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The Razor-Sharp Guilt Trips of Alex Garland’s Science Fiction

Though the plots of Garland’s work—‘Ex Machina,’ ‘Annihilation,’ and FX’s new miniseries ‘Devs’—are different, their messages are similar: Earth is broken, and we are the ones who broke it

Ringer illustration

At the end of Danny Boyle’s 2000 film The Beach, Leonardo DiCaprio is staring beatifically at his computer screen from his brand-new call center job. From what would now be deemed obsolete software, he is able to view a photograph sent to him via email. The communication possibilities of the internet are presented as exciting, even life-affirming: The picture is of a joyful moment that Richard (DiCaprio) shared on an idyllic island with a community of like-minded vagabonds who, like him, had escaped the pressures of modern life. Now back in civilized society, the web helps Richard remember the good times.

Technology has evolved drastically since British writer and director Alex Garland penned the novel on which The Beach is based. His view of both the potential and dangers of tech have changed, too. His new FX show Devs, which he wrote and directed, presents a high-tech company as a dangerous, secretive place. As man has developed his ability to control his environment through technology, the cause of Richard’s sudden desire for solitude has become increasingly clear: We are always trying to escape our own nefarious influence.

Garland’s vision of dystopia is personal but epic: One character holds, more or less literally, the whole world in their hands. Richard may just be a regular, bored, young American man on holiday, but his search for a legendary island takes on an existential quality. To put it bluntly, he’s trying to figure out the meaning of life—specifically, a life defined by getting a job, earning money, and building a house where there was once untouched nature. The use—and misuse—of human existence has always been Garland’s core concern.

Garland’s next film project, his first screenplay and directed once more by Boyle, explores that question from a different angle. When the United Kingdom is ravaged by a deadly virus, all that’s left 28 Days Later … is empty buildings, desolate motorways, and useless pound bills. The few people unaffected are not left to happily roam the deserted streets and build the world anew, however: The virus turns its victims into savage, carnivorous zombies. For Cillian Murphy’s Jim, who was forgotten in his hospital bed after a short coma, the meaning of life becomes suddenly clear: survival. The virus itself (in a clear homage to George Romero’s Dead series) functions like a decivilizing serum, returning people to their primal selves; food and shelter are all that’s required. Survival is also what originally drives Robert Capa (Murphy) in Boyle’s 2007 collaboration with Garland, Sunshine. In the year 2057, Capa and his team of astronauts are heading for the sun in order to revive it with a nuclear fission bomb, thus saving Earth from growing cold (interestingly, the opposite problem to the one we are currently facing). Again, the fate of the world weighs on one man’s shoulders.

But does even the literal end of the world justify the means? What makes Garland’s dystopias especially affecting isn’t so much the degree to which things have gone wrong, but rather the reason they have in the first place—and, often, why they continue to. The specific cause may not always be explicitly stated—the origin of the zombie virus in 28 Days Later remains unknown—but Garland always makes clear that humans’ god complex is essentially to blame. The lost paradise of The Beach is destroyed by the greed of the drug traffickers cultivating their marijuana on the other side of the island. Richard can never evade the claws of capitalism, and neither can the civilians of 28 Days Later, since it is the selfish lifestyle promoted by modernity that hinders the human race in its combat against the virus. Selena (Naomie Harris), a fellow survivor, is tough and doesn’t hesitate to kill her friends when they get infected. She represents most people’s notion of survival, based on aggression, isolationism, and mistrust—values that have guided us in our sovereignty over the natural world.

Sunshine spells out Garland’s dilemma between survival and the unnatural manipulation of the environment even more clearly. When Capa is finally able to give the sun more juice, he is almost stopped by Captain Pinbacker (Mark Strong), the commander of the previous mission, who was meant to finish the job but mysteriously disappeared. Pinbacker, now a monstrous mound of burnt flesh and blood from solar irradiation, refused to follow orders because, according to him, only God should get to regulate the brightness of the sun: “For seven years I spoke with God,” he tells Capa. “He told me to take us all to heaven.” Intervening when nature doesn’t perfectly suit our needs may be our species’ greatest crime, and the trigger for all our current problems.

