Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s “The Southern Reach Trilogy,” the latest release from writer/director Alex Garland begins with an interrogation. An unnamed authority figure obscured by a hazmat suit aims a barrage of seemingly simple questions at a shell-shocked young woman, portrayed by Natalie Portman. We don't yet know her name or the circumstances that have put her in a guilty quarantine, but the way she answers each question—with a discouraged "I don't know"—leads her peeved inquisitor to finally ask, "What is it you know?"
What then follows in the rest of the film is, presumably, what our battered protagonist knows. Her name is Lena and she teaches, based on the sample lesson, what appears to be high school sophomore-level biology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. (Lena, the script warns us, specializes in the genetically programmed life cycle of cells, especially, the triggers built into them that cause mutation and death.)
Lena isn't just some elite living in aseptic gray interiors; she's a secret warrior, having served seven years in the Army, where she met her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). It's been a year since she last saw him, so when he reappears, zombie-like and resembling an Andrei Tarkovsky-inspired doppelganger, on the weekend she's resolved to repaint their bedroom as a symbol of her moving on, she's both elated and angry.
But before Lena can get any answers from the Kane-like being, they're whisked off to a secret government stronghold charged with the study of Area X, a portion of the Gulf Coast enclosed by a mysterious energy force called "The Shimmer." Although penetrable, the variegated oily aura conceals a Wonka-like puzzle; many go into the area but none come back out, that is, until Kane, whose dire condition inspires Lena to consider acting out a reversal of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth; venturing into hell to get her husband back.
Luckily, having exhausted its crack teams of male soldiers the government is now willing to send in a voluntary team of women scientists. In a world in which creation runs amok, shouldn't those most tempted to eat the fruit of knowledge be the first choice? Led by Dr. Ventress, played by an anesthetic Jennifer Jason Leigh, and made up of a recovering drug addict and medic (Gina Rodriguez); self-harmer and physicist (Tessa Thompson) and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), Lena bivouacs with them but doesn't bond. The other members of the squad are defined by their broadest characteristics and dispatched with relative ease (minus a disturbing encounter with a vocal bear that gives the one batting Leonard DiCaprio around like a ragdoll in “The Revenant” a run for its money).
These characters—more like paper dolls—practice only the most elemental science. They aren't going to inspire little girls. In fact, instead of the awe and grit exhibited by the likes of Laura Dern's Dr. Ellie Sattler and Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley or even the outright clumsy joy of the most recent Ghostbusters, they give way to hysteria and heebie-jeebies too soon and too often. This film may pass the Bechdel test, but it's only statistically feminist.