Alex Garland is a name destined to be associated with filmmaking greatness. “Who’s he?” echo the cries of the Marvel-saturated public. Well, he is one of the foremost sci-fi writers of his generaton, who is now awaiting the release of his second film as director: the Netflix-distributed Annihilation.
Perhaps best known for his excellent A.I. directorial debut Ex Machina, Garland is a British science-fiction filmmaker and writer with a keen eye for thought-provoking narratives set in futuristic ‘otherly’ worlds. From the trippy utopian island of The Beach, to the post-apocalyptic London wasteland of 28 Days Later, Garland’s USP is the ease with
which he creates these ‘other’ worlds without losing touch aesthetically, thematically, or
indeed, formally, with our own. The distinctiveness of these worlds is often subtle or unspoken, but in the slight shifts of setting and rules, Garland creates space for characters
and narratives that never feel too extraordinary. Thus, he welcomes a level of empathic
engagement from the audience that is often lost in the science-fiction realm.
Of course, ‘other’ worlds that are far removed from our own do not necessarily exclude intimate audience engagement (take Star Wars for example), but with Garland’s worlds there is rarely any shade of escapism; rather, there is cold confrontation with very real future possibilities, a reality-check particularly relevant to today’s self-obsessed world that is quickly losing its imaginative and escapist capabilities.
Beginning as a novelist, Garland hit unexpected success with his 1996 debut The Beach based loosely on his own travels as a young man. The story follows Richard, a young backpacker in search of a hidden beach, framed as an Edenic utopia isolated from the world. A trip on multiple levels, The Beach is bursting at the seams with socio-political commentary and an enthralling exploration of Richard’s character told from a first person perspective. Four years later it was turned into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tilda Swinton and directed by Danny Boyle. Perhaps due to its unlikeable characters and decidedly ‘B-movie’ tone, the film did not meet critical acclaim (it is Boyle’s lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes at 19%), yet it is by far the biggest box office success of any of Garland’s projects, bringing in a worldwide total of $144 m.
Garland’s collaborative partnership with Boyle yielded two further films in 28 Days Later and Sunshine; both starring the severely underrated Cillian Murphy and both based on original Garland scripts. 28 Days Later depicts the deterioration of society as it deals, or rather doesn’t deal, with the fallout of an incurable virus, while Sunshine fits very snugly into the space genre as we follow a crew sent on a mission to reignite the sun. Two tales, then, about facing mankind’s inevitable extinction with heavy hearts, a bleak outlook, and a slither of misplaced hope. The writing in both films allows us to get inside the heads of our small ensemble casts and experience the realistic horrors of facing up to humanity’s inability to save itself. Garland tackles these questions with smart, clever writing (as he does in all of his projects), always endeavouring to keep his narratives fresh with unpredictable beats and character arcs that are likely to throw off many an audience member.
2010 saw Garland tackle his first adaptation, picking the incredibly popular novel Never Let Me Go written by Booker Prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro. Starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield, the Mark Romanek-helmed feature was unfortunately a box office flop but that does not take away from the hardhitting subject matter and the craft on show. Indeed, this is one of Garland’s finest; the writing a calibre to wow an audience. The film’s various tensions are held throughout so seamlessly and the pay-off at the end is superb. A punch to the gut is perhaps not the best choice of wording, but the empty feeling of being winded, unable to draw breath into your lungs at the shock of what you are witnessing, sums up the film to a tee.
After honing his adaptation skills on the comic book character Dredd in 2012, Garland decided to take the director’s chair with his 2014 entry Ex Machina. Starring Alicia Vikander, the film is a thriller that is loosely based on the Turing Test for artificial intelligence. It is gripping, tense and excellently written and directed. As the plot unfolds, in the characters of our three leads reveal themselves up to an enthralling closing sequence. It all occurs in a world of technological advance, not too dissimilar from our own. Garnering an Oscar win for Best Visual Effects and a nomination for his writing, Ex Machina finally put Garland on the radar of the industry. With a modest $15 million budget, Garland was at last beginning to gain the recognition he deserves without losing touch with his indie roots.
His upcoming release, Annihilation, appears to fit his wheelhouse with pleasing compatibility and familiarity. Described as a sci-fi horror flick, Annihilation has an all-star cast including Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson. The film is based on Jeff VanDerMeer’s 2014 novel of the same name. Praise has been high from critics across the pond with words like “bold”, “challenging”, and “singular” entering the twittersphere with heightened frequency after its preview screenings in early February. However, the film surges into the UK on a double-crested wave of controversy, namely whitewashing and distribution. In the wake of recent whitewashing controversies such as Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell and Tilda Swinton in Dr. Strange, Portman’s character is of Asian heritage while Leigh’s is half Native-American. After a little digging around it turns out that the ethnicity and heritage of the character only becomes apparent in the sequel novel Authority, a novel which Garland claims he did not read before making his film. So, while we might want to question his creative process (come on Alex, read all the books!), there doesn’t seem to be anything intentional or insidious in his casting of a white female lead.
Regarding distribution, Paramount Pictures have struck a deal with the streaming giant Netflix, which leave every country outside of the US, Canada, and China without a theatrical release. Talking with metro.us, Garland states that, “the regret for me is
that we didn’t make it for the small screen. We made it for the big-screen. There’s a whole bunch of stuff you would just do differently. You would literally shoot it differently, have a different process…” From these comments it is clear that Garland has had no say in the distribution of his film. Despite this being the norm in the industry, it is still a shame that the distribution deal is denying cinéphiles the opportunity to see the film in its intended setting. Having a big screen, surround sound, a packed audience and a communal experience, is the very foundation of the filmic form. Netflix’s business plan is here tampering with the creative process and in doing so is damaging Garland’s creation and its subsequent reception. We must, of course, remember that film is a business and always has been, but when indie filmmakers are screwed over by the system, the sting is that little bit sharper. The frustration is compounded all the more when Rian Johnson tweets of Annihilation, “See it in the loudest theater you can”. Unfortunately for us here in the UK, our crackly speakers and low quality screens are going to have to suffice.
Now make no mistake, Netflix is a great service, with its endless well of TV box sets and rich mine of documentaries being a particular highlight. However, the ridiculous amounts of money being poured into original stories that mostly miss the mark (Bright, The Cloverfield Paradox, The Circle) and buying the distribution rights of average to great products that desperately need cinematic projection to be fully appreciated (Mudbound, Beasts of No Nation) is disgruntling. The flipside of the argument is that platforms such as Netflix provide opportunities for filmmakers; projects that big studios wouldn’t even sniff at are given the funds and the creative freedom to flourish. In a recent interview with ColliderVideo, Duncan Jones (director of Moon, Source Code, and now Netflix-released Mute) made it clear that his new film simply could not have been made without streaming sites like Netflix and their willingness to finance films with dark and unusual subject matter. Unlike Annihilation, however, Jones was clear from the get-go that his film would be distributed solely via streaming services and thus his creative choices were informed throughout the film’s production. It’s also worth mentioning that early reviews suggest Mute will be joining Bright et al. on the overflowing shelves labelled ‘wasted Netflix money’.