Alex Garland undoubtedly shaped what is considered “original science fiction” in the 21st century. Garland’s third feature film as a director, Men, hits theaters this Friday and will most certainly alienate the general public and divide critics. Your opinion on each individual project may vary, but Garland’s writing never fails to start a conversation. As an “ideas guy”, Garland is both a classicist and an innovator. Some of his concepts, such as fast zombies in 28 days later, came to completely redefine their respective genres. However, Garland is also indebted to the past and crafted many of her storylines in the style of beloved authors. He paid tribute to Stanley Kubrick with Sun, John McTiernan with Dredand David Cronenberg with Annihilationwith more than a few tributes to Ridley Scott sprinkled everywhere.
Garland’s stories are rarely the problem; it is the execution, the characters and the thematic resonance that vary. However, he is the type of writer who takes big swings, which should be celebrated regardless. Garland also deserves praise for consistently placing women at the center of his stories, though the agency he gives them is up for debate. Here are all of the projects Garland has developed, ranked from worst to best. For the sake of accessibility, we do not include the direct-to-DVD adaptation of Garland’s novel The Tesseractwhich is not available for streaming.
Unfortunately, Garland’s latest project is also her weakest. Men is certainly a significant achievement as a director; Garland delivers some truly sickening moments of body horror that would make even the most ardent Cronenberg fans cringe. He’s an effective pot, but Garland fails to give his central character defining traits beyond trauma. Harper (Jessie Buckley) is apparently only seen through the context of his abuse, and despite Buckley’s subtle performance, Garland doesn’t give him enough room to explore the character. It’s admirable that he wanted to tackle toxic masculinity head-on. However, treating your characters as themed totems is not the right way to do this.
8. The beach
The beach is one of the weirdest films inspired by Garland. Based on Garland’s 1996 novel of the same name (adapted by screenwriter John Hodge), it was the first collaboration between Garland and Danny Boyle. Boyle would later employ Garland as lead writer at an interesting time in his career, when he was moving away from British crime dramas towards high-concept science fiction. The beach is a simple adventure film with a lord of the flies turn. It sounds like exactly what it is: a watered-down version of Garland’s ideas in a somewhat mainstream studio blockbuster. Garland’s novel is more focused on the societal collapse of beach paradise itself, but the film focuses primarily on the melodrama of Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) trying to find each other. Although entirely watchable, The beach contains what is perhaps DiCaprio’s worst performance ever.
So Dred automatically earns points for being infinitely better than the awful-god Sylvester Stallone version, which is not a high bar to cross. However, Garland is incredibly smart with how he chooses to adapt the source material. Dred (Karl Urban) is a simple guy in a twisted world. He is committed to justice and despite his unwavering brutality, he would never harm anyone without the certainty of his guilt. Garland also keeps things simple; the whole movie is mostly set around events in a singular skyscraper, which unfortunately prompted a comparison with The Raid: Redemption, released the same year. While Dred is better an homage to ’80s action movies than a commentary on police brutality, it’s still a gory, R-rated blast of a good time.
Developers is arguably Garland’s most ambitious project. Over eight episodes, the Hulu series explores Silicon Valley’s tech culture, objective realism, determinism, artificial intelligence, trauma and consumerism. It thoroughly fleshes out both Sonoya Mizunotraumatized analyst and Nick Offermanthe version of larry ellison, as well as a large cast of supporting characters. We see (in detail) how events in both characters’ lives determine their perspective on the future. We also see a lot other stuff. It’s impressive that Garland had the space to flesh out her ideas, but scenes in Developers last a long time, and there may be too much philosophical conversation to keep the momentum going. Developers is as brilliant as it is frustrating.
The last third of Annihilation is possibly the best thing Garland has ever done. It’s a completely strange metatextual dissection of how nature goes through the cycles of life and death. Without hyperbole, it’s one of the most amazing sci-fi movie endings since 2001: A Space Odyssey. The entire movie is full of creative uses of biological body horror but, again, the fault lies with the characters themselves. Natalie PortmanLena’s has a terrific character arc and features a more understated performance from Portman. However, the supporting cast of Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez, and Jennifer Jason Leigh again, feel like stand-ins for Garland’s ideas rather than a compelling supporting cast. It is unclear how much interference there was in the studios. Some early elements, including Lena’s relationship with her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), I feel like Garland is rushing to get to the weird stuff that really interests her.
Big, bold, emotional, exciting and messy; fundamentally, Sun is a film by Danny Boyle. Boyle is one of the most exciting authors of his generation, and a spiritualistic sci-fi film is definitely do not what you would expect from whoever would win the Best Director Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire one year later. Sun is a beautiful emotional journey. John MurphyThe score of is now used in all movie trailers for a reason, and the space aura is so bright that the shocking jump scares are even more disturbing. It’s also one of Garland’s best-written, dialogue-based films. He certainly mixes his share of philosophy, but the conversations between Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, and Hiroyuki Sanada actually feel like real people dealing with their mortality.
3. Never Let Me Go
Never let Me Go is a great novel adapted by a great writer. Garland clings to themes of mortality but attacks them through the premise of a coming-of-age romance. Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley), and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) not only face their own potential death; they must unpack all their illusions about adulthood. Garland doesn’t make romance melodramatic and is clever with the way he portrays world-building. Instead of explanatory discharges, he introduces the macro through the micro. It is by far his most emotionally devastating work to date.
2. Ex Machina
One of the great directorial debuts of the last decade, Ex-Machina ultimately earned Garland an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Ex-Machina is a perfect isolation thriller. By confining the action to Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) composed, it creates tension and forces the viewer to pay close attention to the motivations of the three main characters. Each of the tracks is a unique version of a familiar archetype. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is an unhappy worker, who is literally picked at random. Nathan is a weird Silicon Valley titan who funds his weird fantasies. Ava (Alicia Vikander) is an android, literally redefining the way she was objectified by men.
1. 28 days later
Garland’s most anarchic work to date, 28 days later is the most important zombie movie since George Romeroit’s original night of the living dead. Too much of the movie feels predictive now. Does the idea of not trusting the fact that someone has been vaccinated, lonely streets and looted metropolises sound familiar? Garland gives just enough detail about the origins of the pandemic to explain the premise, but ultimately it only focuses on a story in the midst of a larger crisis. We see snippets of what an experience looks like. His version of a “nuclear family” comes together naturally, and the touching moments between Jim (Cillian Murphy), Selena (Naomi Harris), Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and Hannah (Megan Burns) feel authentic. It’s the best blend of emotion and concept in Garland’s entire filmography.
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