veteran Lena (Natalie Portman) is reporting to the U.S. government at a facility called Area X. Three years before, a meteorite crashed in the Southern US, creating a phenomenon called The Shimmer. Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) was a Green Beret who entered The Shimmer and vanished. A year later, he mysteriously reappeared at home, but his condition is beginning to deteriorate, and they are both taken to Area X. Kane is put in intensive care. Government psychologist Doctor Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells Lena that Kane is the only person to return from The Shimmer. They are organizing a new expedition to the lighthouse where the meteorite landed.
The expedition includes Lena, plus physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), geomorphologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez). Lena needs to help Kane because she thinks he volunteered for the suicide mission because she cheated on him. She has a vision about the affair as they enter The Shimmer. Suddenly, the group wakes up in their tents. Several days must have passed because their supplies have dwindled, but no-one remembers what happened and their communication devices do not work. They are surrounded by mutated wildlife. Josie barely survives an attack by a mutant alligator. They find a military base and a video of Kane cutting open a soldier, then the corpse covered in alien fungi. A mutant bear drags Cass away and Lena discovers her mutilated remains.
They find an abandoned village where plants grow in human shapes. Josie thinks The Shimmer distorts information like a prism distorts light. That’s why their equipment doesn’t work and DNA mixes together. Anya sees her fingerprints change under a microscope. She panics, becoming paranoid, and ties up the others. Anya accuses Lena of killing Cass, but hears Cass call for help and goes to find her. But it is only the mutant bear imitating Cass’s voice, which kills her. Anya and Josie manage to kill the bear.
Ventress reveals she has cancer and wants to understand The Shimmer before she dies. She leaves on her own for the lighthouse. Josie thinks that Cass’s dying mind was put in the bear by The Shimmer. Lena reaches the lighthouse and finds a camera next to a burnt corpse. The camera shows Kane telling the cameraman to find Lena, then blowing himself up with an incendiary grenade. The camera shows the cameraman, and it is a duplicate Kane.
Lena descends into the meteor crater and finds Ventress, who predicts that The Shimmer will eventually swallow everything, then she disintegrates into a glowing fractal that absorbs blood from Lena’s face to create a silver humanoid that mimics Lena’s movements. Lena hands it one of her phosphorous grenades and it transforms into a copy of her. She flees the lighthouse, and the creature explodes, then the lighthouse, and The Shimmer collapses. Back at Area X, Lena’s interviewer congratulates her, but she says The Shimmer was here to create, not destroy. The interviewer tells her that Kane has recovered. She goes and asks him if he is really Kane, and he asks her if she’s really Lena. They are not sure, either of them. They embrace and their irises shimmer.
The film was written and directed by Alex Garland, based on the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer. It was considered a box-office flop and there is a small cottage industry to explain it. It is a brilliant, moody piece, but profoundly distressing at times and parts are horrific. The bear speaking in the voice of the woman it has devoured is shiver-inducing. It was produced by Scott Rudin of Paramount Pictures. Garland wanted to capture the dreamlike nature of the book. Some have compared it to “The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft. The author said it was influenced by the works of J.G. Ballard and Franz Kafka. The movie was criticized for hiring Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh to play roles of Asian and part Native American descent, but these facts were first mentioned in a sequel that was not published before it began production.
Reviews were generally favorable, despite or because of its strangeness and intelligence, and despite the fact that Paramount thought it too intellectual and too complicated. The producer refused to dumb it down as the studio wanted. Oscar Isaac was acting in Star Wars: The Last Jedi at the same time on an adjacent lot. Natalie Portman was in Star Wars I-III and Isaac in VII to IX. The tattoo of a serpent devouring its own tail does not appear on Lena’s arm before she enters The Shimmer. Anya wears the same tattoo. The names Ventress, Thorensen, Radek, and Sheppard are all in “The Crystal World” by J.G. Ballard. The special effects people named the mutated bear Whitehurst, which is a rough train station in East London, as opposed to the elegant Victorian station Paddington.