Alex Garland

7.1 Ex Machina (2014)
7.1 Annihilation (2018)

Alex Garland (Britain, 1970) debuted as a writer with the novel "The Beach" (1996), which later became a film directed by Danny Boyle. Garland then wrote the screenplay for Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007). He also scripted Mark Romanek's adaptation of Ishighuro's novel "Never Let Me Go" (2010) and Pete Travis' adaptation of the comic strip "Dredd" (2012).

Garland debuted as a director with the science fiction film Ex Machina (2014).

People clap at a young man in an office: Caleb has just won some kind of competition. A few days later a helicopter drops him in the jungle. The pilot tells him to follow the river to the building. The building recognizes him and opens its door. The host, Nathan, is an arrogant millionaire who shows the young man to his room, a room with no windows. Nathan makes the young man sign a non-disclosure agreement to keep everything as secret as possible. Caleb has been hired to test an AI, to perform the ultimate Turing Test, to find out if this AI has become conscious. The AI happens to be a gently sexy female, Ava, easily recognizable as a robot because some body parts are transparent. Nathan watches them interact from the monitors of his room. The only other person in the building is a woman in white, who seems to be mute and who acts as Nathan's maid. Ava is kept inside a glass cage. Ava demands to learn more about Caleb, turning the tables on him. Caleb tells her that he lost his parents in a car crash.. The power goes off, and presumably Nathan cannot watch them anymore. Then Ava quickly tells Caleb that he cannot trust Nathan. The power goes on again and she resumes the conversation where she had interrupted it. The woman in white, Kyoko, can't speak English. Nathan is puzzled by the power cuts. He asks Caleb what happened during the power cut and Caleb lies. Nathan confesses that he tapped onto search engine traffic and hacked millions of cell phones in order to harvest the material that made Ava so realistic. Ava wears nice clothes, stockings and a wig, and asks Caleb if he is attracted to her. She undresses in front of him. Nathan admits that he put sensors between her legs to make her feel pleasure if someone touches her there. Caleb tells Ava that he is there to test whether she is conscious. Power cut: Ava tells Caleb that she has figured out how to cause the power cuts. She has found a way to outsmart Nathan and have private conversations with Caleb. Nathan takes Caleb for a walk into a glacier (in the jungle?) and tells him that he chose him because he wanted the smartest coder. When Caleb meets Kyoko alone, she starts undressing as if this were her routine. Nathan turns on the music and psychedelic lights and Kyoko starts dancing. Nathan gets drunk. Power cut: Ava can tell when Caleb is lying. She asks him what will happen to her if she fails the test. Nathan admits to Caleb that he is already working on the next AI, that will retain Ava's body but replace her software. Nathan, drunk, falls asleep. Caleb uses his card to enter the monitoring station and watches videos of the previous AIs. Caleb then finds mannequins in every closet. A naked Kyoko reveals the circuits under her skin: she is a robot too. Later, alone in his room, he has doubts: maybe he too is an android; and so he inspects his body and cuts his arm to make it bleed. Ava dresses like an ordinary girl. Power cut: Caleb tells her that she's doomed to die, and wants to save her and has an escape plan. He will get Nathan drunk and she would cause a power cut. It is the eve of Caleb's return to civilization. Nathan surprises him by declaring that he vowed not to drink anymore. Caleb tells him that Ava passed the test. But Nathan watched him plot with Ava. Nathan told Ava she'd have a way out if she could convince Caleb to help her escape. Caleb was selected not because he was the smartest but because he is a good kid who has no family and no girlfriend, relatively easy to dupe. Caleb feels humiliated. Nathan knows that Ava indeed passed the test: she fooled Caleb, a human being. Ava triggers the power cut for the escape. Nathan is sure that nothing will happen, but Caleb had guessed that Nathan was watching them during the power cuts and has already got him drunk and reprogrammed the security system, which now opens and lets Ava out. Ava is facing Kyoko whispering to her. Nathan knocks out Caleb unconscious and grabs a piece of metal. Ava attacks him, Nathan prevails and begins to dismantle her but Kyoko stabs him in the back. He punches Kyoko unconscious but Ava stabs him in the chest. Now he's really dead. Ava takes his card. The mutilated Ava opens all the closets and finds the bodies of the previous AIs. She replaces her arm and takes another robot's skin to cover her belly. She turns herself into a beautiful naked woman. Caleb is watching from a window. Then she puts on a nice dress and walks out, leaving Caleb locked into the building The helicopter is coming to pick up Caleb but instead finds Ava and picks her up, transporting her to the city where she roams the streets while Caleb is condemned to die in the jungle. Ava has doublecrossed both men. She definitely passed the Turing test.

