Flash backward in time. Lena’s husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) is a soldier, and he has been long missing and presumed dead. But one weekend, as she weeps inconsolably, he reappears mysteriously. (In a touch that approximates the definition of “too on the nose,” the musical accompaniment is Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping,” and Lena sees him walking up the stairs to the bedroom precisely as the song reaches the line “Stand by the stairway, you’ll see something … ”) Is he a ghost? Has she lost her mind?
He isn’t, and she hasn’t. Kane has indeed come home, but he is scarcely a shell of his former self. His military unit had been among the first expeditions into the Shimmer, but he has no memory of the mission at all. She asks him questions about what happened. He replies with I don’t knows. It becomes clear, however, that he is severely ill. The two soon find themselves at a secure facility where a psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), explains to Lena that her now-comatose husband is dying.
Ventress also explains the Shimmer, a dome-like forcefield that arose from a meteor crash site in the wilds of northwest Florida. Small at first, it has continued to expand across the Panhandle, until it now looks like a monstrous soap bubble, colors washing wetly across its surface. No one quite knows what it is—“a religious event, an extraterrestrial event, a higher dimension,” Ventress offers. But despite repeated expeditions, “nothing comes back.” (Kane is evidently the sole exception.)
Ventress herself will be leading another team into the Shimmer shortly, and Lena, who wants to know what happened to her husband, volunteers to join. For no obvious reason at all—if the team wanted a biologist, wouldn’t they have selected one themselves?—Ventress accepts Lena’s offer. So in they go: Ventress, Lena, a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), and an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny). The logic behind the all-female team is given the most cursory of nods: Well, the previous groups were mostly military men, so why not?
Once inside the Shimmer, the group observes that time seems to operate differently, and that plants and animals are undergoing severe mutations. (Lucky a biologist invited herself along!) The women are pursued by a massive gator and then, more horribly, by a huge bear-like creature that speaks with the voice of its victims, like the legendary leucrocotta. They also find disturbing remnants and recordings left behind by earlier expeditions.
This central portion of the film is by far its most intriguing. Garland maintains a persistent sense of dread as the explorers’ nerves begin to fray. Is there something in the Shimmer intent on killing them? Will they go mad and kill one another?
The visual world Garland conjures is likewise remarkable, a cunning commingling of the familiar and fantastic, the gorgeous and grotesque. Flowers blossom a tad too extravagantly, in shapes and colors that are not quite right. Trees contort into humanoid form or evolve into crystalline candelabras. Great mold-like blooms appear that are at once stunning and sickening. (One appears to have partially consumed a man.)