Sunshine (2007)
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Throughout his career, either in his own scripts or in adaptations of existing stories that shared some of his themes, Garland has explored the wide spectrum of human intervention upon the world. He’s revealed with chilling clarity, often by setting his narratives in the not-so-distant future or not-so-different present, that although it is easier to blame corporations for their polluting tactics, the damage always starts from the actions of a few people. Every human being is responsible for the whole. In Garland’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go (directed by Mark Romanek), the social inequality of an alternate 20th-century society impacts the lives of three individuals, who in turn try to affect the proper functioning of that community. When childhood friends Ruth (Keira Knightley), Kathy (Carey Mulligan), and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) find out that they have been raised to become expendable organ donors for the wealthier class, they try to jinx the system, albeit to no avail. The scientific “advance” that allows (some) people to live beyond a hundred years thanks to organ replacement couldn’t appear more absurd, blasphemous, and shockingly inhuman than it does at the film’s end, when Kathy remains alone after spending years caring for dying donors in exchange for a few more years on Earth. Humans’ so-called upgrades on the laws of nature, in Garland’s worlds, only serve to further obscure the meaning of life.

Justice warrior Dredd (Karl Urban), in Garland’s 2012 screenplay for Pete Travis’s Dredd (the film version of the famous comic strip), represents one side of man’s reliance on high tech: His highly specific kinds of ammunition, as well as his strong armor, are expertly designed for defense against violence. Mega-City One, the fully urbanized land where gigantic buildings house millions of people in terrible conditions, manifests the other side of this mechanical “optimization.” Dredd’s dystopian steampunk setting allows Garland to be louder in his argument against technocracies: Dredd knows that he is nothing but a drop of lawfulness in an artificial and putrid sea of crime, but also that he and his fancy weapons only exist “thanks to” this corruption, and as a response to it. As admirable as his strength and sense of justice are, his pragmatism is robotic and inhuman because the harsh environment requires it. Overdependence on technology, instead of human resources, makes senseless, radicalized animals of us all.

After Garland’s depiction of men drowning in a corrupted synthetic world in Dredd, it was only inevitable that he would explore the complete merging of man and machine in artificial intelligence. His directorial debut, Ex Machina (2014), pushes the existential question further by imagining that man-made tech itself has a voice. The humanoid robots that arrogant engineer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) has created will only survive if they pass the Turing test, thus proving that they have achieved singularity and have a consciousness of their own. But what kind of consciousness does such a cruel man himself possess? At once seeking to make his latest invention Ava (Alicia Vikander) human while treating her like an expendable piece of plastic when she doesn’t act as he predicted, Nathan fails his own test. Ava, meanwhile, offers no definitive answer. She can be selfish and calculative, like Nathan, but whether this makes her human or, on the contrary, cold as steel, is for us to decide. As Nick Offerman’s tech CEO Forest mysteriously admits in the Devs trailer, it is of “us” that he is scared.

Ex Machina (2014)