Annihilation (2018) a loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's novel "Annihilation", the first book part of VanderMeer's "Southern Reach Trilogy", is not so much a sci-fi movie as a psychoanalytic horror thriller. The doppelganger theme is not used in the context of the horror atmosphere but as a sort of existential, psychological analysis. The protagonist is trying to heal from the depression caused by her husband's disappearance and by the affair she had while he was missing in action; she splits into two, like in a case of split personality, and then the real one kills the other one, which takes with it the husband who disappeared, who is the real husband, while the real one embraces her husband's clone. She heals herself by replacing her husband with someone who looks like him but it is not him. That somehow is a solution to her troubled marriage. The all-female crew of the film is probably a tribute to the neo-feminist movement of the #metoo era, but it may also be interpreted as a metaphor for the angst created in women's psyches by a society in which they are increasingly independent creators of their own fate (these are troubled personas not happy-go-lucky self-confident "The Wild Bunch"-kind of gunmen).
Alas, the implementation of this psychodrama is a mixed blessing. Nobody seems particularly anxious that the whole world is about to be destroyed, and they don't even seem to be particularly worried about their own lives. It often feels like a B-movie made on a cheap budget (a "and then there were none" monster movie), full of Hollywood stereotypes delivered through poor acting, lame dialogs and implausible plot. It is not clear what the protagonist's motives are for joinining the mission, nor what is her motive for going along with the psychologist's suicidal determination to enter the lighthouse, In fact, it is not clear why any of the women volunteer for this mission, as we are told very little about each of them: are they all suicidal, for one reason or another? It is not clear why nobody else survived before although it was so easy to survive: did they all fail the IQ test of dealing with a clone? This feels like a new-age version of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, with cinematographer Rob Hardy giving it a psychedelic (instead of existential) quality and the electronic score by Ben Salisbury and Portishead's Geoff Barrow replacing Tarkovsky's harrowing silence.
The plot doesn't seem to be well thought out. We are not told who killed Kane's fellow soldiers and why Kane was the last one alive: did he kill them all himself? If so, he gets away really easily for someone who has just killed his entire squad. And why would a simple grenade destroy the Shinner? If it was so easy to destroy it, why didn't the military simply bomb it? And why do they believe in Lena's story? The entire movie is about Lena telling the authorities what happened, but that's just Lena's version of the facts: why nobody questions her? What if the entire movie is a lie or a figment of her imagination? Nobody doubts that the other women were killed by wild bears, turned into plants and exploded as if these were more rational explanations than a serial killing by Lena. Rationally, one would be tempted to suspect that both the Kane and Lena of the last scene have murdered everyone else; but then why would the Shimmer disappear?
The original novel is mostly about grief. The most powerful moment of the film could be when we hear the comment that the only part of a dead woman that survived a monster's attack is her last scream for help, which became the monster's new voice. That's one of the few moments where the film matches the novel. And, if you haven't read the novel, you probably can't guess why the film is titled "Annihilation" (in the novel that word is a sort of password).

