Alex Garland’s visionary, unsettling “Annihilation” doesn’t fall into the same neat categories as so many recent films in what has been a sci-fi genre boom of late.

What looks like a meteor hits a lighthouse in the opening shots of “Annihilation.” Flash forward, we presume, to a woman being interrogated by a man in a hazmat suit. People watch the interrogation through glass and wear protective masks even though they’re not in the same room with her. Who is this woman? Why is everyone treating her like a biohazard? 

Flash back, again we presume, to a time before Lena was possibly radioactive. A successful biologist, Lena seems just about ready to get over the grief of her missing husband—who has been gone on a covert mission for a year and presumed KIA—when he walks up the stairs and into her bedroom. Kane may be home, but there’s a sense immediately that something is wrong. In a quick flashback, Garland shows us a playful, smiling Kane, so we the viewers can sense along with Lena that something is not right with the dead-eyed man in front of her. Garland is brilliant in the way he parcels out information with a quick scene, line, flashback, etc.—giving us just what we need to process and analyse the action in front of us while also staying one step ahead of us, making us eager to catch up. Then Kane starts spitting up blood.

Before long, Lena is brought to a place called the Southern Reach, a research facility a few miles from that lighthouse in the opening shot. On the horizon, near a tree line, she sees what can best be described as a rainbow wall. Dr. Ventress informs her that it’s called ‘The Shimmer,’ and that they have been investigating it for three years now. Past The Shimmer, no radio signals have returned, and no manned missions have produced a survivor … until her husband. The assumption is that something in there kills people or people go crazy and kill each other. Lena, Dr. Ventress, and three others—tough-talking Anya, shy Josie, and sweet Cass will venture into The Shimmer, get to the lighthouse, and return. Maybe. 

If you’re wondering how much has been spoiled at this point in the review, the answer is almost nothing. “Annihilation” really becomes itself once the team crosses that threshold into the woods, a fascinating setting for a sci-fi flick that reveals itself slowly. This is not an alien planet, and yet there’s a sense of danger and some sort of biological aberration within these woods. Garland reveals just enough at every turn to keep us confused but also in the moment with Lena and the crew. It’s a film that balances disorientation with the grounded performances of its cast, who keep us engaged in each interaction, believing the danger as it unfolds. “Annihilation” could have easily become campy or silly. If I described some of its scarier scenes, you might laugh, but Garland finds a way to make the insanity work, and watching that balancing act can be invigorating.

There’s an inherent problem with mission films like “Annihilation” in that the journey is almost always more engaging and interesting than the destination. Questions make for better art than answers. However, Garland leaves enough open for discussion that he saves it artistically. And he produces some of his most striking visuals in those closing scenes. 

“Annihilation” is not an easy film to discuss. It’s a movie that will have a different meaning to different viewers who are willing to engage with it. It’s about self-destruction, evolution, biology, co-dependence, and that which scares us the most—that we can no longer trust our own bodies. It’s meant to linger in your mind and haunt your dreams. In this recent wave of sci-fi films, it’s one of the best.

Hi, I’m Kanishk Jaiswal from Delhi Public School, Varanasi. I was born on 8th February, 2004. Thanks to my English Teacher back in 6th grade, I’ve developed a knack for reading with genres ranging fiction to self-help and finance related books. Over the past year journaling has become a significant part of my day which has helped me with my writing. A number of other things that economics and finance and I’m always open to new experiences.