From ‘Ex Machina’ to ‘Devs’: Garland does it again with Science Fiction

Devs is a success, but long before all the story was more complicated. At that time, Garland was barely 26 years old: his first novel was a thoughtful and strange vision about a deceptive utopian paradise, with a considerable level of introspection that surprised the demanding British literary critic.

Although the adaptation of the novel made it to the cinema without much repercussion or brilliance , it demonstrated that the future director's ability to ask himself complicated questions about nature human, it was as strange as it was valuable, as well as an unusual look at the invisible bonds that bind us to the unknown.

Strange as it may seem, early fame made Garland one of his characters: isolated by sudden recognition, the same director has commented that he spent a good part of the year in which he published his debut novel while imagining strangers apocalyptic scenarios.

Some of those long months of silence was reflected in the script of 28 Days Later , the atypical zombie movie directed by Danny Boyle that became a hit in the summer of 2002. Already in history you could see the imprint of Garland obsessed with the fall of civilization, lack of communication and uprooting. There is also a lot about that pessimistic perspective on the future and the actions of our culture in his next novel The Tessarect , in which he meditated on technology, its dangers, risks and the unpredictability of human spirit.

By the time Garland sat behind the director's chair, he already knew what his deepest obsessions were and what he wanted to capture in the cinema. Ex Machina (2015) became a macabre fable about corporate conspiracies. With artificial intelligence as the link between the human and the unknown with a brilliant story about the unconscious terrors of an arrogant culture.

Everything under the perception of evil and good as a form of invisible intellectual battle. For Garland, technology is an open door to the darkest places of the mind: in Ex Machina it assumes the weight of the revelation of the scope of robotics. Analyze how it influences the behavior of those who witness its rapid evolution. With a minimal cast and an elegant version of the futuristic dangers of free will and the absence of ethical boundaries, the film became a considerable critical and public success.

Garland had found a way to tell the classic Pygmalion story from a sinister angle. Something that was linked to the best of science fiction and the existentialism of a certain type of scientific speculation, which encompasses man's eternal concern about creating life and especially the relationships he maintains with his creation. Much less visceral than Westworld and more subtle than Scott's vision in Blade Runner , the artificial intelligence imagined by the director was a blow to the way we envision a subtle dystopia surrounded by beauty.

The root of all darkness

For the writer Jeff VanDermeer, the notion of scientific speculation is directly related to a certain moral perversion. So he combines both in his novel Annihilation , the first novel in the trilogy Southern Reach that explores human nature facing the unknown .

The author imagines the so-called «Area X» as a virgin and dangerous paradise of undetermined origin from which no one returns. VanDerMeer does not waste time analyzing the issue of fear of the unknown from simplicity, but assimilates risk and turns it into context . Quite a plot achievement that makes the atmosphere of the novel harder and more unbreathable.

Alex Garland took the best and most intricate of the VanDerMeer novel and turned it into an unusual visual experience that comfortably transits between Science Fiction in its purest form and something much more moving.

In Annihilation (2017) the whole argument seems to be based on bewilderment. “I don't know”, the characters repeat with some frequency and that feeling of confusion (“I don't know where I am, I don't know who I am, I don't know where I'm going, I don't know what is happening” …) what a deeply strange script.

In spite of everything, he cannot faithfully adapt the work of VanDerMeer. But it does manage to capture in a complex way the breaks in the traditional laws of physics, biology, time and memory that the original work recreates as a persistent notion of horror. Annihilation begins and ends with an unknown factor and it is perhaps that alliteration of time and fear (what creates and subverts the order of ideas). Which gives the film its strange atmosphere and notion of reality.

For the occasion, Garland creates a world in which the familiar, the fantastic, the splendid, the grotesque, the disgusting and the beautiful are mixed as in a nightmare landscape that is at least incomprehensible. For the mysterious area that VanDerMeer describes in his book as “distant, incomprehensible, with unclassifiable fauna and flora”, Garland constructs an uneven universality and without true meaning.

Flowers that are born and spread on the ground in extravagant and apparently voluntary forms, humanoid-looking trees or small crystalline creatures that crawl in the which could be —or not— known structures.

Everything, while the four expeditionaries – so dehumanized and terrified as to be just anonymous figures who wander in the middle of the suburbs – must question their sense of time, reality and their own existence. Each detail and element has a slightly sickly aspect – and an implication – and seems to build a caveat on what we understand as puzzling as it is novel.

Garland took the risk of versioning the original story, taking only the main storylines and disdaining all kinds of small subtexts that the book uses as double readings of metalanguage.

The structural force of a malevolent and inexplicable space that a group of scientists must face, without explanations and without tools, continues to be the center of the narrative. But Garland avoids explanations, sermons, qualitative or quantitative dialogues, to focus on the mystery, which makes the film magnificent in its incomprehensible quality.

The tension increases and becomes increasingly unbearable with a completely unpredictable narrative . It is then that Garland makes use of the best resources of horror cinema and elaborates it as a coherent discourse on the uncertain. It adds interest, depth and dimension. And amid the unknowns, the film makes good progress on what it does not show to maintain the suspense. A plot decision that Garland supports with a formidable narrative intelligence.

Devs , the last door to fear


Devs , the HULU series directed by Alex Garland, discusses key themes for the director. And it also takes them to a new level. What seems like a corporate suspense thriller for the first few chapters is actually an initiatory journey / journey into fear. Elaborated from the notion of a profound inability of man to understand himself.

Efficient, rational and especially with credible reactions to fantastic events , the characters of Devs embody the best songs by the writer and director until they are brought to a completely new stage. Where he elaborates a novel journey through the way in which the limits of technology, morals and hopes for the future are blurred to lead to something more sinister.

The script never sacrifices the sagacity, intelligence, daring or firmness of its characters in favor of suspense. What creates a fluid dialogue between the narration – linear, furtive, hard, abstract at times – and the expeditionary women 's struggle to understand what is happening around them.

Garland is also aware that he needs to transcend the gender, age or even the physical appearance of his characters. So it turns them into an intellectual and moral battle that the film carefully draws with an enormous predilection for subtlety. Furthermore, from the disturbing and somber perception that the threat – the sublime mystery that hides in the midst of the strange nature that narrows its fence – is ever closer and entails greater danger.

In the same way as in Annihilation the phrase “I don't know” seems to define the provocative, violent and precious atmosphere of Devs . But the series is much more than the enigma. It is a fascinating journey in the midst of shadows, terror and a type of existentialist and visceral anguish that advances towards the unknown in the midst of a powerful and courageous staging, which is perhaps the starting point towards a new way of understanding the Science fiction.