A meteor crashes into a lighthouse. In what appears to be a scientific research center a woman, locked inside a transparent cage, is being interrogated by men wearing decontamination suits. Lena is a biologist who used to serve in the army. Flashbacks show her story. Her husband Kane, also a soldier, has been missing for one year after taking part in a top-secret mission. He suddenly returns home but he doesn't speak, he has no story to tell, he betrays no emotion. Lena is hurt that he displays no feelings for her, but he doesn't remember anything of what happened to him. Then she realizes that he has blood on his mouth. She calls an ambulance to take him to the hospital as he begins spitting blood and twitching violently. The ambulance is blocked by three police cars. Armed cops kidnap them. She wakes up in a top-secret building. A cold female psychologist asks her what Kane told her, informs her that her husband is dying of massive organ failure, and then explains that Kane is the only one to ever come back from that top-secret mission: explore a zone in the jungle that emits a strong light and that keeps expanding. They are just next to it. They call it "the Shimmer". We saw (but they didn't) that it came with a meteor that struck the lighthouse. The psychologist is preparing to enter the zone herself with a doctor, Anya, a geologist, Cassie, and a astrophysicist, Josie. Four women; and the first non-military team. They want to establish why nobody comes back: either something killed the soldiers or they went crazy and killed each other. Lena volunteers to join them: five women. the team walks towards the wall of flames. A flashback shows that she has sex with a black colleague. The group immediately lose their memory: they wake up at the edge of the jungle without any memory of how they got there. They can only infer that they have been moving for a few days. Their radios are now useless, the compass doesn't work. Lena realizes that the plants around them are strange mutations. As they are exploring an abandoned building, Josie is sucked inside: Lena rescues her from a giant alligator, that has teeth like a shark. They realize that mutations get more extreme as they get closer to the lighthouse. The team paddles through a swamp and reach a fort, the abandoned headquarters. There are mutated plants everywhere. They find a book with names of soldiers crossed out. They also found a videorecorded message: the video shows Kane (Lena's husband, that the others don't know is her husband) torturing one of his buddies, while others hold him still (and clearly someone must have been filming). For a second it appears that something is moving inside the bowels of the tortured man. Kane looks ecstatic about cutting the belly of his buddy with a knife. The others conclude that the soldiers went insane. They find a skeleton devoured by vegetation. That night another wild animal, a bear-like creature, attacks and kidnaps or eats Cassie. The others debate what to do next. They are two days from the lighthouse. The psychologist is determined to find out what happens there. Josie and Anya would prefer to go back while they are still alive, but Lena convinces them to follow the psychologist with the theory that the easiest way to get out of there is to reach the coast and then walk south. In reality, Lena has guessed the psychologist's real motive: she is dying of cancer and wants to solve the mystery before she dies. Lena meets mutated deer-like animals. Then she finds Cassie's mutilated corpse. They run into a field of human skeletons covered with vegetation or human-shaped plants. Josie's arm is mutating into a plant. She tells Lena that the Shimmer somehow refracts everything, not just light, but also DNA. Josie's theory is that the Shimmer scrambles all information, and, in particular, it scrambles DNA, producing hybrids like this human plants; and that's precisely what is happening to their own bodies: they are becoming less human. In fact, Lena sees in the microscope that their own cells are mutating. A flashback shows Lena having sex with her black coworker Daniel, regretting it, admitting that her husband knows about it, and deciding to stop the affair. Anya, whom we have learned is an ex-addict, realizes that her fingerprints are mutating. Anya accidentally sees that Lena owes a picture of Kane and realizes that Kane is her husband. Now Anya suspects that Lena is responsible for what is happening to them and of murdering Cassie. Anya ties and gags Lena as well as the other girls and seems ready to kill Lena when they all hear Cassie calling for help. Anya walks out to find out where is Cassie but is killed by the mutated bear from whose mouth we hear the voice of Cassie. Lena frees herself just in time to shoot the bear dead, but the psychologist warns them that they are slowly disintegrating and they need to reach the lighthouse as soon as possible. But Josie "refracts" into a human-shaped plant. Lena follows the psychologist who is already rushing towards the lighthouse. Lena reaches the ocean. She drops her backpack and walks to the lighthouse through a beach of giant glass formations. Lena enters the lighthouse and finds an incinerated corpse in a sitting position. There's a camera on a tripod. Lena turns it on and watches Kane's last insane message before he sits down and blows himself up: he begs the friend who is filming him to find Lena. In the video another man appears, looking at the hole created by the explosion: the man is Kane himself. Lena enters the tunnel created by the explosion. She finds the psychologist who tells her that the Shinner originates from alien matter that will eventually destroy the Earth. The psychologist says that something is growing inside her. Her mouth explodes in an hallucination. A body materializes from a drop of Lena's blood. She shoots it and runs out of the tunnel, but the body materializes also outside: it's a sort of metallic clone of her. Lena cannot destruct this clone because it does exactly what she does, gesture by gesture, i.e. it also attacks her if she attacks it. Lena tricks it into blowing itself up with one of Kane's grenades. As Lena's clone burns, it seems to hug Kane's corpse. The lighthouse catches fire and the Shimmer disappears. The flashback is over and we are back in the laboratory. Note that Lena now has the same infinity/ouroboros tattoo on her forearm that Anya had. Kane has recovered, freed from his disease after Lena destroyed the Shimmer. But Lena has doubts that this is really Kane. Kane himself admits that he doesn't think he is himself. And, yet, she hugs him. Both their eyes "shimmer", leaving the viewer with the doubt that they are both clones, that maybe the real Lena exploded in the lighthouse and the clone escaped, or that somehow Lena did mutate into something else. Meteors are falling in the night... perhaps a prelude to more "Shimmers".
(Copyright © 2015 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )