Alex Garland & The Human Heart Of Dystopia

Key to any good film is a good story. For the past two decades, English writer and director Alex Garland has been continually proving himself an expert in crafting worlds and characters. The cross-media jack-of-all-trades has been back in the media lately for his FX/BBC miniseries Devs, set in a near-future San Francisco tech industry populated by shady figures and a troubling moral code – and implications for what computers can do for, and against, us.

Looking back at Garland’s career, however, the writer-turned-director has continually captivated through his willingness to lean into the most uncomfortable and uncanny. Enhancing this disquiet is the recognizable humanity of his characters – whether they be fully human or not-quite-human – contrasted against a distinctly mechanical, alien, or otherwise inhuman force.

The Beginnings: Novels and Scripts

Garland’s route into the film industry was circuitous; after graduating from the University of Manchester with a History of Art degree, he published the novel The Beach in 1996. This was a word-of-mouth success, going through 25 reprints in its first year. This was followed in 2008 by The Tessaract, a more experimental, non-linear novel. Despite structural differences, both books contained themes recognizable in his original and adapted film and TV work: visions of inevitably corruptible utopias and the fundamental interconnections of our actions and decisions feel prescient as he moves into his cinematic technological anxieties.

Ex Machina (2015) – source: A24

The Beach was adapted into a film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, by Danny Boyle in 2000; while the film garnered middling reviews, it ignited Boyle’s and Garland’s working relationship and led to Garland’s first screen credit, writing Boyle’s 2002 critically and commercially successful zombie horror 28 Days Later. The film reinvigorated the zombie genre – letting the creatures run made audiences question the usual survivors’ havens and ability to make it to the end. Garland then served as executive producer on 28 Weeks Later but continued his writing collaboration with Boyle and 28 Days Later star Cillian Murphy with 2007’s Sunshine, his first full sci-fi feature following a group of astronauts set to reignite the dying sun. This takes anxieties of extinction explored in the zombie films to a new level: if the threat is so large, so seemingly out of our control, what will humans do?

Additional notable script work includes Never Let Me Go and Dredd – indeed Dredd star Karl Urban stated that Garland ‘actually directed that movie’ and should have it included in his filmography – a statement that speaks to Garland’s creative vision and hands-on approach. Once again, these films deal with a different, dystopian world – the clone children raised as organ donors explore a world where some lives are worth more than others, and the post-apocalyptic United States that gives rise to a merciless justice system imagines the self-serving behaviors that could result.

Fear of the Uncanny

In many ways, Garland’s (credited) debut feature Ex Machina is the most straightforward of the work he has directed: the idea of an isolated tech genius who storms through all ethical considerations to create a robotic woman, inviting a low-level programmer to test the robot’s free will, immediately allies viewers with the audience surrogate newcomer in disquiet and disapproval. The opening clear-cut opposing worldviews of creator Nathan and observer Caleb – as well as the unnervingly unclear sentience of robot Ava – allow ideas about sentience, choice, and what it means to be human to unsettle as soon as the premise unfolds. However, this clear-cut opening is no detriment to Ex Machina’s meticulous craftsmanship; as all characters develop, motivations become murkier, and the painstaking pacing reveals no twist before the suspense becomes overwhelming. The ending is profoundly disquieting, offering little faith in mankind’s achievements and little credence to its supposed exceptionalism.

Annihilation (2018) – source: Paramount Pictures

His second feature film was an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s cult sci-fi novel Annihilation; interestingly, he described the screenwriting process as an “adaptation which was a memory of the book”, with VanderMeer’s blessing, to enhance the uneasy unreality that the story’s team of scientists find themselves in as they enter The Shimmer. The alien reality under investigation sets Annihilation with Sunshine, separated from Garland’s other work by the deep, existential uncertainty evoked by something humans have not made and therefore cannot begin to understand. Throughout the team’s journey to the meteor strike, however, Garland never lets his performers lose sight of how these uncanny discoveries affect their understanding of their place in the world; the psychological changes are almost as terrifying as the mutant bears.

Do Humans Have a Choice?

This brings us to Devs, his most recent work. Garland had immense creative control over the show, writing and directing all eight episodes, and he expands both concept and stakes accordingly. The story of a top-secret computer program – mainly the man who invented it and the woman who finds her life increasingly ruled by it – centers around a profoundly uncomfortable concept: what if free will were an illusion, and technology could predict every – and the only – possible future? Here again, Garland leans into the uncomfortable. The concepts of determinism and multiple, ever-splitting universes are innately disquieting, evoking a sense of fundamental helplessness.

Devs (2020) – source: FX

Instead of looking for answers or an overarching meaning to counteract this lack of control, Garland crafts his production around this unease. Shots often linger on open spaces or empty rooms that would feel insignificant were it not for the focus, keeping viewers on edge. The score’s dissonances, sudden silences, and synthetic noises are nerve-wracking. And – without spoiling the ending – there is only a hollow comfort to be found as realities continue to unfold. It is perhaps the culmination of Garland’s work to date, a deeply personal tale of a search for meaning as one’s understanding of existence becomes increasingly meaningless. Technology may be driving this new knowledge, creating new sentience in Ex Machina, or making sense of an alien life form in Annihilation, but humans are the ones left to make sense of their lives.

Conclusion

Garland’s varied career has been one of the most exciting this decade. From revitalising the zombie film to a full-fledged, fully-creatively controlled miniseries, his clear-eyed vision of humanity’s immense capability to both make and destroy their own futures lend his work incredible staying power. His next project is eagerly awaited.

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