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‘Annihilation:’ An unsettling film experience

Pranaya Pahwa | Staff Writer

“Annihilation” disturbs, unsettles and makes your skin crawl. It raises questions and opens discussions. It requires and demands repeat viewing. Director Alex Garland has made the most intellectual, most challenging, science-fiction film since “Arrival.” We need more films like “Annihilation”—films that raise questions and force us to find answers.

Adapted unfaithfully from a novel of the same name, “Annihilation” follows a biologist and former soldier, Lena, in her quest into the Shimmer. One year earlier, her husband, Kane, left on a secret mission. She has not heard of him since. Suddenly, he reappears. He cannot describe the past year and starts to die. Lena soon learns that her husband spent the last year in the Shimmer, a bubble of sorts located in the Southeastern United States. In an early flashback, we see a meteor crash into a lighthouse. This is the beginning of the Shimmer. For months, the United States has sent drones, land missions and sea missions into the area. Besides Kane, nothing has returned. The Shimmer continues to expand, but no one understands its nature. In the hopes of saving her husband or perhaps chasing a more personal or biological goal, Lena joins a team of female scientists into the Shimmer. Lena and her team, Dr. Ventress, Anya, Cass and Josie, aim to find and enter the Lighthouse where the Shimmer began.

Garland’s film does not lend itself to easy explanations or a singular interpretation. The film operates as a warning of impending ecological catastrophe, a study of flawed human evolution and an exploration of the human cycle of self-destruction and self-creation. I feel the film operates most effectively in that final role. I even believe the magnificently vague and disorienting climax, choreographed and scored to perfection, affirms the primacy of my perspective; but there is little I can say about the film with certainty.

I don’t mean to discredit the film when I label it ambiguous. I think it is wonderful. Occasionally, the story felt manipulating, but more often than not, it kept me on the edge of my seat. Garland breaks with the norms and rules of modern cinema and blockbusters in particular, such that watching “Annihilation” is a completely original viewing experience. Scary, thoughtful and innovative, “Annihilation” will shake you. It requires a thinking audience because it is a thinking film.

Every frame of the film reflects the careful hands that made it. The bright, almost sickening light in the Shimmer, the close ups of glasses of water and the obscured shots all turn “Annihilation” from an interesting idea to an engaging, well-made film.

When “Annihilation” ended, everyone in the audience waited. The film left me speechless. I kept searching for an end credits scene I knew wouldn’t come. Leaving the theater, I asked those around me multiple times, “What is this?” I still only have a vague idea. I can describe the film’s form and contents but little else. The pieces purposefully don’t quite fit and Garland condemns us to puzzle together what we can.

Unfortunately, most will only see “Annihilation” on Netflix, where it premieres shortly, and not in theaters. I still recommend watching it on the biggest screen you can. Beg, steal and borrow if you have to, but give “Annihilation” the theatrical environment it merits. Don’t pause it, don’t walk away and please, I implore you, don’t look at your phone. “Annihilation” deserves better. Let the film disturb you. Let it unsettle you. Let “Annihilation” crawl on your skin.