The ways of nature and the ways of man are always dancing around each other in Garland’s work, in a vigorous pas de deux that threatens to end with one participant completely consumed by the other. In Ex Machina, man seems to have won but then must pay the price for his irreverence toward organic life, with his machine overtaking him. 2018’s Annihilation, by contrast, reveals nature’s revenge on our species’ encroachment. On an expedition, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) and her teammates realize that the deeper they go into the strange Shimmer that has taken over the land around a lighthouse, the more mutated the fauna and flora appear. The film’s most memorable and surreal scene, near the denouement, shows plainly and shockingly that nature is simply doing to humans what humans have done to it. As Lena enters the lighthouse, she finds her colleague Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) being consumed by a strange luminous entity, which gathers more energy the more it eats into the helpless woman; when it absorbs a drop of Lena’s blood, it turns progressively into her clone. Annihilation (based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer) imagines a world where human beings don’t have the luxury to imagine themselves as separate from (or superior to) their natural environment: Their DNA seeps into the ground and is changed by it, in a metaphor for our need to remember our connection to the earth. The lighthouse sequence recalls Capa’s confrontation with Captain Pinbacker in Sunshine, with its ecstatic depiction of the ultimate meeting between man and God/nature: Capa dies in the explosion, happy to have become part of the sun itself; Lena’s choreography with the creature has a dizzying effect, evoking the uneasy beauty of the light-speed sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which man is once again confronted with the fact that—as one of Capa’s teammates likes to recall—he is, after all, only stardust.

It can be difficult to introduce subtlety into science fiction, where the stakes are exaggeratedly high. But Garland, while putting his characters in high-risk situations, doesn’t expect perfect rationality from them—that would be, in fact, too robotic. Not only does he allow people to have weaknesses, but he also takes their cravings for momentary respite seriously. The people living in the tower block where Dredd and rookie judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) get trapped answer to gang leader Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) partly because she provides them with Slo-mo, a new, powerful drug that “makes the brain feel as if time is passing at 1 percent its normal speed.” Travis depicts the effect of the drug as a mesmerizing glittery interlude, where violence takes on a balletic and dreamlike quality. The world, which is always moving too fast into the future due to technological advancements, finally quiets down. This is on the surface an unusually positive representation of drug use, but all the sparkle can’t cover up the poverty and the amount of blood spilled.

Richard was also led to The Beach by the promise of an island’s worth of marijuana. To stop time with drugs is to stop man and to forget, for an instant, our species’ responsibility for the degradation of the planet. In 28 Days Later, as in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, it is the self-contained, seemingly timeless and affluent world of a supermarket that functions as a drug, giving the survivors a (false) sense of reprieve: There, they can simply exist without struggle. Even Nathan, the proudly ambitious and opportunistic AI engineer of Ex Machina, indulges in regular late-night binge drinking; although he compensates the following day with an intense workout that gives him back a sense of mastery over his environment, alcoholism clearly offers him a way out of his control-freakery. Drunk, he dissociates from all that he’s done and all that he’ll do. To quote David Byrne, heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.

Devs (2020)

So what is the real exit, if there even is one? “Of course, you can never forget what you’ve done … but we adapt, we carry on,” says Richard in front of his computer, about to open his email. Garland’s argument is ultimately fairly simple, which gives it its particular power. To both survive and try to deviate from our destructive path, humans need to reconnect to their ability to love one another—not in a romantic sense, but rather as a type of constructive forgiveness. Richard understands that paradise is “how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something.” Selena in 28 Days Later eventually realizes that other survivors won’t necessarily slow her down but, instead, will make her survival purposeful. What keeps Capa in Sunshine determined to help the sun is his memory of his sister and her kid. The friends in Never Let Me Go come to understand that although their world has no respect for love, they still do. What makes Anderson in Dredd ultimately pass her test to become a judge isn’t a ruthless respect of the law, such as Dredd has, but rather her ability to consider the human aspect of any situation. It is also what makes Ava in Ex Machina escape the grips of Nathan—she recognizes injustice and unnatural selfishness better than the human being does. Annihilation, lastly, brings humans back to their natural sense of responsibility toward each other and the earth in a more drastic way. Although Lena starts on the expedition to the Shimmer to try to figure out what happened to her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), they may have both disappeared in the woods by the film’s end—and what has returned to civilization looks to be their mutant, plant-based mutations. But who are we to judge whether these creatures, more connected to nature than the real Lena and Kane ever were, will do better or worse with the planet’s environment than we have?

It feels fated that Garland’s name means “wreath of flowers”—as though he were wearing one like a crown of thorns, carrying the burden of our debt to the natural world.

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.